It is often said that the Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. I’d say that’s pretty much on the money. Here are the Americanisms that this Brit loves, laughs at…and can’t stand.
As a Brit, whenever I am out and about in the world and meet a Canadian, an Australian or a Kiwi — it’s like catching up with your cousins. They don’t do stuff quite like you, but you’re clearly part of the same family. You get jealous of their stuff (Australian beaches! New Zealand’s kooky end-of-the-world coolness! That pristine Canadian wilderness!) but also spend time feeling smug about what you’ve got (see how much history per square centimetre we have? Ha!) Fundamentally, you’re on a wavelength right away.
With Americans, it’s slightly different. You feel like you’ve got plenty in common and are of a similar mentality. But rather than your cousin, this feels like the uncle who ran away to join a hippy commune some years ago, is now on his third wife (a busty blonde half his age) and loves to drink, smoke weed at the table at family get-togethers and do everything to extremes.
As a Brit, I find myself fascinated at the optimism, the daring and the can-do attitude of Americans. And yet, I am also appalled by the brashness and the volume at which they like to live.
It does feel like we are talking the same language but inhabit two different worlds. And most of the time, I get it. Other times, I just haven’t got the foggiest idea what the Yanks are on about.
So here is my personal selection of Americanisms: the good, the bad…and the downright illogical.
The Americanisms I just love to hear
The nicest of Americanisms. Such a lovely, bucolic word. Brits just say “often” and it isn’t anywhere near as charming.
Although the common British term “autumn” has been around since the 1300s, “fall” was also in use in the 1600s when the expanding British Empire meant that the language was going places — including to the New World. Americans (and Canadians) have stuck with “fall” while “autumn” almost completely dominates in the UK.
“Fall” — said in an American accent with the sliding “ah” and soft, double “l” almost swallowed, is just such a warm, cosy sound. Say it again, Sam!
Not so much the word as the American pronunciation: “rrrb”. This is actually due to how the word was pronounced when the word jumped over the Atlantic from England several hundred years ago. At that time, the English pronounced it in the French way, i.e. “erb”, with a silent “h”. It was only in the 19th century that the modern British pronunciation came in.
Americans have stayed true to the original. A word, which — when spoken with an American accent, “rrrb” — is shorn of all vowels (who needs them anyway?) and sounds like something I might say when I’m cold.
For some years in the late noughties, my Dad lived in Savannah, Georgia. I went to visit him once and spent time exploring the city and Tybee Island, as well as travelling north to Charleston in South Carolina. That beautiful southern drawl, I could have listened to it all day! It was wonderful to go to a breakfast diner and be asked whether I would like some grits (“da ya wownt so’ gree-ats?”) I don’t really like grits but being asked like that made me order them anyway.
This term also originated in England (allegedly in the Norfolk area), but the term “see-saw” has now all but supplanted it. The British should definitely reclaim teeter-totter.
I have to think for a second when you say…
For me, “chips” mean strips of deep-fried potato, i.e. what the Yanks call “fries”. When Americans want “chips”, they want what the British call “crisps”. Consider the potential for Anglo-American shopping confusion at your leisure.
In 2000, I was in New York and had accidentally put a ladder in my tights, so I found a department store close to the World Trade Center to buy some replacements. At the counter, I informed the sales assistant of my predicament. Would she be so kind as to direct me to the ladies’ lingerie department, please?
She looked completely poleaxed: like I had just spoken to her in Chinese. When I showed her the said ladder, her frown dissolved and she said: “Oh! You’ve got a run in your pantyhose! You need the intimate apparel department — it’s right over there”.
While we’re on the subject of clothes — the word “pants” in British English relates exclusively to items of underwear. So it’s totally understandable that we Brits do a bit of a double-take when Americans talk about Hillary Clinton’s “pant suits” and accidentally getting a “stain on my pants at lunch”. Surely you were wearing your trousers at the time?
Seriously, where does this word come from? It’s so illogical! Why are you using a plural when what you are talking about is so clearly a singular thing? The word “fringe” makes a lot more sense.
Biscuits and gravy
When someone first asked me if I’d like biscuits and gravy for breakfast, I wondered what on earth I had done wrong to deserve this cruel and unusual treatment. For Brits, biscuits are sweet cookies and gravy is a dark brown meat juice which you might pour over your Christmas (or Thanksgiving) turkey. No wonder we recoil in horror until we find out what it actually is (which is very tasty, if made well).
It makes me giggle in a really juvenile way when you say…
To Americans, suspenders are what smart businessmen might wear to the office to hold their trousers up. To Brits, suspenders are a part of an intricate, sexy lingerie arrangement for ladies.
In Britain, those businessmen are wearing “braces”. Which, incidentally, is also what we call the metal things kids wear on their teeth to straighten them (retainers?)…and what people suffering from polio might wear on their legs. See? Totally logical and not at all confusing.
A fanny is something quite different in British English so an American saying that they are wearing “a fanny pack” is bound to elicit a bit of a snort and a suppressed giggle from us prudish island-dwellers. There again, the British don’t need to start getting all smug about this. We call them “bum bags”…and I expect Americans find that just as silly.
You lose me very quickly when you talk about…
Your tertiary education system
Freshman year, college, SATs, sororities, fraternities, spring break…with common sense and a smidgen of imagination, I can more or less follow what’s going on there. But that will only get me so far. When the conversation moves on to things like sophomores and majors — I’m out. No idea.
My eardrums hurt when you say…
Now, after believing that this belonged to the canon of Americanisms for many years, I was put in my place and corrected. It is actually a shade of the past tense of the verb “to get” which used to exist in British English but has now almost totally disappeared. These days, the only remaining vestiges in British English are in words like “forgotten” and in idiomatic phrases like “ill-gotten gains”.
So this did grow in our garden…but it still makes me shudder when I hear Americans (and also Canadians) say it. It sounds so sloppy.
Can I get…?
One of the worst Americanisms I can think of. It’s so rude! What’s wrong with ordering your coffee by saying “please may I have” or “I would like”?
Depending on which grammar website you go to, “on accident” is either incorrect (even in US English), or simply an informal version of the more common phrase “by accident” – mostly used by younger speakers of US English. In any case, it’s dreadful.
I cannot abide this word for reasons which I cannot fully explain. It just appalls me. I’m all for staging a full-on transatlantic campaign to import the word “knickers” into the US.
You did good/I’m good
“Good” is an adjective. “Well” is an adverb and is the correct grammar here. You did “well” and you are doing “well”. Very good!
The American pronunciation (“sem-eye”) drives me nuts. The US former tennis ace Pam Shriver once did the BBC commentary for the Wimbledon tennis tournament and kept referring to the “see-my” final. That really grated. “Semmy”!
Where (are) you at?
Hideous! It is “where are you?”
As in: “shut the door already”. What function does the word “already” perform in this sentence? What does it do? Does it add anything of note? Please enlighten me!
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