One of the first things I discovered when I visited Great Britain was that there’s more of a language barrier than I expected. I’d been very bold about it when I was planning my trip, telling people I’d sensibly chosen my first overseas visit to a country where they speak English.
My first night in England, I sat in a pub talking with a few locals. While I found their accents charming and adorable – can you squeeze an entire nation’s cheeks at once? – I wasn’t aware they were wrestling with MY conversation until one of my companions finally pulled out his iPhone and announced that he was just going to download an American-to-English dictionary.
Apparently there’s an app for me.
One of my conversations during my trip went like this:
“Do you want a biscuit?”
“No, no thanks. Wait, that’s a cookie.”
“Yes, that’s not a biscuit. That’s a cookie.”
“It’s a biscuit.”
“We call those cookies. That’s not what we call biscuits.”
“Oh, right. Well, what do you call biscuits then?”
“A biscuit is bigger. Soft.”
“It’s made of flour and egg, you know, round. You eat it warm with butter and jam.”
“That’s not a biscuit, that’s a bloody scone!”
“A bloody scone? Who are you, Sweeney Todd?”
Food names seem to be a particularly big hang up, as I found out after another exchange went like this:
“So what do Americans call chocolate?”
“Yes, but if I give you a box of individual pieces of chocolate, say, with a creamy center, what are those called?”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying. Those are candy. It’s a box of candy. Or sometimes people say a box of chocolates.”
“You know that makes no flipping sense at all.”
“Sure it does.”
“So what do you call boiled sweets then?”
“You know, sugar boiled until it hardens. Flavoured, wrapped individually…”
“Oh, that’s candy.”
“So chocolate is candy. And boiled sweets are candy.”
“Well what do you call candy?”
“The normal things. Boiled sweets. Turkish Delight.”
“Well, that can be a bar, you know, Cadbury and such. But it’s often a drink. In a cup.”
“You know, like breakfast chocolate.”
It’s more than just the names for things that trumpet the gigantic differences between American English and British English. It’s the whole way of presenting the language. Our “Don’t Litter” becomes “Please use the bin” over there. “Watch your step” is “Mind the gap.” It’s a softer, gentler, more polite English. Well, except for signs for the bathroom. Ours say “Restroom” or “Ladies.” Theirs have an arrow and the single word “Toilet.”
“What is that about?” I asked one of my British friends, pointing to the sign.
“What d’you mean?”
“It says ‘toilet.’”
“Doesn’t that seem a bit… blunt?”
She looked confused.
“But it’s a toilet.”
It’s hard to argue with logic like that.