March 20, 2011

Do you speak English?

Do you? Not the language that we (mostly) all know and love here in the USA; I'm talking about the actual vernacular of the truly English land, England. Still recovering from my whirlwind trip to London (including a tour of its uniquely intriguing consumer products), and I want to share my thoughts on the key differences between how we communicate and how they communicate.

Someone once said that the USA and the U.K. are separated by a common language, and while ha ha, I get it, very minimally clever, I think there's truth to that. It's not just the accent, though that is worth considering—I had no small amount of trouble comprehending the motormouthed host at the pub quiz I attended (despite my glorious victory)—it's the sometimes inexplicable differences in terminology. It's something I took interested note of the very first time I visited Great Britain, in 1983, and 28 years later I've finally collected my thoughts.

And you know what? I think England has it all over us. More often than not, when we differ on what to call a particular item, the British choice just makes so much more sense. Observe:
Lift vs. elevator: Their choice is a far more economic use of language. Lift is simple, direct, clear. Elevator, when you stop to think about it, is bizarrely clinical: It's something that "elevates" people; "I will arrive via the convenience of a device that will elevate my person." Also, one syllable versus four.
Bill vs. check: I can't believe this never occurred to me before: Traditionally, when you owe someone money, the document you receive is called a "bill." And when someone gives you a document called a "check," it's telling you they bear a debt to you. So why the potentially mind-scrambling reversal at eating establishments, where we ask for the "check"? Now you're confused, right? Not so in England, where logically, following your delicious meal of bangers and mash or jellied mustard or black currants or whatever, you ask for the "bill." Much, much better. Also, when you pay with a credit card, the waiter has a little portable machine allowing him to process it then and there, not forcing you to sit there and wait like a moron when you're ready to get the hell out of dodge (sorry, everyone I've ever had a meal with).
Underground vs. subway: This one is lovely. Much of the New York City public transit system—the "subway"—is above ground. Think about that: Much of the subway is above ground. London doesn't defy logic this way: The Underground, for the small portions of it that function non-subterraneanly, is relabeled "the Overground." See, how hard was that?
Full stop vs. period: That little dot at the end of the sentence telling you to make, you know, a full stop. Why we call it a period—a word with a whole bunch of other completely unconnected meanings—is not clear to me, and it's Sunday, so I don't feel like delving into the Internet's catacombs of punctuation commentary. Plus, two fewer syllables.
Flat vs. apartment: Someone wiser than I has pointed out that apartment is potentially confusing, since—at least from a modern American point of view—what distinguishes apartments from most other domiciles is that they're all together. The British use the more direct flat—it's one level, you see, flat. (True, you run into problems when dealing with a multilevel unit, but nothing's perfect.) By the way, the term bedsit, which I'd always admired as great English shorthand for a studio apartment (you sit on the bed, since there's no room for a couch), is apparently a pejorative, as I just learned on this trip. There's no shame living in a flat, but a bedsit isn't something to brag about.
Entrée vs. appetizer: We'll tangle ourselves in knots if we fully delve into the differences between American and English speech in the realm of cuisine (I hate both eggplant and aubergine, if you must know), but this one is too perfect to ignore. I have no idea why snooty U.S. foodies insist of labeling the main dish of a meal—not the one you start with—as the entrée, considering that entrée is French for "entrance." And the actual entrance to the meal (ignoring the water and bread basket for a moment) is the "appetizer," which sounds like marketing speak. Fuck that, say the English: The first dish is the entrance to the meal, so it's the entrée. They're so much more logical to us; the British are the Vulcans of the English language.
Toilet vs. restroom/bathroom: Ah, euphemisms! It's the fucking toilet, that's what you're there for, so call it that. It's not where you go to rest or bathe, at least not in public, so let's not candy-coat things. This reminds me of one of my least favorite euphemistic sayings: going to the bathroom to mean actual relieving of bodily wastes. "He went to the bathroom on the floor." No, he didn't; that's the whole problem. (Though that discrepancy of meaning results in one of the best movie exchanges of the '80s.)

Which leads me to…
To let vs. rent: Here's one where I'm siding with my countrymen. I saw a very large number of signs like the one above, indicating an apartment (um…flat) available to be occupied for a monthly charge: to rent. But pretty much each instance, when I first saw the sign, my brain read "to let" as "toilet," which could lead one down a very interesting road of confusion. You're walking about the city, you need to do your business (a euphemism I rather like), and you see many a sign boldly proclaiming the opportunity, along with a corresponding phone number. The English are so helpful.

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