Spelling it out

This cartoon made me laugh, and not just for its humor, but because the underlying problem is so real.  Click it to be taken to a larger view at the strip’s home page.

The difference between English-English and American-English can be startling – and they’re often scatological.  A couple of examples:

  • I was having breakfast with a family in the Baltimore area in 1996, during my first visit to this country.  There were the father and mother, their teenage daughter, and myself.  I noticed that the daughter was picking the cherries out of her fruit salad and placing them on the side of her plate.  Since I’m rather fond of that fruit, I said to her in all innocence, “May I have your cherry?” – pointing to the fruit on her plate.  She blushed scarlet and fled the table, while her parents collapsed in helpless laughter.  It took some time before they recovered enough to tell me what I’d asked for in slang American-English . . . a use of that word that I’d never before encountered.  Embarrassing, that.
  • My mother informed me that during World War II, it was a source of endless amusement to American soldiers that there really was a job in England called a “knocker-up”.  He’d go around the streets, knocking on doors and windows very early in the morning to wake up the first shift at war production plants.  The Americans all thought that “knocking someone up” meant something entirely different – and as a result, they all wanted that job, until they learned better!

Words can be very funny, but also very cruel.  It behooves us to use them carefully.



  1. English-English, or British-English, as I call it, sometimes appears more genteel, while American-English is generally straightforward. But where do the odd spellings come from? Whilst compared to while? I don't understand that one. A number of British words end in that -st. I get lift versus elevator, but I don't get that one.

  2. Two more:

    * In Britspeak, the female genitalia may be referred to as a "fanny" – I've not heard it often, but it's common enough that what you'd call a "fanny pack" we call a "bum bag".

    * "Fag" for cigarette – I've heard tell of an expat who, needing a smoke, walked into a north american pub and loudly exlaimed "man, I need a fag", and received many odd looks.

    Urbane: per etymonline.com, whilst/amongst/amidst came about by adding an "s" as an adverbial participle and then picking up a "t" for no particular reason. (The t-less "bewhiles" seems to have survived a while in some dialects.)

  3. Then there is the word "rubber" which in Australia is a word we use for a rubber eraser. Yes, there was someone in a theological seminary who innocently asked to borrow one and ….

  4. During WWII, in the South Pacific, there were men called coast watchers who were living on Japanese-occupied islands and reporting various military movements to the Allies via radio. One of them had finally gotten so exhausted and ill that he could no longer perform that task, and asked to be evacuated from the island because he was all knocked up (Australian slang for totally tired out). The American sailors that picked him up were very confused about his status!

  5. My wife (with MD, PhD, MBA, and many more letters after her name than in it) had experimented with public transportation to get from our suburban town's new transit center to her office in Seattle.

    The regional bus authority had started with an articulated bus to accommodate the large number of people in that small town who'd rather someone else did the driving. Well, one thing or another, for various reasons, the ridership declined after a few weeks down to a smaller set of consistent riders. This new level of ridership did not support a half-empty articulated bus, so they swapped in a regular, non-articulated bus.

    So, in an executive meeting a few days later, my England-raised wife, MD, PhD, MBA, MChir, MPharma, Cant, announced that that she had "come to work on the short bus. What's so funny?"

    I had to explain it to her later, because her co-workers had been incapable of doing so. In fact, they had been incapable of doing much at all for about fifteen minutes.

  6. godescalc,
    Thanks for the explanation.
    The one I really don't understand is bespoke. Is there some problem with the word custom, as in custom made, or custom tailored, versus bespoke?

  7. Ah, yes. On my first visit to England in '79 a very nice young lady behind the hotel desk asked if I would like to be knocked up in the morning. She smiled at my speechless response and reworded her inquiry to something like "Would you like to be awakened in the morning?"

  8. Ah, yes… the rubber. Young lady exchange student once asked if she could borrow my rubber.

    "No," I replied, "but I'd happily share it with you."

  9. what is a 'short bus'?
    mom was english. rubbers to us are galoshes.
    mom's friend got a job in a pharmacy. a man asked for rubbers and kathy led him over to a display of overshoes which were on sale. the man looked confused and went to speak to the male pharmacist–which is what he should have done in the first place instead of asking a lady.
    the pharmacist explained and , being english and modest, kathy was horribly embarrassed.
    we lived in canada for a short while. a nurse called and asked for my husband to see a patient who was 'low'.
    it would be late when he got home and i asked if it could wait 'til morning, but she just kept saying the patient was very low.
    husband got over there about 2 a.m.
    got home a said he was glad he went because he man was at death's door.
    where i come from 'low' means you are depressed, not knockin' on heaven's gate.

  10. A "short bus" is, or was, a specially-equipped bus, about half the length of a regular school bus, designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and was most commonly used to ferry student with physical and (especially) mental disabilities to their schools.

    This was before government policy started requiring such students to be put in classes with normal students.

  11. A "short bus" is the ~20 passenger school bus used to transport handicapped students. The bus may have a wheelchair lift or altered seats as well.

    "Riding the short bus" is a euphemism for being mentally retarded.

  12. If someone accuses someone else of "knowing what the windows of the short bus taste like", they're extending and amplifying the euphemism.

  13. As godescalc said. Also this makes "Fannie Mae" hilarious rather than depressing. No such issues with Freddie Mac, as far as I know. An Australian friend find "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" hilarious… 'Let me root, root, root for the home team'… ("root" is uh… shall we say, decidedly enthusiastic copulation: "Rooting like $ANIMALs").

  14. Note that UK and US parliamentary rules of order are pretty similar (which makes sense, since UK rules came from the rules of the House of Commons, and US rules from the rules of the House of Representatives, which adopted a lot of the UK rules when devising their own) — but there are some traps which can get really baffling unless you know them when conducting a meeting.

    The most common trap is, "tabling a motion". In Robert's (the most common US set of rules), a motion that is on the floor (being discussed) can be "tabled" — which means that it's set aside, and can't be discussed again until a motion is passed to take it from the table.

    In the UK, however, "tabling a motion" means introducing it so it can be discussed. A motion can't be discussed at all until it's tabled.

    (Parliamentarians for a mixed US/UK meeting need to always check on what the speaker means in the case of this, or some of the other different meanings of motions.)

  15. An Aussie friend of my wife in college was introduced to a boy who said, "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Randy" – to which to young lass replied, "What do you expect me to do about that?"

    Another time quite a few years later, wife was doing some work in Oz and in surgery (she's a medic/surgeon, etc.). The things that get talked about while a patient is under anesthesia are quite something at times. Anyway, she was going to say something but had to clear her throat first, to which someone said, "Are you all right, doctor?" Her reply was, "Yeah, I've just got a frog in my throat." There was a bit of stunned silence, then one of the nurses said, "Dearie, don't you know you don't need one of those for THAT!" which elicited much laughter from the group. Someone had to explain that 'frog' was 'Strine for condom …
    And she also ran afoul of the 'fanny' issue when, upon seeing a bloke playing Aussie Rules on the telly slap his teammate on the butt, she remarked, "Oh it's like American football where they whack each other on the fanny." She was informed that men don't have those …

  16. My father sent home a photo he took in England during a deployment many years ago, of a billboard sign. The product being advertised was a rather unappetizing spherical foodstuff and the caption read “FAGGOTS! GREAT BALLS OF PLEASURE!”

    The letter was addressed to my mother but I collected the mail that day.

  17. I was a design engineer on a job that a British company had done the preliminary design. I had to learn some new vocabulary, works means a factory, bulge means airlock, depression means negative pressure. There were others, but I forget them now.

  18. In England, a customer has brought his custom to the shop. In America, a shopper is shopping in the store.

    I was standing in line at the AAFES in W. Berlin one day, when I heard two men speaking an unintelligible language just behind me. This annoyed me, as I had actively worked at being able to at least identify almost every European language. (You get good at this when it's your job to listen to the radio.) I had utterly no idea what language, or even language family, the men might be speaking. And inside the military store!

    I turned around to see two soldiers from the Black Watch happily chatting, arms full of blue jeans.

  19. My mother was English, so I've run across a number of these, as well as others. There's really only one I keep running into lately, though, and that's "pissed," which means "drunk" in England and "angry/upset" in the US.

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