You say Tom-ay-to, and I say Tom-ah-to
In Merry Olde England, there were no buzzing alarm clocks to get folks up and moving in the morning. And while there were roosters to awaken the farmers, they weren’t usually loud enough to be heard throughout the towns and villages. Because of this, many deep sleepers found getting to work on time to be daunting.
That is, until a bright-spark city dweller came up with a really good solution.
Across the British Isles, trusted men were hired to awaken their fellow residents at dawn every day. They walked regular beats and carried big sticks with which to tap loudly on bedroom windows. This ensured that every home’s occupants would be up and out of bed on time and it worked. These proud and admired men were named Knocker Uppers, which is why the British still think nothing of asking family, friends, or hotel clerks to please be sure to knock them up in plenty of time for breakfast.
This expression cannot be safely used in America. I know, because shortly after immigrating to the United States, I unwittingly announced to a room full of people (including a very understanding priest) that I hate to get knocked up first thing in the morning. It was a shocking experience for all of us.
It’s astonishing really to consider the differences between English-English and American-English. We so often chatter on together completely unaware that while we’re speaking the same language, we’re discussing different things.
For example, after reviewing my first American lunch menu, I ordered a fish sandwich, chips and milk.
The waitress asked, “White milk?”
I was so amazed by this question I was temporarily dumbstruck. What a marvelous place America is, I thought, before managing to ask faintly, “What other colors do you have?”
She raised one eyebrow and solemnly studied me before carefully answering as though to jolly along a dimwit, “We also have chocolate.”
Then, when my food arrived, I couldn’t find the chips. The waitress stared at me nervously. “They are right there,” she kept saying, pointing cautiously toward the plate.
That’s when I discovered that American chips are English crisps, and English chips are American French fries. I had been looking for the French fries. (Are you still with me?)
Within a day of getting my first job I was already in trouble, because I didn’t know then that erasers are called erasers. I blithely walked up to my boss’ highly respectable, middle-aged secretary, and politely said, “Excuse me Margaret, but do you happen to have a spare rubber, please?”
I thought Margaret was having a heart attack.
After a few more weeks with this company, I was unexpectedly faced with George, an employee I hardly knew, who had just lost his wife. He was visiting Margaret, telling her that he would soon be ready to return to work. I wasn’t sure what I could say to him, but decided that George could be safely advised to maintain his courage.
I looked at him with what I hoped was deep sympathy, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said gently, “You must try as best you can to keep your pecker up.”
George had an awful time with this. Margaret recovered quickly. (She was getting used to it, I suppose.)
In America, slang words like, “nutcase” and “nut” are commonly used to describe people who appear to be less than well balanced. It’s the same in Britain. The British, however, also use the word nut as slang for a persons head. I once witnessed a just-arrived, dignified English dad announce in front of his two little girls and his new American neighbors that a baseball had bounced off his nut and, “by Jove, it had hurt!” My American boyfriend almost collapsed.
Of course, this confusing use of words also affects Americans visiting Britain. My English cousin blushed to the roots of his hair when he told me about meeting up with a group of Americans in London, who said, “sit your fanny down,” and used the term “fanny pack” in front of him and his wife. They were speechless with shock. I had to tell him that fanny simply means posterior in American-English, and does not describe female anatomy in extremely crude terms as it does in English-English.
This particular usage problem is especially befuddling to Americans because the British cheerfully accept Fanny as a woman’s given name (e.g. Fanny Craddock, a famous chef on BBC television). Under this circumstance, anyone is allowed to say Fanny in mixed company without ever getting into trouble.
To stay abreast of English-English versus American-English is a considerable feat, since each country is constantly adding new words, as well as sometimes altering meanings of existing words, without ever bothering to enlighten one another of the changes. It’s a miracle that innocent people haven’t been shot.
Language is a minefield. When British relatives visit, the parties we’re invited to have to be monitored closely for it is at these events that words flow easily on both sides. I feel obliged to eavesdrop on just about everyone’s conversation in order to be at-the-ready to prevent a catastrophe.
Of course, after so many years in America, I have it all down pat and can translate effectively on either side of the Atlantic. Now I know to put on my running shoes (trainers), grab my wallet (purse), put it in my purse (handbag), and head out for coffee with cream (white coffee), and cookies (biscuits) at the café. There I will write, so I must remember to take paper, pencils, and eraser (rubber). And if my story is awesome (brilliant), it won’t end up in the garbage can (dust bin).
All it took was a bit of practice and before I knew it, there it was (Bob’s your uncle), I was proficient in both languages.
I’ve felt safer ever since.
First published in The Milwaukee Journal, January 15, 1995 as “Daunted by dialects? Well, keep your, uh, courage up“