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Postcards from London: Word Games

Airdate: January 17, 2013

          British people have a different word for everything.  But I already knew this before moving here, and I was ready. 

            Being an Anglophile from a very early age, and having spent two years in the British territory of Hong Kong, I already knew that in England trucks are lorries, elevators are lifts, and cookies are biscuits.  I’d also listened to London radio for a whole year prior to moving, just to get a feel for the local scene, and so I expected to make a fairly seamless linguistic transition.

           At first, the differences seemed quaint, even endearing, like a fun little word game.  Even the sound of the new phrases amused me.  I mean, wouldn’t you rather be chuffed, gutted or knackered instead of simply elated, devastated or tired?  The British words also sounded more elegant somehow.  Who would settle for just “going to a movie” when you can “take in a film?”  And pavements and car parks feel much more glamorous than sidewalks or parking lots.  Even calling trash “rubbish” gives it a kind of dignity, and the gold-lettered bins in Regents Park are a fitting depository for such royal refuse.  (A bin is a garbage can, by the way.)

           But this new language was actually more complicated than simply substituting one word for another.  Sometimes, for instance, words were dropped altogether, such as being “in hospital” rather than “in the hospital,” and “catching cold” instead of catching a cold.  Or sometimes words were added.  It wasn’t as simple as going out for ice cream and coffee—one must have an ice cream and a coffee to make it right.

           Not long after settling into London life, I found my initial amusement slowly turning to a bitter resentment that everything had to be said in a different way here.  I was convinced that this was really just to annoy visitors from the U.S. and prove that we know nothing of speaking English properly.  I mean, what’s the big deal if I’d rather ride a bus instead of a coach or call someone instead of ringing them?  It took me a full five minutes in the soap and cleaner aisle to establish that the “washing up” liquid I held in my hand was, in fact, the dishwashing soap I was looking for.  Washing up WHAT?? I kept asking aloud.  No picture of a dish on the bottle, no instructions for use anywhere on the package.  Repeated sniffing of the contents finally convinced me that even if this were the wrong thing, it would at least work for my intended purpose.  And I’m sure it got me more than a few stares from passing shoppers.

           I’ve relaxed a bit since those early days, and now only have occasional relapses of “word rage.”  I mean, how much does it really matter in the end?  Standing in a long queue is no more annoying than a long line, and hoovering a rug isn’t really more tedious than vacuuming it.   And if taking a stab at the local lingo means getting a nod of recognition instead of an annoying squint of confusion, I guess I’m more than happy to play the word game.

           Just know that if you ask me to do the “washing up”, I’m still going to do the dishes.

           — Wendy Sherer

Photo credit: rubbish bin in Regents Park (Wendy Sherer)