Mind the Language Gap, Part II

It made me so happy this morning when the maintenance guy stopped by my room. Not only because he replaced my rusty, zero-water-pressure showerhead with a sleek, modern, fully-functioning one (heaven!!) but also because when he inspected it, he proclaimed in a delightful cockney accent that my showerhead was “knackered.”

Never before has something as simple as a showerhead made me quite so happy.

Over the course of the nine months I’ve been blogging from London, I haven’t written much about language issues, since I haven’t had many. There aren’t too many ways you can go wrong speaking English in England. While I’m ‘chuffed’ that I haven’t committed any egregious faux pas, I sometimes wish there was more room for mistakes, for the purposes of this blog.

Still, there have been a few differences between American English and English English that I didn’t know about until I got here (including the fact that technically I should call it English English, instead of British English). Then, there were a few things that people have teased me about. And of course, that awkward time with the feminine products.

For the most part, I’ve adjusted; I subconsciously adopt a more British inflection when talking to British people. But I do it because of this strange phenomenon–if i ask a question the American way, for example–it’s as though people get thrown off trying to figure out what my accent is, so they don’t actually get the content of what I say. I invariably have to repeat myself, unless I just play into expectations and do things the British way. So I ask for the “bill” instead of the “check,” and I ask where the “toilet” is instead of the bathroom.

But queue? This word just won’t stick, integral as it is to the British way of life. I simply can’t remember to “queue up,” in words if not in actions. But the choice of vocabulary here is no biggie, so long as I respect the Brits’ love for queues by standing in line.

But more problematically:

I always forget trousers vs. pants. 

The latest in royal fashions. But say not that they are wearing white pants.

First, let me clarify that pants in English-English are underpants. Underwear, knickers, etc. What Americans think of as pants are called trousers here.

I learned this months ago, and have been reminded of it several times since. But in practice, I can’t remember this!! Seriously, it is a faux pas waiting to happen.

The other day, I had this conversation with another international student (S) and an English girl (C):

Me: But now that it’s summer white pants season…
C: Summer white pants?
Me: I left mine at home but normally I would wear them.
C: Really?
S: Yeah, they’re everywhere.
C: You mean people wear them outside?
S: Totally! Is that not a thing here?
C: No….
Me: But I just saw someone wearing them the other day.
C: Really??

Since this was all happening among friends, it was hilarious to see the shock on C’s face while she imagined people walking around in their underpants, you know, summer fashion and all. But one of these days I’m going to compliment some guy on his pants and–WHOOPS, that’s not what I meant!

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10 thoughts on “Mind the Language Gap, Part II

  1. I was always getting asked about rubbers (erasers) and school bags (backpacks) by my students hahaha. I recently wrote a few posts about that! And it’s the same thing with Spain Spanish vs. Latin American Spanish; certain words mean completely different things in different countries. I’m sure I will commit several faux pas if I ever get around to traveling to South America!

    1. Haha yes I saw your post! I hadn’t heard about the rubbers one before but that cracks me up. And yes I can only imagine how complicated Spanish variations would be around the globe! I’ve heard a few funny stories about misused slang from country to country. You’ll have to tell the tales on your blog if ever it happens!

  2. So the commenting on a guys’ pants thing happened to our friend (Australian). She is now happily married to that guy, and they have two adorable kids :)

  3. So funny. My mom had a couple from England staying with her and they played a little play on words with me over this. They knew that we called trousers, pants here in America, but I didn’t realize what “pants” meant to my new London friends. I complimented my friend on her pants to which she immediately looked at her husband and said, “O my goodness, can you see my pants?” (or something like that.) I was so confused. KIndly, they didn’t take it too far, but we all had a good laugh over it. :D

  4. I work with a lot of British, Scottish & Australians and we get a giggle from each other and sometimes ask for a translater ;) I get most lingo and haven’t had many issues and was told I speak very good English for a Canadian, but we follow many of the British rules, but can go both ways (British and American). One American lady who lived in a small SMALL town her whole life has joked she didn’t know she would be learning 2 languages in China! We like to tease the Aussies about thongs… they sometimes turn red when they realize we mean risque undies and not flip flops.

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