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Two Nations Divided by the Same Language (Attributed to Bernard Shaw)

By Patsy Trench May 12, 2023 Lifestyle

Back in 2010, the British Guardian newspaper published a selection of angry letters from readers complaining about the increasing use of what they called ‘American slang’ in its articles. As one of them wrote:

“Once again, I am driven to write and complain about the increasing use of American slang in your journalists’ articles (…) examples include upscale, lickety split (what does that mean?) and double dipping. The ghastly schlepping has made another appearance as well. American English is fine when living in America, but please stick to British English when writing for a British readership.”

He Wasn’t the Only One

Other readers objected to words such as ‘scuzzy’, ‘happenstance’, ‘vacation’, ‘staycation’, ‘gotten’ and, most surprising of all, ‘teenager’. ‘Appealing a conviction’ should contain the preposition ‘against’, insisted another reader. And so on and so on.

Many of the Objections Sounded a Tad Snobbish

After all, language changes all the time, as it should, and only purists and pedants – of whom I occasionally count myself – complain about it. Personally speaking, I love the word ‘schlep’ and use it constantly. And besides, as the Guardian itself pointed out, it’s a Yiddish word, not American, and ‘gotten’ is an old English word that the Americans now use more than we do.

Sometimes It’s the Accent That’s the Problem

Some years ago, in a restaurant in Washington, my ‘teenage’ son asked for some butter. The waiter was confounded. My son repeated the word several times, to no avail, and then decided to say it with an American accent as in ‘budder’. “Ah!” the waiter’s eyes lit up. “Budder! Coming right up, sir.”

Some Expressions Can Cause Confusion

I don’t know America that well, but I have had some experience of teaching American students, and I confused them one time by telling them before they arrived here for a summer school course on English theatre that there was no need to dress up to go to the theatre but they might want to bring their ‘glad rags’ for the farewell party at the end. That seemed to result in a lot of Google flurry.

Likewise, I found their use of the word ‘smarts’, well, weird. I realise now it was a compliment, it means they thought I was clever, but at the time I was convinced they were referring to my clothes.

American Influence Is Everywhere

I have found American influence is everywhere. This was evident even more in my experience in Australia, where they weirdly refer to what we call trousers as ‘pants’, and they pronounce the word ‘router’ (the thing that operates your broadband) in the American way, as in ‘rowter’. (There is a reason for this. In Australia the word ‘root’ can mean sexual intercourse. When I tried to buy a ‘router’ – as in ‘rooter’ – in Sydney a few years back, I got some very funny looks.)

Americanisms Will Always Be Part of Our Language

Many Americanisms now feel natural, as do Australianisms such as ‘whinge’, ‘a big ask’, and of course ‘uni’ and ‘footie’ etc. Australians love to shorten words where Americans like to lengthen them. ‘Transportation’ instead of transport, ‘elevator’ rather than lift, ‘automobile’ for car, etc.

So far, those words aren’t part of our daily lexicon in Britain, and we continue to be confused by ‘gas’ rather than petrol, ‘trunks’ of cars when we say boots, ‘diapers’ for nappies and ‘suspenders’ for braces.

‘Theatres’ here refer to buildings housing live performances, not the ones on screen, and the word ‘bathroom’ to mean a room which as often as not does not contain a bath is frankly baffling. At the same time very few Americans seem to know what a lorry is (a ‘truck’).

There are other obvious influences, particularly when it comes to coffee. I believe an ‘Americano’, which for us Brits indicates a simple coffee, doesn’t exist in the States. Just as the ‘English muffin’ is an entirely American invention.

It’s Part of the Joy of Our Two Nations

That we speak the same language only up to a point is part of our two nations’ joy of communication. Vive les differences, to borrow from the French. You gave us hamburgers, Cole Porter, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Mark Twain. We handed you Shakespeare, the Beatles, Jane Austen and Monty Python. It’s a pretty fair exchange and long may it continue.

And of course where would any of us be without the word ‘teenager’?

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you conversed with people from other English-speaking countries? What was your experience like? Was there confusion with certain words/phrases? What funny story can you share regarding language use?

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I haven’t heard “automobile” used in American casual communications in the 60+ years I’ve been alive. It’s always “car”.

And how can you claim we have a yen for long words? What about “gas” for “petrol” and “while” for “whilst”? I could go on.

Generalizations fit neither British nor American English.

It would seem the spirit of Jonathan Swift still whines plaintively in your green and watered land.

Patsy Trench

Thanks for the update on ‘automobile’ and ‘car’. There is a good deal of snobbery attached to language, though becoming less so I believe.


Enjoyed the article. To address something different but similar in process is to acknowledge that I continually need exposure and education on terms used by millennials and Gen Zs and along with this a continual learning of online communication. Please share about this or provide aspects about this so I can stay current not just in differences in terms between countries and cultures but new knowledge with those generations younger than I

Patsy Trench

I am not generally in touch with millennials or Gen Zs, apart from my offspring – who don’t fully qualify as millennials but do use expressions that are unfamiliar to me, many of them originating in social media I guess. Eavesdropping the younger general can be useful!

H.R. Kemp

The different forms of English cause issues at times. I’m Australian and use Australian or UK English when I write. I’ve had American readers complain that my books have spelling mistakes, and they are not well-edited. When I have the opportunity to reply and explain that my books are edited and spell-checked but use Australian English, I’m often met with surprise. Not everyone is aware that there are different spelling conventions.

It’s also true of writing down the date of an event. I don’t think I’ve come across the US convention of using month/day/year anywhere else but I get quizzed about writing my dates day/month/year in emails or social media. It’s particularly confusing when our own news services use Americanised dates – like 9/11 – and younger Australians believe it refers to 9 November.

Patsy Trench

Ah, yes, I’ve found the American way of writing dates very confusing. And it took me a while to realise that ‘Twenty-four seven’ did not refer to July 24th.

Toni Stritzke

I love certain words and will adopt a word or phrase if I’m really taken. Manky means dirty. Cludgie means loo, all Scottish slang.
Australian slang is particular to that continent and very expressive.
Aussies are wickedly funny and you will cry laughing whilst understanding that you are being insulted…in the nicest possible way.

Patsy Trench

Australian slang and humour is a topic in itself. And as you say they are masters of the (often thinly) veiled insult!

Susan Cascio

Ha! I’m addicted to BBC series and still have a hard time wondering at the meanings of some of their words. Yes, “braces” is one. My sister with polio used braces to walk while my son had braces put on his teeth. I didn’t know anyone who used braces to hold up his pants – er, sorry, trousers. Depending on where you grew up, you could call them trousers, pants, or slacks. Many, many other examples, but I love to hear it.

Patsy Trench

What other English expressions or words do you wonder at Susan? It helps to know!

Lisa N.

I learned what a ‘jumper’ was the first time I was in the UK (1969). In English novels, the heroine sometimes went into the house to put on a jumper when it was cool. This made no sense to me until I learned that what Brits call a jumper, Americans call a sweater or cardigan and our jumper is your pinafore!

Patsy Trench

That’s news to me about jumper and pinafore, thank you!

The Author

Patsy Trench has been an actress, scriptwriter, theatre tour organiser and theatre teacher and lecturer. She now writes books about her family history in colonial Australia and novels featuring enterprising women breaking boundaries in Edwardian and 1920s England. She lives in London.

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