“ENGLAND AND AMERICA ARE TWO COUNTRIES DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE”
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, as doubtless you know – even if you have forgotten – was an extremely witty playwright, humorist, public speaker, and socially concerned activist. He was also Irish (which, some would argue, just by itself, makes him a superior human being). He is probably best known today as the author of the play that led to the musical and movie, My Fair Lady. If you haven’t heard of that, I shall throw up my hands and shout, “Zut allors!” Or maybe worse.
Such distractions aside, I think GBS nailed it. It is also a one sided relationship. It is my experience that, generally speaking, the English can work out what an American means, both as a consequence of American movies and TV, and – more often than not – because of the context.
Somehow context doesn’t seem to work with Americans. I don’t fully understand the reasons for this, but I suspect that part of has to do with the U.S. being a very literal and direct culture.
Let me give a few examples of such verbal confusion:
#1 Some years ago one of my sons got into trouble and a parent’s group was formed to try and dig him out. Naturally, I attended the meetings, but after a few weeks was informed that people didn’t understand the way I wrote, or spoke (or seemed to think) so someone else would be needed to talk on my behalf. To demonstrate my literary opaqueness, one of the parents pointed out I had used the phrase: “In the main” as in: “In the main, my son doesn’t behave like a homicidal maniac (for example).” To me the context was clear even if you didn’t know the phrase, but to the other parents – all worthy souls – it was gibberish. I was, I confess, stunned.
#2 On another occasion, I tried to buy a flashlight, but asked for a ‘torch’ which is the word one would use in England. Despite explaining the purpose of this useful device, and much gesticulation, the shop assistant remained nonplussed.
#3 I like wandering around cities on foot and used to regard that civilized habit as “mooching.” In the U.S. I soon discovered I was in danger of being seriously understood. In the U.S. mooching implies begging.
#4 In Ireland we have a word for fun which is ‘craic.’ It tends to be used in sentences such as: “There was great craic in Finnegan’s pub last night. Given that the word is pronounced ‘crack’ the potential for confusion is considerable.
#5 Finally, there is the famous case of the British Gloucestershire Regiment – “The Glorious Glosters” - who were attacked by a vastly superior force of Chinese during the Korean War. When asked by an American superior how things were going, the British colonel replied that things were getting “a little sticky.” To an Englishman such a term would mean “extremely serious.” However, the American took it to mean the Glosters could hold.
Being an Anglo-Irish author writing for an American audience is trickier than it seems; but the craic is mighty!