A recent column I wrote at the BBC America web site, touched on “going native” and switching over to the habits or pronunciations of your host country. A commenter noted that a couple of the words I’d been talking about (“hummus and Pitta bread”) hadn’t even existed in the English language when she left England, so she’d always just used the American pronunciation. And that got me thinking about other new words.
I’ve been in the USA for over 20 years now; a period of time that spans the introduction of the Internet and many other technology break-throughs. For that reason I say cell phone instead of mobile; it’s not necessarily that I’ve “gone native” – I just never knew it any other way. Likewise with computer stuff – It was only recently that I finally twigged what British friends and family meant when they mentioned a dongle; and all this time I’d been wondering if they were sharing too much personal information.Although the word is listed in American dictionaries, the more common parlance is flash drive or USB modem, at least among us non-techies.
Similarly a lot of car names are totally lost on me when I’m back in England, – until I see one and realize that I am familiar with the model, I just call it by a different name, or pronounce it differently, as with the Toyota Celica. A friend of mine fell over laughing a few years ago when I pronounced it Sellika, with the emphasis on the first syllable. For some reason, Toyota marketed it as Saleeka (emphasis on middle syllable) in the UK. There are also American words I use because I never knew the word in the UK – sedan instead of the British saloon, and muffler rather than silencer. (Not that I say the American equivalent very often either.) By the way, I stick to the British pronunciation of Jaguar (jag-you-ar) rather than the American Jagwar. (Not that I ever owned one either.)
Getting married meant a whole new world of responsibility and adult-ness, and a whole new vocabulary whichever side of the Pond I lived on. Since I moved to the States when I married, all things to do with sensible savings plans, retirement schemes and insurance stuff are in American English for me – IRAs instead of ISA’s or TESSAs, deductibles instead of excesses, a checking instead of a current account, and shares rather than stocks. (OK, perhaps I wasn’t entirely ignorant of some of these terms; I’m just forced to pay more attention now.)
Since I’ve only raised children in the USA, and didn’t talk much about the subject as a singleton in the UK, a lot of my baby and child vocabulary is American English. Granted, I’ve dropped some of the British stuff for the simple reason that it’s not known here – calling a pacifier a dummy would draw completely blank looks. Other words in my lexicon, such as playdate, might be known over the Pond, but my British friends always repeat it (with an almost imperceptible laugh) thus pointing out its American-ness. Some American words and phrases just don’t have a British equivalent so I’m stuck with them whether I like it or not. When my kids all shout “Shotgun” at the same time, I am find myself refereeing the ensuing fight for the passenger seat while British family members look on in complete confusion.
Then there are the British English words that I don’t seem to be able to drop, despite no one really knowing what I’m talking about. It’s not that I’m resisting the American version, but why, after this many years do I still say Hole-in-the-wall? Do I really expect Americans to glean the meaning? Heck I can’t even say cash-point without causing confusion- it’s an ATM. But knackered is staying, because that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I will educate this nation, one American at a time, about its meaning as there’s really no equivalent here.
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.