Should authors be wary of differences in words and expressions used on both sides of the Atlantic?

The answer to the title question should be fairly straightforward: if your book is set in England or Ireland, there’s really no excuse for slipping in ‘Americanisms’ just to score a few brownie points from your readers on the other side of the pond. Needless to say, it should work the other way round. If only it was as simple as that!

Let’s start with some obvious words which seem to metamorphose during their travels:

You say potato we say potato; you say tomato, we say tomato!
A spanner in London is a wrench in New York;
A lift in Dublin is an elevator in Chicago;
A goods train in Glasgow is a freight train in Seattle;
A beltway in Boston is a ring road in Manchester;
The trunk of an American automobile is the boot of a British car;
Pedestrians use sidewalks in America but pavements in Britain.

And just to prove we’ve done our research, here are few more words from a list that could run into hundreds:

English                               American
Post                                     Mail
Railway                               Railroad
Rubbish                              Trash
Sweets                                Candy
Timetable                            Schedule
Wallet                                  Billfold
Zip                                       Zipper
Windscreen                         Windshield
Waistcoat                            Vest
Tube                                    Subway
Bill                                       Check
Braces                                Suspenders
Cooker                                Stove
Dinner Jacket                     Tux or Tuxedo
Anti-clockwise                    Counter clockwise
Articulated-lorry                 Trailer-truck
Barrister                             Attorney
Car park                             Parking lot
Chips                                 French Fries
Crisps                                Potato Chips
Coffin                                 Casket
Dual-carriageway              Divided highway
Diversion                           Detour
Crossroads                        Intersection
Holiday                              Vacation
Flyover                              Overpass
Nappy                                Diaper
Petrol                                Gas
Autumn                             Fall
Caretaker                         Janitor
Hob                                  Burner
Lorry                                Truck
Taxi                                  Cab
Biscuit                              Cookie
Road surface                   Blacktop
Hotel Porter                     Bellhop
First-year student            Freshman
Wardrobe                        Closet
Bobsleigh                        Bobsled
City centre                       Downtown
Stanley Knife                   Boxcutter

Expressions too are changing. The Daily Mail recently ran a piece reminding readers that witnesses in British courts don’t take the stand; they go into the witness box! Also, they don’t testify, they give evidence!

And what about the age-old expression: ‘twenty four hours a day, seven days a week’? Thankfully our American cousins have helped the world to shorten it to 24/7, in much the same way as they’ve changed half an hour to a half hour. Beware an American character in your story paying one and a half dollars for a candy bar – he’d much rather fork out a dollar fifty!

Brits are used to saying Happy Christmas whereas Americans seem to prefer the use of the term Happy Holidays (as a catch-all for Christmas, New Year’s, Hanukkah etc.).

And how come our use of the word maths (short for mathematics) has been shortened still further to just math? A recent blog by the Telegraph newspaper in London drew readers’ attention to a view that when Americans use the expression “you do the math” they really mean “work it out for yourself, stupid.”!

Word spelling is a noticeable difference between the two languages. The real authority on this was Noah Webster in his 1828 publication An American Dictionary of the English Language. There’s too much to go into here but in general there’s a lot to like about the way in which Americans drop the letter ‘u’ from most words – color, liqor and neighborhood are some prime examples.

In most cases the words and expressions will travel well between the two cultures. We’ve each added considerably to the other’s dictionaries to the extent that the lines have become blurred as to their origins. Care must be taken, however. A Hush Puppy in some American southern states is a cornmeal biscuit, whereas in Britain it’s a shoe!

George Bernard Shaw once wrote of two countries divided by a common language, a comment often attributed to Winston Churchill. Oscar Wilde got in on the act when he remarked: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.”

But does all that answer the question about the care which needs to be taken by authors?

The worst possible thing would be to take a British story with a British setting and ‘Americanise’ it by changing words and phrases in the ways we’ve already discussed. Far from currying favour and boosting sales, it will annoy and insult knowledgeable readers. The golden rule must be therefore to keep the story in context and true to its origins and culture.

Many novels will cross continents and change cultural backdrops as their stories unfold. In those cases there’s nothing wrong with demonstrating a bit of local knowledge and appreciation of speech and vocabulary nuances. The astute writer will draw attention to these in an offhanded way, but won’t constantly labour (labor) the point!

Those who know me should know by now that I have a wicked sense of humour (humor) and am just as likely to break the rules ahead of the next guy. I admit to a bit of cross-contamination between the two language versions – and usually drop them in to see if they’re spotted.

I can think of no better way to end than by borrowing a quote attributed to P. Lang and used recently by the website BellaOnline: “No American or English person was hurt or intentionally offended during the writing of this article.”!

NOTE: This blog is the result of a challenge issued to me last evening by the Facebook  writers’ group MasterKoda To help meet the deadline I enlisted the help of fellow Irish author BRAD FLEMING, who just happens to have an American wife, Marjorie (Nip)!

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19 Responses to Should authors be wary of differences in words and expressions used on both sides of the Atlantic?

  1. Susan Condon says:

    Love it Joe and I’m definitely printing off and saving – actually, going to alphabetize first – like the ‘z’ ??? I started my novel in Dublin, but then decided that I LOVE American thrillers with some mention of Grand Central Station etc but I’m still a little wary on the words! I have my American English turned on and when editing I’ve come across one or two words I missed so think the suggestion to have the final novel read by an American is sound advice. I’ve my first 10,000 words written Joe, so your post couldn’t have come at a better time. When in Boston a couple of years ago I noticed that we, in Ireland, have loads of roundabouts but they have very few if any at all and apparently would be called a rotary, if I remember correctly . . .

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Susan – thanks for the feedback. My American publishers have just told me there are a few things in the Chicago scenes for my novel that need tweaking. I’m looking forward to getting their proof-marks so that I can see what needs to be changed, particulary if I’ve used a roundabout for a rotary!!

  2. J. R. Nova says:

    Some of these are interchangeable or depend on the region of the U.S. one lives. Like cab is something I think mostly Northeasterners say, while a lot of folks in the rest of the States say Taxi. I don’t think I’ve ever called a “taxi” a cab. A cab is something drawn by horses or the inside of a semi-truck.

    I use railway sometimes, though when I think of the term I don’t think of country tracks, but city tracks. I ALWAYS say wallet, and never billfold. I prefer autumn, and sweets is said often on this side of the pond, though it’s a more personal taste 😉

    When I think of coffin I think of something said in the 19th century…

    Many of these are totally foreign to me though. I would never call a diaper a nappy and I’ve never heard the word “hob”….

  3. Tasha Turner says:

    Great article. Good to see you still follow orders from your boss. Now if only I had this article when I was reviewing your 1st book for Tri Destiny I might have understood what I was reading a bit more. Well at least I have it for Brad’s books and yours when they are published. Love your writing as always.

  4. Anna says:

    If you’re writing for the American side of the pond, be wary of such lists. I still call for a taxi when I go to town, and I don’t think I’ve ever used the term ‘billfold’. Whether asking for the ‘bill’ or the ‘check’ would totally depend on the setting. Since my dad was a truck driver, I’ve never heard the term ‘trailer-truck’; a truck large enough to haul a trailer is usually called a semi if not the actual brand name of the truck (don’t ask me what semi is shorted from, though I’m sure it is). The only ‘burner’ I know of is the little ring of fire on top of the stove used to heat my coffee first thing in the morning. There – I think that about covers that list. So, if you’re going to write your story for this side of the pond, you might be better off getting it translated by an American.

    Happy Writing

  5. Brad Fleming says:

    Speed bumps? We usually call them sleeping policemen here. Not too sure what the boys in blue think about that!

  6. Kim Emerson says:

    Great read. I embrace the differences in my reading. It feels like a jolt or horrible speed bump (what’s that in the UK?) when a novel set in London is written in “American English”. And thanks, Joe for the mention of our fantastic MasterKoda group on FB.

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Kim – thanks to you and your MasterKoda members for switching me to the topic. I see Brad’s already mentioned ‘the sleeping policeman’ and we also use speed ramps a lot.

  7. cathydboyd says:

    Great Blog!!! i am actaully saving it for the words and stuff!! thanks!!liked and shared!

  8. Kevin Taggart says:

    Speed reading!! arrrrr.

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Know the feelin, Kev!

      Joe McCoubrey Author Website: Click here Facebook: Click here Twitter: Click here Blog: Click here

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  9. Kevin Taggart says:

    Playwright George Bernard Shaw claimed that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

  10. Brad Fleming says:

    Nice one Joe. I’m sure we’ve all got (gotten) the point!

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