Thursday, May 28, 2009

Losing It

Some time ago I had the occasion to read book by fellow expat Chris Rae. Granted, he's of the "Brit in the US" variety, but we expats have to stick together, and since he also wrote a book about his experiences, that puts us in the same club.

His book is a straight-up dictionary of terms that might catch you off guard if you are an American visiting Britain or vice versa. It's quite funny. I think you should buy it. But that's not why I'm writing about it.

Before I move on, allow me to say I don't look upon The Septic's Companion as competition to Postcards From Across the Pond or to Rules, Britannia, by Toni Hargis, my Pond Parleys Partner. (I think I've comes close to the "most plugs in a single sentence" record; someone contact the Guinness people.) In fact, I think they complement each other so much that they should be sold as a set: Chris' book for definitions, Toni's book for social etiquette and my book for what it's actually like on the ground.

While our respective publishers are mulling over the marketability of that idea, I'll move on and tell you that what really surprised me, while reading The Septic's Companion, were the number of US words I had forgotten.

Upon my arrival in this country, I promised myself that I would hang on to my American-ness, no matter how tedious it became to people around me. But over the years, overtly American words began dropping from my vocabulary, to be replaced by their British counterpart. These days, I speak fluent British, and I have to wonder how I'm going to get along in the States on my next visit when I'm spouting words like "full stop," "dodgy," "knackered" and "bollocks."

That final one will be especially confusing for the folks back home, because, when I say, "Bollocks!" that means I'm upset, but if something is the "Dog's Bollocks" it means it's very good, yet if it's the "Dog's Dinner" (or breakfast, even) it means it's very bad. Now you can see where Chris' book might come in handy.

As for myself, while I sometimes have to think about saying a British word, other times they come out unbidden (and I occasionally find myself saying "SHED-ule" – I hate that!). The most serious sign that I'm going native, however, are those rare occasions when I actually forget the US word. Like "Rocket," the US term for "Arugula." Or is that the other way around? I honestly can't say. (By the way, for the devote carnivores among you, those words refer to a fancy type of lettuce.)

One of the words I had completely forgotten was "Anchor," in referring to a news presenter. It seemed so natural when I lived there, but now it sounds as ridiculous to me as it does to my wife.

I hear the word "crèche" so often over here that it's hard to remember it was limited to Christmas tableaus in the States, and it's been so long since I've called a dustbin a "waste paper basket" that I found the word jarring when I ran across it in Chris' book.

I was also surprised by some of words I had not previously encountered: Do you know what they call a PA system over here? The tannoy. And if you take an exam, the guy standing at the front of the room handing out the scrap paper and making sure you don’t copy your answers off of the guy sitting next to you isn’t the Proctor, he’s the Invigilator, which sounds so much more sinister.

What I find most upsetting, however, has nothing to do with Chris’ book, or English—be it the UK or US flavour—but the alarming speed with which UK terms are finding their way to America.

Magan McArdle recently used the term “Full Stop” in an article she wrote for The Atlantic. What’s up with that? Her biography does not mention her having lived in England. In another article by another journalist, “CV” was used in place of “Resume.” Really, this has got to stop.

I never planned on moving to Britain, but now that I have, and have painstakingly learned the language through an often embarrassing process of trial and error, I am growing somewhat protective of it. So stop using our words unless you’re entitled to do so! Those journalists didn’t uproot themselves and move across the ocean—they probably never even popped over for a short visit—so they shouldn’t bandy them about as if they are dual-citizens. Having an ear for language, as writers do, they likely picked them up from an exotic friend, or a PBS Masterpiece Theatre special. Or Chris’ book.

Come to think of it, don’t bother buying it.