In a piece this week in the online BBC News Magazine,* writer and thinker Will Self talks about the British view of Americans, and the differences (or lack of such) between them.
Describing the use of English on the two sides of the Atlantic, Self writes ‘Despite their perverse habit of speaking our language fluently, Americans employ its vocabulary in radically different ways.’ This is one of the most succinct descriptions I have read of the relationship between British English and American English – on a par with Winston Churchill’s time-honoured observation ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’.
As a wordsmith myself (I am a freelance writer, proofreader and editor), I regularly have to ask publishers whether they want a text in one version or the other. This goes far beyond ‘ise’ or ‘ize’ – there are numerous examples of words that have a certain meaning in one ‘language’ and a rather different one in the other.
Take, for example, ‘quite’. In my new book,** I quote a British boss interviewing an American prospective new employee:
‘I was interviewing candidates for a job in the Consulate,’ he said, ‘and I asked each of them why they wanted to work with us. One of them said “As soon as I read the advertisement, I was quite interested in working with you.”
‘I was surprised to hear such a lack of enthusiasm in an interview, and looked to my deputy. He explained that “quite” means “very” in American.’
This is but one of countless misunderstandings waiting to happen. ‘Tramp’ and ‘bum’, ‘trunk’ and ‘boot’, ‘suspenders’ and ‘braces’ are some of my favourites (or do I mean ‘favorites’? – but let’s not get started on spelling!).
I’d love to hear what people reading this blog think on the subject.