It hasn’t escaped my attention that a large portion of my blog traffic comes from America, so I hesitate (ever so briefly) to do anything to alienate my transatlantic readers, but what with so much internet content generated in the U.S. and the fact that I have a lot of Facebook friends over there, I am constantly reminded that we are indeed, as George Bernard Shaw said, “…two countries separated by a common language”
Noah Webster published his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in America in 1806, and anyone with even a minimal grasp of the definition of the word “dictionary” will tell you that it refers to a list of new and pre-existing words, together with their meanings.
However, what Noah proposed to do was to list and re-spell any words he didn’t like the look of, purely on the strength of aesthetics;
Find that “re” at the end of centre a bit difficult to remember?
No worries, let’s make it “er” and say no more about it.
Have trouble with that pesky “ough” sound in plough, it’s hard to get your head round isn’t it?
Hey presto! Plow.
As for all those ridiculous “..nce” words like licence.
Pah! Henceforth let them end in “se” and have done with it.
Worst of all, who could forget the trauma caused by all the unlicenced, sorry, unlicensed “U”-shaped interlopers in good ol’ American words like color and humor?
Begone foul vowel!
And the national antipathy towards poor maligned vowels didn’t end there. Even official names of natural elements weren’t safe.
Not content with removing extraneous silent letters from words, the language police denuded aluminium of its penultimate “i”, changing the pronunciation forever to aluminum, like something out of a bad fifties sci-fi movie.
Fortunately sanity prevailed when Webster proposed changing the traditional spelling of women, to the more literally-minded and aesthetically pleasing wimmen. This was one semantic step too far and was vetoed.
But words themselves are not the only English hand-me-downs that get the stateside language makeover, plenty of their definitions go through the linguistic blender too.
Let’s start with the traditional English biscuit.
All biscuits in America are cookies apparently, not just the ones made of cookie dough (or possibly Doh!) that we call cookies, but all biscuits.
Because they’re scones.
Yes, in the States what we would call a scone is called a biscuit and is eaten with gravy.
And don’t go imagining a cream tea with Bisto over it either, that’s not what they mean by gravy.
No, “gravy” is a thick white sauce, often with sausage meat in it, poured over
scones biscuits and eaten for breakfast.
What’s wrong with bacon, egg and fried bread?
Well, it turns out that what’s wrong with that is, the fried bread.
From what I hear, raw dough is fried, presumably resulting in a sort of bread dumpling, but a decent fried slice is harder to come by.
Unless you want Toad in the Hole, that is.
Excuse me, what?
Ok this gets a little complicated, so listen up.
Over there, Toad in the Hole is basically a cheesy fried slice with an egg in the middle.
Explaining that it should be made with Yorkshire pudding won’t help you either, you’ll just get blank looks unless you have the extraordinary luck to guess the word Popover.
That’s right, Popover is what they call the same batter mix (with added butter) that we put sausages in and call Toad in the Hole.
– You want vegetables with that?
– Thanks, how about some nice mashed swede?
– No, sorry. How about some rutabaga instead?
– Ok, I’ll try anything once…..Hang on this is swede..
Of course being so enormous, America can be excused for playing fast and loose with its own version of English. I mean, if you’re going to make up words anyway, why insist on them meaning the same thing everywhere.
Ok, there’ll be minor differences in pronunciation and usage.
In one state for instance, the generic term for carbonated soft drinks might be soda, in another it could be pop.
But some places take this grammatical laziness to a new level.
I’m reliably informed that in some southern states, even ordering a Coke is not as simple as it sounds.
Because everything is Coke.
If you want Coke, order Coke.
If you want Fanta, order Coke.
If you want Dr Pepper, (what’s the worst that could happen?) order Coke. (you could get Coke, that’s what)
If you want… well, you get the idea.
Must make vending machines very confusing;
– Hey! That goddamn machine just gave me a Coke!
– I’m sorry sir, what did you order?
– A Coke.