American Language Traps

Apparently I embarassed my host this week. Old chum Martin Elvis, a regular on this blog, introduced me at the start of my colloquium at CfA, bringing out all sorts of biographical snippets. I thanked him for his fulsome introduction and everybody laughed awkwardly. Later Martin explained that although in the UK “fulsome” means “abundant and generous”, in the US it means “absurdly overdone”. Ooops.

The first time I went to the USA, experienced hands warned me of the language traps. “You will be puzzled”, they told me, “by the fact that you can see their pants, and that they wear their vests on top of their shirts.” More importantly, they explained, if I made a graphical error and wished to erase something, I must be most careful not to ask the secretary for a rubber. My intentions would be misunderstood.

This time around, my son got into trouble because he threw his textbook into the trash. Well the teacher said to put it in the bin, what was he supposed to do ?

Well.. I am sure there about eight thousand web page / blog entries discussing this kind of stuff, and I can’t even be bothered to look ’em up. But do feel free to chip in, and at least it does give me a chance to apologise to Martin.

24 Responses to American Language Traps

  1. Richard Wade says:

    Never having been fast enough to log the first comment on one of your entries, I think this may be my opportunity and so I hope to have this posted momentarily (as they say here).
    Many years ago I was trying to make an international call from Hawaii (in the days when you need operator assistance for such things). I asked to be put through to the number of my colleague in Scotland and sure enough after a short pause I heard his familiar tones. My success was short-lived however. The operator came back on the line and asked me if I was through. I told her I was indeed, at which point the line went dead.

  2. telescoper says:

    I was once told of an American professor who was so eccentric that he always wore suspenders at work.

    I was very disappointed to learn that they meant braces.

  3. Ken Rice says:

    While working in California I once walked into the departmental secretary’s office with a letter in my hand and asked if she could post it for me. She look rather confused and asked why I would want to post it. It took a little while to work out that she thought I meant “post” as in pin it onto the notice board. I should apparently should have said “mail it” rather than “post it”. What I found particularly confusing is that in the US you mail letters using the US Postal Service and in the UK you post them using Royal Mail (or am I just a triply confused South African).

  4. David says:

    I have been told that by asking US shopkeepers, for “a kettle” I was, actually, asking for a type of pan. Apparently I should have been asking for “a teapot”, though I have my suspicions that my source for this information was a little confused (not least by my observation that we had six teapots).

    I still don’t know how one is supposed to ask for a ceramic thing in which to brew tea.

  5. beentheredonethat says:

    When we lived in California, we’d only been there for a few weeks when my wife with two youngsters in tow asked in a bookshop for a loo where she could change a nappy. After an initial state of slight bewilderment, the shop assistant eventually worked out what she meant and told her in was on the second floor (when there was only a ground and first floor).

    My wife then asked the poor assistant where the lift was.

  6. mirmilant says:

    Jokes don’t translate very well either. When we were still in England, one of my daughter’s favourite jokes was:

    Q: Why couldn’t the car play football?
    A: Because it only had one boot.

    That didn’t help her integration into a new country when out in the playground, and on two levels (leaving the obvious “it ‘aint football if yer not kickin’ it” aside): one, it’s a trunk and not a boot, and two, it’s a cleat and not a boot.

    I once got bemused and worried looks from the locals I was playing footy with, when I asked where in town was the best place to find boots with studs…

  7. Nick Cross says:

    With regards to kettles, that was one aspect of life in the States that really surprised me when I arrived: there weren’t many electric kettles for sale and not many people had them. They all used coffee machines or stove top ones for tea. I think that this is because they use 110V: it takes a bit longer to heat up an electric kettle.

  8. Kav says:

    I got married a month before moving to the States. A Canadian friend who studied here in the UK sent us our wedding present when we arrived in the US: an electric kettle. She knew we would never find one ourselves and indeed our landlady was very taken with it, calling it one of those ‘new’ kettles (this was 2002).

    Of course we lived in Boulder, Colorado and so I still couldn’t make a proper pot of tea with it…

  9. onlooker says:

    I found the most confusing place was the hardware store. Try describing what Polyfilla does or how Rawlplugs
    work. It’s worse than describing car parts.

    There are British/American dictionaries
    (see e.g.) which help.

  10. Alan Heavens says:

    I went into a bakery in Baltimore once, to buy some lunch, but they only had cakes, danish pastries etc, so I enquired of the lady whether they had anything savoury. ‘Well, Sir’, she bristled,’it’s ALL savoury’.

  11. MikeW says:

    And then there’s pronunciation (tomato, lever, schedule, water, most French words – the list is long) and spelling too. I’ve always been puzzled how “aluminium” became “aluminum” (or was it the other way round?).

  12. Chas says:

    The differing pronunciation of van Gogh has always puzzled me. For some reason it is ‘van Go’ in America, with no attempt at the guttural ending.

    We get it totally wrong in the UK as well (pronouncing the first G incorrectly for a start), but at least we make an attempt at the final ‘ogh’

    Click on the link below for the Dutch version:

    [audio src="" /]

  13. telescoper says:

    I thought Alan was going to tell the same story as me when he started out about bakeries…but actually it was obvious from the initial conditions that its trajectory would be different.

    My version was that I went into a bakery on Castro Street in San Francisco and made an innocent remark to the effect that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some of those delicious-looking buns…

  14. andyxl says:

    Peter for a man of such taste and erudition, you can be surprisingly Larry Grayson at times.

  15. telescoper says:

    Isn’t he the new science minister?

  16. David says:

    The snag with dictionaries of course is that they require one to see the problem coming – which doesn’t happen so much when one is ostensibly speaking one’s native tongue.

    Apparently, as I discovered at lunch yesterday, the way I pronounce “tuna” sounds to local ears like “chicken”. I guess it’s all in the first syllable – I say “Tchoo-na” rather than “Too-na”. Either that or round here it really does taste like chicken.

    As for aluminium – Humphrey Davy initially referred to it as “alumium”, but then settled on “aluminum”. Someone anonymously wrote to the Quarterly Review (a literary and political journal (sic)) in 1812 objecting to “aluminum” and proposed the name “aluminium”, “for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”

    I’ll get my anorak….

  17. Bob says:

    Seb Oliver and I were at a conference in Baltimore, and skipped a session to do some sight-seeing and shopping in the Inner Harbour. Seb bought a pair of jeans, and as we left the shop, the shop assistant exhorted him to “enjoy your pants”, which still makes me laugh.

  18. telescoper says:

    If you want a good laugh you can try asking for mineral water with gas….

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    Apparently, as I discovered at lunch yesterday, the way I pronounce “tuna” sounds to local ears like “chicken”. I guess it’s all in the first syllable – I say “Tchoo-na” rather than “Too-na”. Either that or round here it really does taste like chicken.

    While living in Boston, I had exactly the same problem with “coffee” and “coke.” It reached a point where I was starting to doubt what I was ordering myself, but it was so perfectly reproducible that I was able to ask a friend to listen to what I ordered, so that he could confirm that I had, indeed, requested the heated variety of caffeinated beverage, yet the iced version arrived.

  20. Martin E. says:

    Andy: You are forgiven.
    Did I show you the parking lot near us with the sign that says “Cars Parked overnight will be towed Perfunctorily!” Can’t be bothered, I guess.
    ps who is Larry Grayson?

  21. andyxl says:

    Larry Grayson is/was a very camp comedian/gameshow host from UK seventies TV. His catchphrase was “Shut that door !”

  22. A Gambler says:

    Ololo! I like what is written here!!

  23. telescoper says:

    Contrast with Lord Drayson, the new Science minister, whose catchphrase is “Shut that Observatory”.

  24. David says:

    It turns out that the phrase “cowboy builder” doesn’t cross the Atlantic that well, either. At least not to down here in cowboy country.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: