Two Countries Divided by a Common Language

A view of Oxford from the Magdalen College Tower.

A view of Oxford from the Magdalen College Tower.

Thinkers from George Bernard Shaw to Oscar Wilde have mused that the United States and the United Kingdom are two nations divided by a common language.

Exploring some of the myriad differences between these two ostensibly similar countries elicits laughs on either side of the Atlantic, and the differences are something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as Amanda and I spend time in Oxford.

It’s the language, innit, mate?

My general expression when confronted with strange English words and pronunciation.

My general expression when confronted with strange English words and pronunciation.

The differences in language are sometimes very small, sometimes wildly different, and usually enough to make me feel like an American rube.

Englishmen wear “trousers” when going out — you’d better have on something more than “pants” because here those are what Americans would call “underwear.”

Social gatherings often serve “nibbles” in England, while Americans refer to these pre-dinner bites by their French name, “hors d’oeuvres” (though I doubt most of us could spell it). This difference is particularly perplexing to me, given France’s proximity and cultural connection to the UK. But still, I’m glad it exists: Hearing grown men and women — often while impeccably dressed — talk about “nibbles” amuses me to no end.

The only photo I could find with "nibbles" in it. Photo courtesy The Rhodes Trust.

Impeccably dressed men and women talking about “nibbles.” Photo courtesy The Rhodes Trust.

When you need to relieve yourself in the UK, ask for the “toilets,” not the “bathrooms” as many Americans would normally do in an attempt at political correctness. I think “loo” would also be acceptable here, but it sounds so silly I can’t bring myself even to attempt it.

If you want to get an attractive woman’s number in England, you might “chat her up,” but an American would try to “hit on her.”

Planning a “holiday” (not a “vacation,” as Americans would say) in the UK? Get ready to apologize for literally everything you do. Is someone in your way at the grocery store or are you in theirs? “Sorry.” Have to call a waiter over at a restaurant to sort out the bill? “Sorry!” A conversation you were having fizzled out? Best apologize and say, “Sorry.” In addition to more uses than I can puzzle out here, this word does double duty where Americans would say, “Excuse me.”

Another important aspect of everyday British conversation is using the word “please.” It would be rude if you didn’t use it for every request you make, no matter if you are asking someone to pass you the butter or telling them to get the hell out of your house.

Conversely, however, the British are slow to say thank you — at least compared to overly thankful Americans. An American would usually say “thank you” when someone holds a door open for them, pours them a pint of beer a bar/pub, or sells them something like a bus ticket or dishes at the store. In England, however, you’re much more likely to hear a simple “Cheers” in exchange. “Cheers” also serves as a toast and an email sign-off, not unlike the States.

This is a favorite example and one I heard from numerous former Rhodes Scholars at the going-away weekend and during our first weeks at Oxford. If you arrive in Oxford after a transcontinental flight looking a bit haggard, the college porter might ask if you’d like him to come knock you up in an hour. Don’t be alarmed — he’s asking if you’d like him to come knock on your door to wake you up after a nap, not if you’d like this man you’ve just barely met to impregnate you.

By the way, a “porter” is more or less a doorman on steroids.

Oftentimes, I feel like I’m talking to a child when using English words. For example, “fanny” is a dirty word for female genitalia in the UK, so dorky tourists here wear “bum bags” instead of “fanny packs.”

Rather than ask if you like something or are excited about something, a Brit may ask if you are “keen” for it. “Keen for a game of pool?” “I’d be keen to go to the bop tonight.” My favorite example: When discussing feminism and radical politics, a quiet, class-conscious English girl in one of Amanda’s classes said, “I’m so fucking keen on anarchy.”

Perhaps one of my favorite differences is the English equivalent for the very American word “bro.” Here, that tool would be called a “lad.” (“Womanizer” might also be an acceptable US translation of the English “lad.”) Their hair gel, popped collars, and douchey attitudes will mark them on either side of the Atlantic, but Americans and Brits use different words to disparage them.

But maybe it’s the pronunciation?

This blog isn’t expansive enough to cover the wildly varying differences in pronunciation between the different regions of the US and the different countries of the UK. Instead, I’ll content myself with pointing out a few examples I simply cannot make sense of.

One of the oldest and most beautiful colleges at Oxford is called Magdalen College. There is also a bus stop Amanda and I often use with the same name. But this word is pronounced roughly like an American would say the high school vocabulary word “maudlin.” Where did the middle of the word go?

A view of Magdalen ("maudlin) College from its tower.

A view of Magdalen (say, “Maudlin”) College from its tower.

The bus station at Oxford is at a place called Gloucester Green. It took me multiple journeys to and from the station to ensure that I was hearing the conductor say this one correctly. Ignore the entire middle part of this word and say, “Glawster Green.”

A final example just because this one is so inscrutable to me. There is a county (and city) in the middle of England called “Leicestershire,” but it’s pronounced “Lestershu” or “Lestersha.” I don’t think even the English know why.

I sure don’t.

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