Immitation is the Sincerest Flattery

Posted on January 31, 2010 by pacificyorkshirebird

pacificyorkshirebird

It wouldn’t be an authentic experience of living in Britain without the inevitable friendly jabs about the way Americans seem to have made up our own version of the English language. Once I had someone tell me ‘I love how Americans just seem to make up words and still claim they speak English’. One of the most embarrassing terms was ‘bachelorette party’. Although I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘hen do’ either. Even now when I hear that term I imagine drunk chickens dressed up in matching outfits and tiaras clucking through the streets of some city in Spain or maybe Newcastle or York.

Anyways, it is hard not to notice how many places in America and Canada copied British names. I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night panicked that perhaps I just bought a plane ticket to Manchester, New Hampshire or London, Ontario on accident.  There are many places all over North America named after British places which is no surprise given our history.

The really funny times though, are when we find things for which we copy a British name, but mean different things.  A classic example is the word ‘fanny’ of course. Last summer, I discovered another example  that left me feeling very unobservant having never noticed this difference in Britain:

British In-Law visiting PacificNW: ‘What are them birds called? The really big ones that look a bit like a robin?’

Me: ‘Hmm, really big birds?  I’m not sure. What did they look like?’

British In-Law: ‘Like a robbin, but really big. With bits of red on the fronts’.

Me: ‘I can’t think of anything bigger than a robbin that looks like a robin. How big do you mean, like a crow?’

British In-Law: ‘Smaller than a crow and smaller than magpie. But quite big.’

Me: ‘Are you sure it isn’t a robin?’

British In-Law: ‘How big are your robins then?’

Me: ‘Well, not that big. Smaller than a magpie for sure. I think you saw a robin.’

British In-Law #2: ‘Are you talking about them big robins we was looking at this morning? Your robins are massive. It is true that everything is bigger in America. I’ve never seen a robin that size before.’

In 4 years in Britain, how did I never notice that the European Robin was completely different than the North American Robin? They are not even related – we all looked it up on Wikipedia together. :) Who knew?

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Expat Mum February 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Yes, you can write whole books about it ;-) . I quite often remind my fellow Brits that the language over here has spent two centuries developing on its own, with a lot of other mainly European influences on the vocabaluary. However, many of the “typical” American words, for which my friends and family back home rip me to shreds, were used in the UK not too long ago – such as “closet”, and the Southern “vittals” which is slang for “victuals”.
    Years ago I read “The Story of English” which accompanied the fabulous PBS tv series. It looks at where the English language went and how it developed. The most interesting point of information to me was that the English language in the UK has changed and developed more than it has anywhere else in the world. It’s the Brits who are making things up it appears.

  2. Steve Shawcross February 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I believe some crematoria in the USA, they talk of people being “funeralized” after death!

    Mother Tongue is a superb, I’d recommend it too! Note that English doesn’t just come from Anglo-Saxon; although that’s where Old English derives (closer to modern German ironically)! It also comes from Norse, Celtic, Norman French, Latin with Greek thrown in.

    As pointed out many slang words in Britain are of American origin (although they may have British dialect words originally). Of course we’ve picked words from all over the world in more modern times– pyjama and bungalow for instance. These days British street talk is a curious mish-mash of traditional slang mixed with Australian, American, Indian and Jamaican slang. Then you have curiosities such as Penglish as well.

  3. Rachel February 2, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I was very confused upon arriving here in the UK this Christmas to see the English robin on cards. In the US, of course, the robin is a sign of springtime, not Christmas. Having worked banding birds in the US, I must say I’m not a fan of the American robin as it packs a punchy bite! The English robin, however, is so cute and adorable. We had one fly into the doorway to feast on a bit of Christmas cake one morning when our backs were turned for 30 seconds. They are so cute and fluffy!

  4. Michelloui February 1, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I love it! Steve is right, the British would just go crazy if they knew how much of what they say is not anchored in good ol’ Anglo Saxon but rather a boomerang ‘corruption’ of the original thing! I have an oldish classic cook book from the States called the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. We have built in bookshelves along our living room wall and I considered leaving that one out, keeping it hidden in the utility room… but its actually more fun keeping it out for conversation. My step-daughters think it’s especially hilarious.

    Mis-spellings don’t worry me, btw ;)

    I prefer the English robin I have to say, so sweet!

  5. yankeebean February 1, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I think the robin differences is hilarious – I always thought it was classic that we had these giant robin-beasts and the English ones were so small and dainty. It fits the stero-type almost too well…

  6. pacificyorkshirebird February 1, 2010 at 1:59 am

    Thanks Fia – I think I fixed it. Sorry to make you cringe!

  7. Almost American February 1, 2010 at 1:15 am

    I once needed to buy plane tickets to fly from Boston, USA, to Manchester, England and had to travel the same day because I was heading to a relative’s funeral. After a long phone call with a travel agent I was delighted when she found me a ticket for about $400. Seeing as it was last minute, I expected to pay more. Fortunately, I realized before I paid for it that she was trying to book me a ticket from Boston, MA to Manchester, NH. She had never heard of Manchester, England! When I finally got a ticket sorted to the right airport it cost me almost $1,000!

  8. nurin January 31, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    hi, i just stumbled across your blog while browsing in an expat directory.
    i myself have realized that a lot of england name places are also in america. i live in sheffield (yorkshire too!) and everytime i try to load my yahoo weather to check temperature and weather forecast, it will always be directed to sheffield, USA first!

  9. Fia January 31, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    umm. I like your blog a lot, but I can’t help myself this time. I just can’t read it without cringing. Sorry. Don’t hate me. But it’s Robin. Not Robbin. Cheers.

  10. Steve January 31, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    It’s quite a surprise if you read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother Tongue” just how many “English” words or phrases actually originate from the US. Some words I would have sworn (and even put money on) that they were Bristish born and bred, but they aren’t. (mental note – dig the book out for examples before starting to post a comment).

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