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:
Dinner Jacket Tux or Tuxedo
Anti-clockwise Counter clockwise
Car park Parking lot
Chips French Fries
Crisps Potato Chips
Dual-carriageway Divided highway
Road surface Blacktop
Hotel Porter Bellhop
First-year student Freshman
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)!