This is a very fun book about the linguistic differences that divide the British English-speaker from the American English-speaker, and how this phenomenon reflects the cultural divergence between the two societies. The author grew up in the U.S. but now lives in Britain, and so she considers herself “bilingual.” This collection of short witty chapters (which can be read in any order, and savored in pieces), explains why.
In many instances, words sound the same but mean something different in America than in Britain. And of course there are many words that are unique to each culture: When it rains in Britain, you look for a brolly, versus an umbrella in the States, and when your baby needs changing, you reach for nappies in Britain instead of diapers as in the U.S. In America, if you want a saloon, you are probably looking for a drink, whereas in Britain, you are undoubtedly car shopping. We may talk about something addictive as being like “eating M&M’s” but the English say it is “moreish.” We scarf our snacks, but they snaffle them. What they snaffle could be biscuits, which would be cookies to Americans, or it could be Cadbury’s chocolate, which the British much prefer to Hershey’s. Some of the word differences are slight: whinging versus whining, takeout versus takeaway, jam versus preserves.
Then there is a whole category of words that mean the same thing, but connote something different. For example, “quite.” The British use it to qualify, or more precisely, to “damn with faint praise” while the Americans use it to emphasize. The British are apt to refer to their heterosexual spouses as their “partners” whereas Americans like to reserve that term for gay couples. The cultural differences also reveal many laugh-out-loud differences. The Puritanical Americans can’t bear to say the word “toilet” – they much prefer euphemisms like “powder room.”
Americans may swear a lot, but they use the same old swear words all the time. The British, on the other hand, are apparently much more creative in that regard, even making up their own to get around censorship restrictions. They also make up and use lots of nicknames. Prince Charles is “Chazza,” Paul McCartney is “Macca,” and Christmas is “Crimbo.”
Some of the cultural differences are bizarre at first glance, but understandable once you see the reasoning behind it. It turns out that in England, redheads are referred to as “Gingers” and taunted and ridiculed, even bullied and targeted for violence. If you recall your history however, you will remember the intense animosity between England and Ireland, the results of which are still clearly visible in Ireland in the many ruins of so-called “Cromwell’s Towers” that even now dot the Irish countryside. [The Cromwell in question would be Oliver Cromwell, the sadist who oversaw massacres of Catholics in Ireland in the 17th Century. Over a third of the Irish population died, either killed by soldiers or dead of starvation. Others had their land appropriated, and new anti-Catholic laws imposed barbarous restrictions on the rest. When Cromwell’s forces destroyed a castle, they left one tower behind, lest anyone forget the crime of being Catholic. You can read more about Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland here.]
Then there are more benign cultural differences, like a preference for hot tea in Britain versus iced tea in America (85 percent of the tea Americans drink is iced), or drinking tea generally in Britain (residents of the U.K. each consume around 5 pounds of tea per year, versus less than one half pound in America), versus coffee in America.
Evaluation: The author peppers her explanations of the differences between American and British English with many humorous anecdotes. You won’t be able to resist sharing many of the little stories she includes. I laughed a lot and learn a lot reading the many fun and interesting facts in this book.
Published by Gotham Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2015