“The British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common language.” — Attributed to George Bernard Shaw

The above quote may be “completely false in fact,” wrote Christian Science Monitor reporter Mallory Browne in 1942, “yet so much closer to the truth than merely factual statements ever are.”

I agree — sort of. On the one hand, anybody with a good grasp of American English could travel to England and have almost no problem communicating with the locals. On the other hand, one could, at certain times, be easily convinced that those people are speaking an entirely different language.

Why? Well first there are their spelling rules. You know, the ones that turn a perfectly good word like “flavor” into “flavour,” or “color” into “colour.” (Interestingly, the English spelling of the sports equipment brand Under Armour is acceptable in both countries.)

I’ll give the English the “metre” versus “meter” difference a pass, since it basically is the name of their unit of measurement, but do they have to sit in the centre section of the theatre?

OK, I realize (or is it “realise”?) that these were originally their words and that we’re the ones who changed the spellings, so, in an effort to smooth things over, we can at least acknowledge agreement on the spellings of “massacre,” “acre,” “mediocre” and “ogre.”

Unfortunately, we also can agree on “dialogue” and “prologue,” but the question then is why did Americans have the sense to change “catalogue” to “catalog”? (Maybe they were on a momentary roll after abandoning the British “manoeuver” and “counsellor”?)

But those strange (to us) spellings are only the beginning of the differences between the two dialects. Let me tell you about (and translate) the recent experiences of my German friend Claus as he recently related them to me after an extended stay in London with the fam.

While opening his last tin (can) of beans for supper, he heard his infant daughter crying in her cot (crib). After sticking a dummy (pacifier) in her mouth to quiet her, Claus discovered that her nappy (diaper) was in dire need of changing.

Tossing the full one into the dustbin (trash can), he realized that there were no more in the house and sprinted to the bathroom to retrieve a flannel (washcloth) to use as a substitute while they went to the store.

Already in his dressing gown (bathrobe) for the evening, Claus went to his wardrobe (closet) and dug out his pants (underwear) and trousers (pants), remembering to fasten his braces (suspenders) to hold up his pants . . . er . . . trousers. After finding his vest (undershirt) and waistcoat (vest), he looked for his shoes.

His plimsolls (canvas sneakers) were still wet from earlier, so Claus decided to forgo his trainers (running shoes) and wear his wellingtons (rubber boots).

He loaded his daughter into her pram (stroller), grabbed his brolly (umbrella), and took the lift (elevator) down to the ground floor (first floor) from his first floor (second floor) flat (apartment). Since his car was still in the body shop with a smashed wing (fender), he headed straight to the underground (subway). On the way, he was almost hit by the driver of a lorry (truck), who had driven up on the pavement (sidewalk).

Arriving at the store, he grabbed a shopping trolley (cart), and bought some nappies along with some crisps (chips) and biscuits (cookies) for later.

On his way back to the tube (another name for subway) they were nearly run over in the zebra crossing (crosswalk) by a driver who failed to slow for the sleeping policeman (speed bump).

The pair continued on past the off-licence (liquor store) but did stop for takeaway (takeout) of a burger and chips (fries) since his beans were cold when they arrived home, full stop (period).

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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