Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A Common Language

“The British and the Americans are two countries separated by a common language.”
-G.B. Shaw

Before leaving America, I told my close friends and family I was studying abroad in England. Their responses varied, but one observation was always the same: “At least they speak English.”
I’ve lived in England for almost a month now, and from my interaction with Brits I’ve met on trains, in Pound Land (the British equivalent of Dollar Tree), and in hostels, I’ve learned that speaking English isn’t necessarily a similarity. With the variations in slang terminology, there’s American English and British English— and the two are spoken, written, and hold very separate meanings.
Most Americans know a few British slang terms, mostly from watching British television or reading British books. There were, however, a few that surprised me. Here are some common American words beside their British equivalent.
Crossing Guard: Lollipop man                         Bathroom/Restroom: Toilet
French Fries: Chips                                           Cross Walk: Zebra Crossing
Bobby Pins: Kirby Grips                                   Trunk (of a car): Boot
Flashlight: Torch                                               Cookie: Biscuit
Shrimp: Prawn                                                  Eraser: Rubber
Check (the box): Tick (the box)                       Potato Chips: Crisps
Tough: Hard                                                     Elevator: Lift
Cigarette: Fag                                                  Cashier: Teller
Pants/Jeans: Trousers                                     Underwear: Knickers

You don’t realize the significance of these differences until you’re in a situation that makes it noticeable. For example, one of my first days living at Harlaxton, the five floors and endless hallways of the manor felt like mazes. One afternoon, I asked the security guard at the reception desk where the closest restroom was—and, to my surprise, he stared at me in confusion. Only when a friend beside me clarified and said, “She means the toilet,” did he nod in understanding, and point us in the right direction.
Despite our diversities, I’ve learned that there’s one thing that can cross all slang and dialect barriers: laughter. My first weekend in England, the majority of my classmates and I went to London on a school trip and stayed for the weekend. That Saturday, my friends and I went to Portobello Market—an antique, Indie flea market— and there were so many people there, we had to use the street as a sidewalk. Portobello Market is, at the moment, my favorite place in London. It’s thriving with fresh food, interesting booths, beautiful goods, and so much culture.

That Saturday, the market began to close around 5 PM (which would be 17:00 PM in England) and one of the vendors began shouting, “Jewelry! Antiques! Five pounds! Only five pounds!” Eagerly I stepped towards the booth, ready to stock-up on souvenirs for my girlfriends. An Asian couple, probably in their thirties, was passing me in the opposite direction; but, when the woman heard the vendor’s reduced price, she pulled the man’s sleeve. “Five pounds!” she said urgently, her Asian accent making the words sound choppy. The man, resigned to more shopping, rolled his eyes and followed. The scene seemed so familiar to me (I could see my parents reacting in the same way) that I began to laugh, and the woman, in her enthusiasm, laughed with me.
It’s one of the best moments I’ve had in England so far: standing in a market, laughing with an Asian woman, needing no words to communicate.


  1. Great post! I miss your laughter, but I can hear it in your story telling. Xo

  2. Thanks for sharing this story. My daughter Olivia is at Harlaxton, too. I appreciate your perspective and great storytelling ability!