George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde have all at some time, been credited with commenting that Britain and America are two great nations divided by a common language.
On the far side of the pond, mens trousers are ‘pants’, and by pants we don’t mean rubbish. See how confusing it gets?
The potential for trans-atlantic mystification is considerable, so let’s take a moment to get things straight.
Hamburger or beefburger?
Thanks to the prevalence of American fast food outlets across the British Isles, few of us would bat an eyelid at the thought of ordering a ‘ham’ burger, but why isn’t this food item correctly described as a ‘beef’ burger?
The explanation has nothing at all to do with pigs – and everything to do with the Germans. Low quality, shredded beef, seasoned and served in a bun was a dish imported to America by German immigrants from Hamburg.
Suspenders or braces?
In the UK, a chap who wears suspenders, would probably do so at home, and then only at weekends. Not so in America, where men wear suspenders in public.
Here in the UK men wear braces to hold up their trousers, suspenders are a belt used to hold up ladies’ stockings. To our American friends they are a means of preventing men’s trousers, sorry, pants, from falling down. Confused? You will be if it turns out he has on a garter belt beneath.
John or Loo?
In the UK, it is Thomas Crapper who is widely credited with inventing the flushing toilet. However the Americans have identified, an Elizabethan courtier and God-son of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I, John Harrington, as the originator of the toilet – which is why they call it the ‘John’. Harrington himself, nicknamed his creation, the ‘Ajax’, which comes from an even older word for the lavatory, the ‘jenks’.
As to why here in the UK, we call toilet, the ‘loo’, nobody really knows for sure. It could relate to the practise of yelling, ‘gardez l’eau’ before chucking the contents of a chamber pot out of the window. Or to the European euphemism ‘Room 100’, and possibly to one ‘Lady Lousia’, the unpopular wife of a 19th century Lord Lichfield, whose name was once pinned to a lavatory door.
Bum bag or fanny pack?
An invitation to ‘park your fanny’, is merely an indication from an American, that you should ’sit down’. However, this friendly gesture could cause considerable consternation to an uninformed Brit.
In the United states, one’s ‘fanny’, refers to one’s bottom, but in the UK, the word relates to an altogether different part of the anatomy. Similarly, the mention of a ‘fanny pack’, would be a great cause of mirth for British School children, whereas ‘bum bag’, to an American might be taken to mean, a bag carried by a tramp.
Band Aid or plaster?
Cut your finger here in the UK and the chances are that you’d stick a plaster on it. But what if the casualty is an American? An anguished cry for a ‘bandaid’, could inspire a helpful Brit to dial an 0800 number to leave a donation. Either that or he or she will start humming, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’.
If your injury is more serious, then a trip to casualty may ensue. Luckily, in the UK, treatment is free for all, but over in the States, you’d better hope that your health insurance is up to date!
Apartments or flats?
If a Brit refers to an apartment, they’re either an estate agent doing the hard sell or someone trying to make their accommodation sound more upmarket than it really is. Americans are quite right to call their homes, ‘apartments’, because they got the word from the French, who in turn got their word from the Italian, ‘appartimento’ meaning ‘a separate place’, which in turn comes from the Latin ‘partem’.
Our ‘flats’, by contrast, are not the result of Roman conquest, but old English, meaning ‘floor’, ‘hall’, or ‘story of a house’. We got the word from the Germanic hordes that invaded us after the Romans left.