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)?