Lost in translation

With less than 70 days to go until I return to the USA for the summer, I’m thinking more and more about how the experience was last year, how I hope it’ll be this year and what undoubtedly won’t change.  What surprises a lot of people is how relatively-few adult Americans I interacted with for most of the summer.  Camps largely recruit staff who aren’t American (there were a large number of Mexicans at camp, but only one Canadian that I know of – make of that what you will!), so the result is that many camps resemble an international village in terms of the adult cohort.  All of the main owners and directors at my camp are American, but even from heads of department downwards, there are more international staff than from within the US.

We teach each other and the kids a lot about our cultures – the two largest groups represented are Brits and Australians, but we had significant numbers from New Zealand and Poland, with smaller numbers from other countries such as South Africa and Slovakia.  Prior to arriving at camp, I assumed that most of the questions I’d get from kids (and maybe adults) would be about a certain boyband, the world’s most famous wife and our capital city.  I actually didn’t get many questions about life in the UK, but my vernacular did generate a few queries.

I’d known for a long time that Brits and Americans have different words from the same items – two countries separated by language – and was aware this would cause confusion.  But I hadn’t factored in how much slang (both child-friendly and adult-only) differed, as well as other turns of phrase.  It’s only since I looked up a recipe when I got home to try and re-create a dish that I’d had on holiday that I had to discover what Americans mean by “green onions”, for example (FYI – many websites will tell you that we call these “scallions”.  The internet lies, which is shocking, I know.  I’ve only heard them referred to as scallions in Ireland, every single person I know calls those “spring onions”).

About halfway through the summer, one of the other girls in my department recounted how she’d walked past someone she knew on her way to the barn, smiled and called out, “You alright?” as we Brits do.  The other person had looked at her in horror, assuming that they had some outwardly-obvious but unknown problem.  The Brit hurriedly reassured them that this, for us, is merely a form of saying, “Hi, how are you?” in a passing greeting.  We all genuinely had no idea that this statement was so confusing for other people!

Despite having a very close Kiwi friend, I will never, ever refer to a flip flop as a “jandal” (thank goodness she’s technically British and speaks fluent Brit) and I am loathe to even type football in the American fashion (using the word which begins with S – because I’m definitely in the camp who would refer to what you call football as rugby in armour), but I have learned that in restaurants I need to scour menus carefully for any mention of cilantro (I can’t bear the stuff – it tastes like soap).  I’ve also been coached in how to pronounce Australia like an Australian (leave off the first two letters and don’t pronounce the L – it’s, “straya”), although I always ducked out of pronouncing New Orleans like Americans do – it definitely wouldn’t sound right with a British twang!  Some of the toughest times are struggling to come up with an appropriate equivalent – the situation which comes to mind is “chav”, and the closest my friends and I have usually settled on is “redneck”, but we’re not entirely sure we’ve hit the spot!  Next time, we might have to resort to YouTube clips to accurately convey our point.

Although “you alright?” didn’t catch on among the international community, I did manage to pass on one of my favourite (child-appropriate) gems: numpty.  When my Aussie friend heard me use it for the first time, she fell about in fascinated laughter, before requesting a definition and proceeding to master use of it very quickly.  I smile whenever I hear her shout it at someone (because, as an Aussie, she only has one volume and that is “loud”), and can’t wait to hear it all summer.  I’m not sure I’ll top that particular gift, but I’ll spend the season trying.

Have you ever used words you wouldn’t ordinarily consider to be unusual but been met with confusion from others?  What were they and is there an equivalent?  What word or phrase should I try to introduce (current ideas are “eejit” and “workyticket”, with the latter not being common use even in the UK, I’d relish the challenge)?

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7 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. I had the same thing with use of “alright” in Canada. Quite a lot of the people I encountered had British roots and/or other British experiences (and one was overjoyed when I said “Alright” instead of “Hi” to her) but many others were confused… Admittedly, a certain American I know had already drawn my attention to this one as she is convinced British people are able to hold entire conversations using only the word “alright”.
    One that caught me out in Canada was a Canadian friend explaining that she had been rushing to catch a ferry out to Vancouver Island: She told me how she parked her car and had then been “booking it” down to the ticket office. It took me a minute or two to figure out that she meant legging it!
    I also struggled with explaining what I meant by chav… There were a lot of things the Canadians liked hearing me say, but most of them were not child-friendly!
    (Final note – an American construction that really, really annoys me, and crops up a lot in written language: The habit Americans have of “writing their friend”, meaning writing TO their friend.)

    • I’m just honestly not sure that there’s an exact equivalent of chavs anywhere but in the UK. They’re pretty unique in their purest form.

      And argh, did you have to bring up that last bit?! I find a lot of American English very lazy, such as the way they will say “I’m trying to orient myself”. NO. That isn’t what you mean!

      • Just sharing the love! I just want to laugh whenever anyone uses “trying to orient” themselves. I get tempted to really confuse them by letting them know I’m attempting to occident myself.

        Also, in response to the comments below: Milk – lots of confusion for me in Canada. And have you noticed that 1% has been making an appearance over here now? If it’s showing up on the shelves in Sheffield, I feel like it must be making some headway in becoming established here.

  2. I feel like a numpty? or I feel numpty because I had to Google it.

    True story: I planted “spring onion” seeds and only one sprouted and grew into adulthood (harvested it last week). Cilantro is not that bad. It’s in just about every Mexican dish. I can’t stand fennel. And actually I think coconut tastes like soap/sunscreen.

    This was a fun post to read and reminded me again why I follow your blog (and am a #horsehour fan). I love language.

    When I first moved to LA (from Chicago), the Starbucks people looked at me blankly when I asked for skim milk in my latte (non-fat in LA). Also, I remember visiting a client in Beverly Hills (before I was a teacher) and I was trying to say “to throw away” and I said, “you can pitch it,” meaning, of course, that you could toss it in the trash. The 90210 girls looked at me like I was a hillbilly. I literally had to break it down for them what I meant: “throw that in the garbage.”

    • Like a! Don’t feel bad about that one, it’s apparently very UK-specific (the friend who asked for a definition and fell in love with it is Australian).

      Coriander is in EVERYTHING over here. It’s abundant in salads (and not just as a garnish, it’s MIXED IN. Absolute nightmare). And Indian food is incredibly popular in the UK, and it’s in all sorts of curries and even Caribbean food. According to an article I read in a scientific journal, there’s only a small percentage of the population who find the taste of it offensive, and my non-blog twitter feed contains the beginnings of a Coriander Haters Support Group, which makes me very happy. Coconut tasting like sunscreen probably isn’t uncommon, because a lot of sunscreens are coconut-scented.

      Ahh American milk will never cease to confuse me! I knew that a lot of the US will refer to milk as “non-fat” so that’s how I order my drinks over there, but you have far more types of milk than we do. We have whole (full fat), semi-skimmed (approximate equivalent to 2% in the US) and skimmed (non-fat, which we abbreviate to skinny for the purposes of coffee houses).

      And in the UK we have enormous regional arguments: there’s always constant debate as to what a bread roll is called (various parts of the country use the following terms: barm, bap, cob, roll… I think there are more). The biggest (and the one which determines who your lifelong friends are during the first week at university) is what mealtimes are referred to as: if you’re from the south, you’ll call them breakfast, lunch and dinner (with really posh people also frequently using the terms brunch, tea and supper) but northerners will call their meals breakfast, dinner and tea. All out friend wars have started over that one!

      • The way I see it, northerners are losing out on meal opportunities. Afternoon tea is the absolute best, especially if it’s a champagne one.

        Yes, it is.

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