Friday, October 20, 2006

British v. American English

My book 'Born On A Blue Day' is currently being edited for its US release in January and it's fascinating to compare the two forms of English - British and American.

A lot of it comes down simply to spelling, to 'z's instead of 's's as in 'realize' (where I would write 'realise') and absent 'u's ('color' and 'harbor' instead of 'colour' and 'harbour'). Words of foreign origin are also spelled differently: 'synesthesia' where in Britain it is 'synaesthesia'.

More interesting are the different words, some of which I didn't realise/realize were used in that way. For example the American for 'pram' is 'carriage' (an old-fashioned word to British ears), a 'conker' is a 'chestnut' and a 'plaster' is a 'bandage' (something a British hospital would only use for serious wounds, not just a scratch or bruise).

George Bernard Shaw was perhaps right when he observed that England and America were 'two countries separated by the same language'.


Anonymous Rehan Qayoom said...

Congratulations, I'm sure there's a computer program that can Americanize huge chunks of text at a click. There is an option in MS Word which does it with my text.

I notice the difference with American thexts of books when compared to the British text. It must be a hellishly boring job to do if 'twere done manually!

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you'll enjoy this.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this topic of British v. American English. I was in the UK years ago visiting a friend and I ripped a hole in my jeans. My Scottish friend looked at me very strangely when I asked her if I could borrow a pair of her pants because the only pair I brought had a hole in them!

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Rene Horn said...

Even more interestingly, plaster is still used in American English, but for us, it's used to describe putty-like construction material.

8:02 AM  
Blogger kay said...

Hi Daniel,
Is there a way you could do a blog just on synethesia? (US sp.) I have it and I like to discuss it. Also I found a good site about it,, if you're interested.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Kaspyr said...

Hello David (and Rehan!) I love the whole American/English divide and language in general (Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue" was great read on the subject!)

Have you noticed the Americans use more brand names, like Kleenex, Q-Tip, Band-Aid? They mention celebrity names a lot too, half of them I have no clue about, "yeah just like johnny doodad!" cue canned laughter!

I say Hoover for Vaccuum, that's about it, I think, that I am aware of!

Take Care


10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As an American, I'd say most of us know that there's a difference between American English, English English, and Australian English on top of that. I consider them to be dialects that rather then being spread through out one country, they have their own countries.

5:31 AM  
Blogger supercheetah said...

This is Rene from above, but I decided to try blogger, so...

Anyway, off-topic question: Daniel, have you ventured into any of the higher mathematics, like topology? I've always wondered if there is any relationship to the way synesthetes like yourself perceive numbers, and a possible topological correlation.

6:28 AM  
Blogger said...

A quick test : realize realise .
Hmm .. I now realise that Firefox' new spell check feature uses American english in it's default installation.

I shall have to download some more dictionaries for it.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

This subject has always fascinated me. I've dated a couple of American girls and the language thing was always interesting.

Daniel, have you seen a tv show called Numb3rs? It's about a guy who helps solve his brother's FBI cases using maths. The reason I thought it might interest you is that the character in question appears to have Aspergers. I asked the shows creators and they said it was an interesting point that they might develop, but it wasn't intentionally part of the character.

I am loving your book. I've finally found someone else who can explain what is going on in my head!

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Simon Church said...

I am British and am now living in the US. I have found This a fascinating topic. I loved the 'separated by a common language' blog. I see language as a 'living' thing, absorbing influences and reflecting fashions. The 'u' in colour reflects a french influence in English spelling while many words were absorbed from Hindi (shampoo, Juggernaut veranda, khaki, chutney, putty). Then there are the words that used to be common in England that are still used in the US and are not now in common usage in the UK. A good example of this is 'pocket book' used by Dickens and common in the eastern USA but now not used in the UK.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Australian english? we are much the same as the British but have loads of our own words that are used. I read your book, what are conkers??

9:47 AM  
Blogger Duckism said...

I think this different between these 2 differnt type of english makes spelling in Canada very confusing. We are supposed to follow the way that British spell thair words like we spell colour still with a U in it.(all of the teachers insisted on us to spell it that way) but and then when we set up our computers we usually choose US english so spell check would alwasy tell us that we are spelling words wrong... what is more confusing is that I just realize realise should be spelled with an S.... just exactly which english are we supposed to follow???

BTW is there an audio book version of your book? if there is, did you read it yourself? would be fun to listen to your accent.

6:35 AM  
Anonymous david said...

Don't forget 'boot,' which is the trunk of a car. 'Boot' in American means a tall shoe, and slang for throwing up.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous ric_30309 said...

I smiled as I read the blogs. Simon or Daniel can you tell me where does the word loo come from?
I'm not sure I spelled it right but I noticed you blokes use loo for bathroom.

Also, whats the origin of bonnet??
The british use that for the engine cover but americans use the word hood.

America has a lot of words of American Indian origin. Especially for place names.

It is also very regional. I grew up in what was originally part of the Louisianna purchase from the French. So paper sack(from the french sac as in cul de sac) was commonly used.
When I moved to Baltimore( on the east coast of the Us), I asked for a paper sack and everyone looked at me blankly. When I said paper bag they understood!

7:11 PM  
Anonymous andrew. said...

American English: eggplant
British English: aubergine

I notice a lot of differences are with food.

5:20 AM  
Blogger hack4humanity said...

My favorite story about this is the time when a British woman came to America and left a note for the milkman to "knock her up" in the morning.
Seriously though, why should they have to edit your book? The average, well-informed American should be able to read the British edition fine.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Brian P O'Rourke said...

Quite looking forward to the American release of your book. I'll pick it up when it appears on the shelves here in California. For an interesting and detailed description of Americanized English, give "The American Language" by HL Mencken a read. It contains a wealth of information about the branching of the two languages. I think a more recent edition of the book would have to address the impact of commercialism on the language - where 'hoover' replaces 'vacuum', and 'kleenex' replaces 'tissue', and in some parts of America, 'coke' replaces 'soda'.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't realize/realise that when Brits use the shortened form of the word "mathematics" that they say "maths" instead of the American "math". Insignificant, but interesting! Also, from context it seems that "knickers" means "underwear"; whereas in the US "knickers" generally refers to a style of pants that stops mid-calf, common in the 1920s.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love to tease Americans about their english! I'm Irish and have lived in US for 15 years so I think I know most of the odd ones like Eng. vest US T shirt. Eng T shirt US T Shirt! So they are short of a word. Here's another Eng. waistcoat US vest so don't ask for a vest in USA or you will get a waistcoat!
The reason the yanks say "cookie" instead of biscuit is because of the Dutch immigrants and their word for biscuit which yanks mispronounce to cookie. Meanwhile a biscuit in the US is a savory scone. Diagonally in USA is "caddy corner" down south where I am.

10:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wih you about the TV show Numb3rs. It is very intelligent and unique,

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was only in Californai 3 months (from my native Scotland) when I found myself asking a shop assistant where the trolleys were.

After several attempts at explaining what a trolley was I elaborated with "You Know! The thing you push your messages around in "

"Messages"? .....

5:34 AM  
Anonymous americanteacher said...

I have enjoyed the discussion of the differences among British, American and Australian English. It is fascinating. When I teach phonics, I like to include information on the derivation of spellings for the various speech sounds in English. I think it makes learning decoding and spelling skills fun to learn. I also think it helps unravel some of the confusion over the various spellings for students and helps them to remember.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Terrycel said...

I am English, so lavatory to me means the toilet or loo. American means the sink in a bathroom. An american lady told me she shaved her legs in the lavatory. I thought "how disgusting" I pictured her with her foot in the toilet. Later I found out she meant the sink. Anyway, this has been a story that has produced many laughs.
Terry C.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous Howard said...

Whilst I haven't lived there for a while now I am from the UK originally. My first contact with American English was when I was living in Japan. I had only just starting working in Tokyo myself and was about 33/34yo at the time. I was put in charge of a young 17 yo intern from the US and we were sorting out some paperwork using plain pencil and paper.

Me: noticing I had made a mistake in the paperwork "Do you have a rubber?"
Intern: W'w'w'w what?
Me: (initially wondering why the strange reaction). Ah, I mean an eraser, sorry.. British English.
Intern: (visible look of relief).
It is strange sometimes how English has changed throughout the world particularly where it is used as a first language. I lived in South Africa for a while too...

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another good one is crack/craic --
to the irish and brits it can mean 'fun' but use that one in the us and you'll probably be considered an addict!

1:15 AM  
Blogger Diakea said...

Hello Daniel. I am just finishing "Born on a Blue Day"-CONGRATULATIONS on a wonderful achievement! I've been an Anglophile since childhood, I love Britspeak! I also love the Harry Potter books, so I now know that a "jumper" is what we Yanks would call a sweater, and "cheers" means thanks. Regarding your initial post on this topic, I don't think anyone refers to a "baby carriage" any more. The common usage would be "baby buggy" or "stroller." We would say "bandaid" rather than bandage for your plaster, here as in England bandage connotes a larger injury. Neither of these is incorrect, just not the most common usage. I'll bet in other sections of America, there are other word usages particular to those areas (I'm in western Pennsylvania, where we drink "pop" rather than "soda"!)I hope that you will visit our country again sometime (bring Neil with you!) all your fans here would love to meet you!

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is to correct the individual who posted eight posts up from the bottom. I have had scones before, and they are similar to our American biscuits, but they are not American biscuits! Our biscuits are much lighter and fluffier than scones, and they are never sweetened. Also, most Americans hate to be called "yanks" because they are not all "yanks."
The term "yank" or "yankee" refers to an American from the North East. In the South, generally the term is used in negetive conotations. It has been many years since the American Civil War, but there are still some scars. "Yank" or "yankee" is in many cases used by people from the South East to poke fun at or ridicule someone from the North East. Even those southerners who have no prejudices against their northern brothers are offended when they are called "yankee." The term just isn't correct. We are different groups of people with different cultures. We eat different foods, we practice different traditions, and we have different dialects. Because certain denominations of Christianity are more prominent in different sections of the United States, to some degree there is also a difference between northerners and southerners in religious beliefs and how Chrisitanity is practiced.

11:43 PM  

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