The joys of being separated by a common language

  • Published
  • By Suzanne Harper
  • 48th Fighter Wing public affairs
It isn't often I would dare to say that I disagree with the playwright George Bernard Shaw who claimed that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." I am not sure how much time he spent with Americans but I doubt he was as lucky as I am, spending each working day as the only Ministry of Defence employee in the public affairs office, surrounded by the witty banter of my American colleagues.

The differences between American and British English are amusing but of no real consequence in my opinion. I recommend you don't send me out to buy your 'jelly' or 'biscuits' because you won't get what you're expecting. British 'jelly' is fruit-flavoured gelatin and our 'biscuits' are hard-baked, flat and usually sweet.

If a word is unusual or unexpected, then its context will generally reveal its meaning. It's quite common for my colleagues to quiz me about strange English words they come across. They tease me gently about my pronunciation of 'oregano' and 'basil' and look confused when I use phrases like 'the penny dropped' or 'taking the micky'. Sometimes if they are having a bad day they'll make me say 'aluminium' just to put the smile back on their faces. These are the little differences that add spice to the 'meat and potatoes' of each working day.

To keep the peace and lubricate the cogs of communication, I have become used to calling my mobile phone a 'cell phone', referring to petrol as 'gas' and rubbish bins as 'trash cans'. However, do not ask me to transpose the final letters of 'centre' or drop the 'u' from 'colour' and 'flavour'. Enough is enough, after all. The differences in spelling between American and British English can be pinned on a single individual--Noah Webster. Webster believed that a distinct American language would help merge the 13 colonies into one nation. In compiling an early American dictionary, spelling book, and basic reader, he simplified British spelling.

You only have to be brave enough to watch some of our British 'soaps', such as Coronation Street and Eastenders, to have an education in the vernacular. Words such as 'budgie'(a small, colourful Australian bird; short for 'budgerigar' and a common pet in British homes) , 'moggie' ( a non-pedigree cat or alley-cat) and 'yob' (lout, young troublemaker - from boy spelt backwards) may greet your ears. You may well find the regional vocabularies and dialects used in both programmes very entertaining and you will build up a wealth of words and phrases you can drop into your everyday conversations. Terms of abuse abound: 'berk', 'wally', 'minger' - and many that I really couldn't mention in polite company!

The best education is always a two-way process and my life is brighter for having discovered American terms such as 'boondoggle' and 'cooties'. I was completely nonplussed by 'John Hancock' until I was enlightened by a colleague as to the American usage.

There are many souvenirs you can take home with you after your time in the U.K. The memories of our uniquely British usage of this noble language we share are ones that I hope will make you smile fondly for many years to come.