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How to Speak American English

Retired counselor, 341 short stories published by FSU. I have 4 sons, love sharing photography, writing, love travel, sunshine, sea & Grace.

When I first came out to America, from England, I had no idea I would not be understood. It was a puzzle. Here I was, speaking perfect English, but very few people understood me. I learned that many of our words are spelled differently and are sounded out differently, but more importantly, have different meanings and can cause some misunderstandings.

For example, when I went to the local Post Office on my first day, I asked someone where the queue began. They told me they didn’t understand me; so I asked another person and then another. With two hands lifted in a helpless gesture I would get “Me no speaky your language” or “Sorry, I only speak English.” I began to think I’d had a sudden stroke and was babbling out gobbledygook; it was very disconcerting. Eventually I reached an “English speaking person” a fellow alien from good old Blighty (England). This chap (guy) explained to me that a queue is a “line” here in America. Relief flooded over me; (I hadn’t gone mad or lost the gift of speech).

The second week we after we arrived, my four year old son attended a pre -school nursery. The first day he got home, he declared that he “wanted to go party.” I was very pleased he had made friends so quickly. I asked him who the party was for. He answered “No! Wanna go party!” (Bearing in mind, this was a child I understood just the day before). It remained a mystery until one day I invited a couple of the children from his pre-school around to play. I heard “wanna go party” several times. It didn’t take long for me to realize this sentence was somehow linked to children needing to go to the loo (restroom). (In England a "potty" is a small plastic receptacle used for toilet-training toddlers).

For the longest time, I wondered what "aloominun" was; we pronounce it “a-la-min-i-um” sounding out each section of the word. Speaking of pronunciations, we pronounce garage “garidge” and tomato “tomartoe” and potato “potaytoe.”

Also, diapers are called ‘nappies.’ We eat porridge for breakfast (oatmeal). Our cars have boots (trunks), we drive on the left-hand side of the road and beer is not a cocktail. We call the yard a garden, the trash can is the rubbish bin and the sidewalk is the pavement. Panties are called knickers and a "fag" is a cigarette. Being "knocked up in the morning" means someone will wake you early, and the word "pretty" is used to describe little girls or perhaps a dress (but definitely not the weather or the day).

A "swimming costume" is a bathing suite and an elevator is called a lift. Candy are "sweets" and chocolate is in a category of its own. We "hoover" (vacuum) the carpet, breastfeed (nurse) our babies, and only ladies have fannies...lets just say, its not your bottom (butt)...

My confusion with this strange new language continued when I was led to several “restrooms” when I asked where the "loo" was ~ (I didn’t need to lie down and thought what a very civilized, but strange country this is, where just about everywhere, there is a room provided for you to rest)!

Spelling was the next problem I had. When typing a letter, I used the spell check on my computer and was amazed when virtually every other word was underlined in red! The British spell many words differently; for example we put a “u” into several words, such as thoroughly, colour, flavour, honour, armour, neighbour.

There are so many differences It was like learning a new language. I hope I haven’t confused you too much, but hopefully you’ll have a better handle on British English if you ever ‘cross the pond’ and find yourself in the UK.

I have left my most embarrassing and memorable faux pas until last. In the UK erasers are called rubbers (because they rub out). My elder son was starting second grade at school. I had taken a trip to TOYSRUS and had all the necessary items except erasers. There was a line at the checkout so I loudly, but politely addressed the counter assistant, "Excuse me, I can't find the rubbers, do you sell them in singles or in a packet?" ...

Helen Lewis 2009

© 2009 Helen Lewis