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Friday, January 28, 2011

A Common Language

My stories often have both American and British characters and points of view. Having grown up in Britain and lived in North America for 9 years I always think I’ve got handle this, but my editor catches my boobs(:)) all the time. Here are some examples of the subtle and not so subtle differences between the two languages.

I’m always cold and like to keep my characters nice and cozy so I put them in lovely warm jumpers.
North Americans tend to wear sweaters

Marks and Spencer’s, naturally :)
In North America knickers are panties (I really hate it when female characters wear underpants, for me underpants are what my dad wears).

Pants are also knickers in the UK. Also, if something is 'pants' it's crap.
In North America pants are trousers. 
I used to blush when people admired my pants over here, but not as fiercely as when someone commentated on my fanny. In the UK your fanny is your vagina. Seriously people, not something we uptight Brits discuss at parties. 

These foxed me for a long time. In the UK a vest is an undershirt for those extra cold days. In North America a vest is a waistcoat. 

Getting off with someone.
In the UK it usually means you scored a kiss or maybe walked someone home. In North America ‘getting off’ means something a little more...orgasmic.

In the UK a bum is a pair of fleshy globes of loveliness that you sit on. In North American a bum is a homeless person.

In the Midlands (UK) everyone calls everyone else ‘Cock’. Even my mom calls me cock. “Alright, Cock?” Embarrassing? You bet.
In North America you’ll get a punch in the mouth for calling someone a cock. 

In the UK a flat (and flatmate) is the same as an apartment (with a roommate/housemate because apartmentmate just doesn't work). I don't know why it is called a flat. Stupid because it isn't flat, it is 3-D.

Being full of spunk in the UK is totally different to being full of spunk in North America. Not sure I want to go there. Gulp.

Differences in language affect me every day. I’m always telling the kids to get up on the pavement (sidewalk) rather than walk on the road (pavement), and when we’re doing homework we need a good rubber (eraser) to take care of mistakes. And we put the rubbish in the bin, baby, none of that trashcan garbage :) 

So what's your favorite British/US expression? What makes you giggle?


Wynter Daniels said...

What a laugh! When I mentioned to a Brit acquaintance that I had a friend named Randy, she thought I was joking. She promptly informed why no one in the UK has such a name;-)

Toni Anderson said...

I almost mentioned Randy. First time I met a Randy I almost spat my drink all over him because I laughed so hard.

MicheleKS said...

George Bernard Shaw once said (in refernce to the differences between American English and British English: "We are two countries separated by a common language."

Claire Robyns said...

Just had this conversation with my editor during edits - my setting is Manhattan but heroine is from England and I don't know my trousers from my pants, lol. I grew up in SA and over there we've adopted language from both sides of the Atlantic... Pants/trousers Lift/elevator Purse/handbag ... all the same to me and when one sounds as familiar as the other, it's difficult to catch those pesky things.

Which takes me back to when we first got to the UK. One day I waved goodbye to my work colleages with a friendly, "See ya later, I'm going to make a duck." They never looked at me quite right after that. You see, in SA, that means, "See you later, I'm outta here."

Doris J said...

See to me women wear pantie's and mean wear underwear :-)

I knew most of those, but the fanny was new to me LOL I could see where they could be a but uncomfortable LOL

Chris K. said...

My friend, Doris J. just pointed me over here. I'm from England but I've lived in Kansas for the past 13 years. You had me laughing so hard, my little girl wanted to know why I was crying LMAO

I still laugh out loud whenever I see fanny packs in stores (UK shops). And Randy ALWAYS gets a laugh everytime I see him!

There are SO many differences between here & there, I find I am constantly having to translate. Some examples...
US - Store = UK - Shop
US - Shop = UK - Garage/Shed/Warehouse
US - Cabinet = UK - Cupboard
US - G-strings = UK - Thongs
US - Thongs = UK - Flip-flops

Then there's chocolate & other sweet treats (these confused me for the longest time - I could often be found in the chocolate aisle, feeling up choc bars, trying to figure out what they are...) Here's what I've worked out so far (after 13 years LOL)
US - Mars bar = UK - ??? Something with peanuts
US - Milky Way = UK - Mars bar
US - 3 Muskateers = UK - Milky way (only about 1/3 the size of the 3M)

Will let you know if I think of something else! LOL

Toni Anderson said...

Michele, I love that quote :) hence the title of the post :)

Toni Anderson said...

Claire, you are so screwed up :) I have never heard the duck thing before, unless my friend Loreth used it and I have a vague duck memory from a conference now you mention it :)

Toni Anderson said...

Doris, the fanny was new? really? The advent of the fanny pack really did revolutionize the UK :)

Toni Anderson said...

Chris, a fellow transplant :) I think in Canada the chocolate is more similar to the UK. And thongs get me every time! And as for the muffler man...Oh my :)

Chris K said...

And how could I forget... Jacket potatoes!! I once made the mistake of asking for a jacket potato in one of our local restaurants. The look I got from the waitress was priceless and I think people could hear my husband laughing in the next town.

And yes, it is really great to find fellow transplants :D

Just yesterday, I was posting on facebook about the differences between American & English (the Synchronicity piece just reminded me LOL)

Doris J said...

The Thong/flipflop thing still gets me! It use to be here in Oregon at least! Thongs were worn on the feet and G-strings where worn on the fanny!

So I get funny looks from the younger people with I talk about my thongs :-)

Marcelle Dubé said...

I love the boot/trunk confusion. The first time I heard it, I kept looking around for the footwear.

Elise Warner said...


Thanks for the laughs. In the U.S., we also call panties for much older ladies-bloomers,a young, slim woman would wear bikinis and those of us in-between wear hip-huggers. Men wear boxers, shorts and jockeys.

MaureenAMiller said...

That was great, Toni. I have been to England many times and love it so! One of my favorite words in the world is 'bugger'.

Jenny Schwartz said...

Here in Australia, we use American and British English and make it our own by adding swear words.

But I definitely understood that post.

Ellie said...

A friend from Australia told me about her wedding shower in the US, when her mother shocked the luncheon crowd into silence by telling everyone how her "pot plants" were thriving this year.
In the US, flowers planted in pots are called potted plants. In Australia, apparently they're pot plants. Who knew?

Julie Moffett said...

Toni, thank you sooo much for a wonderful laugh today! Love, love, this post. I remember visiting London as a college student and I kept reading signs that said "No Prams Allowed." I had no clue what that meant until finally I asked a security guard to make sure I wasn't sneaking one in by accident!! :)

Toni Anderson said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. :) I still get a kick out of the nuances of language.
Maureen, 'bugger' is one of my fav words too.
Prams, boots, pot plants, jacket potatoes--it all seems so obvious until you are faced with that absolute blank expression of 'I have no idea what you are talking about, I see the words coming out of your mouth but you are from another planet' :)

Toni Anderson said...

Jenny, Ellie, I thought about adding Australian words and decided to keep it simple. I've spent enough time there to understand what people are saying to me but wasn't sure I could do it justice :) I really liked the TV is Oz. Seeing 'The Bill' in Brisbane was a hoot :)

Shirley Wells said...

Too funny, Toni. Living in the UK and setting my books here, I get into all sorts of problems with language.

However, my very British next door neighbour insists on calling trousers 'pants'. It shocks me every time I hear it. I guess she watches too much American TV. :)

Cassie Exline said...

Great topic. My dearest friend is British and a male. We're both authors who joined a critque group about the same time and the fun began. There were times I didn't have a clue what he was writing and the same for him with us. The one word I haven't noticed mentioned was "pissed" as for American me meant angry. He kept wondering why my characters drank so much, so he had to ask. I laughed until the tears rolled. Great memory.

Clare London said...

I've always found these differences fascinating, especially as I'm in the UK but have written for mainly US audiences for years.

The one word I can't bear in my own stories is 'bangs' (re: hair). For us, it's 'fringe'. If I'm corrected to 'bangs' by an editor, I have to change the whole sentence. To me, it sounds like the character's got a drum on their forehead LOL.

Toni Anderson said...

Cassie, pissed confused me for AGES! It always sounds worse to a UK ear I think.

Clare--I hate the word BANGS. In hairdressers over here I kind of point and mime rather than utter the word bangs. How did that word evolve???

Cayendi said...

Being Dutch, the problem over here in my youth was that by the time we were old enough to realise there was such a thing as BE and AE, we had already gathered a reasonable vocabulary ... that we used interchangeably. It's taken me a while to separate the two (and I still make mistakes)

Actually, I think a large percent of this country still has trouble keeping them apart.

I've always leaned more towards BE spelling and I sound rather British when I speak English.

Amanda said...

As an English person living in the US I can relate to so much of this.

My British friend in the US went into the store and asking what size jeans she needed. The sales person asked her to turn round and show her her fanny. Now only a British person would cringe at that one.

I constantly find people don't understand a word I say, but I'm getting there.
Barrels for dustbins
Trash can for bin
Closet for Wardrobe
Pavement being the road
Hiking not walking (if I say 'walk' people think I'm saying 'work'
Getting a ride, not a lift, in the car
truck for lorry
biking not cycling
GPS for SatNav
Cell for mobile

I won't bore you further - needless to say they are 2 languages with a few common words connecting them.

Toni Anderson said...

Cayendi--I'm impressed already by your language skills :)

Amanda--the list is endless :) And don't even get me started on the clothing size issues :) Theoretically a UK 12 is a what? Size 10? And my feet have gone from being UK size 3 to US size 5 and my weight has changed from stones to pounds (triple figures!) but my height has stayed the same? Crazy :)

Cayendi said...

Thanks Toni :) Though I've been writing stories in English for at least ten years now.

Bugger is one of my favourites as well, next to bloody hell :) (Blame Spike in Buffy)

The cell/mobile is one of the ones that I keep mixing up and have to check carefully in my stories.
As for sizes ... both US and UK sizes puzzle me, and we use kilos to measure our weight.

I also tend to use both being pissed off and being pissed, but since my stories rarely feature drunk people, I don't actually mix it up in writing :)

Asking for a fag in the US gets you strange looks (or beaten up), while they'll hand you a cigarette in the UK ...

Rebecca Rogers Maher said...

I'm thinking of moving to England so I can start saying "tosser." I can't really say it here in America without sounding like one.

Toni Anderson said...

Rebecca, I say tosser--usually aimed toward bad male drivers. I am a bad person :)

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