After spending time in Britain this summer, I didn’t return with an accent, but I did collect some new vocabulary.
Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace
It’s true that North American English resembles its British parents, but as children will, we Canucks and Yanks have insisted on forging our own identity. Words and phrases differ, so “translation” may be required when visiting the land of our linguistic forefathers.
Take vests, for instance. Who knew that in England the word refers to men’s undershirts? Not I – until I wandered through a Marks & Spencer department store. I also discovered that when something is impressive – a painting of Shakespeare created while he was alive, for instance – it’s “brilliant,” like a star shining above, perhaps. When I was peckish in mid-afternoon, it was time for a break for “cream tea,” aka a cup of tea and a scone served with clotted cream and jam. What a perfect way to take the edge off my hunger!
There were also times when I found myself reaching into my magician’s linguistic hat for a rabbit and pulling out a toad instead. It was both amusing and embarrassing.
I seemed to have most of my difficulties reaching for the correct word while travelling on trains. En route to Edinburgh, I automatically ordered chips in the refreshments car, even though I know the British word for potato chip is crisp. It earned me an admonishment from the server that I “ought to know better by now.” Really? No quarter given after only a month’s time?
At the border
Even the cleaning staff on board got into the act. I’d eaten a sandwich and my “crisps” during the journey, but didn’t see a place to discard the wrappings. As I was collecting my luggage and the detritus of my meal at journey’s end, two men armed with a huge plastic bag walked by. I hailed them excitedly and asked if it was a trash bag they were carrying. They gave me a haughty look and told me the bag was for “rubbish.” Oops!
Faux pas notwithstanding, it’s these language differences that add spice to travelling. The country you’re visiting may look superficially like your own, but words can remind you that you’re far from home.
Since I’ll be spending my vacation in Britain this summer, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the language we have in common – or do we?
British English is different from Canadian English which is different from American English, although I imagine that 90 per cent of the words we use are understandable to each other. A rose is a rose is a rose after all.
Nonetheless, there are words that are used in both Britain and North America, but have different meanings depending on the continent. It’s these words that we travellers must beware, lest we receive puzzled looks, outright stares or requests for translation. In the interest of self-preservation, I’ve learned a few of them, but there are endless traps for unwary visitors:
- Flat. We North Americans think of this word as an adjective that describes a piece of paper (not wrinkled) or the calm state of a body of water (Lake Ontario is flat today; not a hint of wind or waves). In Britain, it’s a noun synonymous with an apartment. (Suzy finally moved out of the house and is sharing a flat with two colleagues.)
- Lift. In Canada, this is a verb used when one plans to pick something up from the ground or a shelf (Be careful when you lift that glass bowl – it’s heavier than it looks!). Across the pond, however, it refers to an elevator (Hold the door to the lift, please. I’m coming!)
- Boot. When we hear this word, the thoughts of those of us in northern climes turn to the foot coverings we wear throughout the long winter (The snow comes nearly to the top of my boot.). In England’s more salubrious climate, it refers to the trunk of a car. (Open the boot so I can fetch my other pair of shoes.)
- Jumper. In Toronto, this term is ghoulishly used for someone who commits suicide by throwing themselves in the path of an oncoming train, but it’s much more innocuous abroad; it simply refers to a sweater. (Did your grandmother knit you another ugly jumper for the holidays?)
So, pitfalls lurk everywhere – around any corner, there could be disaster. For hapless, helpless tourists who want to prepare, there is probably help online, but I think I’ll wait to be surprised – and, undoubtedly, embarrassed.
P.S. Feel free to send me your own examples – and how you learned to appreciate the other meaning. Vive la difference!
Photo credits: creativecommons.com