Sunday, January 6, 2013

Foundering in a Sea of Idioms

Having been in the UK for over a decade, I felt confident I was fully bi-lingual. At a recent gathering, however, I used the term “nickel and dime” (as in, “these fees are going to nickel and dime me to death”) and was met with blank stares.

It was also brought to my attention—via Expatmum—that Brits are unaware of what it means to “get the drop” on someone.

Don't get your knickers in a knot
If I had been made aware of these potholes in my linguistic education, say, a year ago, I might not have made the decision to have a British protagonist in my novel-in-progress, or at least I might have considered having a few Brits scan it for cultural accuracy prior to publication. Despite it being edited by the publisher, and proof-read by a handful of (unfortunately) American readers, Finding Rachel Davenport  has a regrettable number of “Americanisms” in it.

I have to hold my hand up to using the word “pants” several times when I should have known better, but who knew that Brits don’t donate old clothes to the Goodwill?

Also, despite knowing enough to call a” parking lot” a “car park,” I continually, thereafter, made reference to the “lot” (as in, “I arrived at the car park and, when I looked across the lot, I saw…”).

Mutton dressed as lamb
But the best one concerned bobby pins. Somehow, at some point over the past ten years, it came to my attention that bobby pins are not called bobby pins over here, they care called “curly grips.” Or, at least that was what I thought my wife said, and I had no reason to question it as it made perfect sense: they are curly and they grip. Unfortunately, what she had actually said was “kirby grips.”  My heroine, as you have guessed by now, uses “curly grips.”

Perhaps this is why the book is selling much better in the US than in the UK, despite it being a UK-based book: the Americans read right over those things, whereas they must leave the Brits feeling out to sea.

My reaction was to chalk it up as a lesson learned and plan for a more rigorous—and culturally appropriate—proof reading next time, but then the publisher offered to update the text of the novel. Second chances don’t come that often, so I am grabbing this one with both hands. However, I may need some help.

Me re-reading the book for the umpteenth time is not going to catch any Americanism because, in case you haven’t guessed by now, I am an American. And my wife, being too well-acquainted with my American dialect, would not be the best candidate for this exercise, so I am looking for an unrelated Brit (or three) to read my book and report back to me any words or phrases that—culturally speaking—should not be floating around in my main character's head.

(Not really an idiom, but it makes me giggle)
So, if you are British, and living in Britain, and would like to help make my book better, please e-mail me. I can’t promise any compensation (in fact, I can promise no compensation) but you would have my undying gratitude, the knowledge that you contributed to the betterment of a work of literature, and the satisfaction of knowing it is because of you that my protagonist is wearing knickers instead of panties.

There is a time limit, so if you want to help, please let me know soon.

(NOTE: I now have a sufficient quantity (and demographic) of cultural proof-readers necessary to get the manuscript in shape. Thanks to all who offered!)


And even if you can't help, thanks for reading, and don't take any wooden nickels.


  1. Are you talking about reading "Finding Rachel" Mike - if so I still have the copy I legitimately bought and would be glad to read it with a more searching British eye, or are we looking at a new book? Again I make the offer if you want me to do this for you - no need to get your panties in a bunch, er....... :-)

    1. I hope you don't regret this...the manuscript is on its way ;)

  2. And just to add more confusion to the above, in the North we don't say "Knickers in a Knot" we say "Knickers n a twist" Though of course they have the same meaning.

  3. You know I would offer but I have my own deadlines.
    And just to make matters even more complicated - the bobby pin/ Kirby grip thing is regional. Up in the north east we just called them "clips".

    1. The story takes place in the south, but the heroine is from up north, so...maybe I'll just call them kirby grips and hope for the best.

      When I found out they were called "kirby grips" and again asked my wife about them, her reply still sounded like "curly grips" to me. Good thing that reviewer pointed it out to me, although I could have done without the 1-star rating titled "Awful!"

  4. Anonymous4:38 AM

    Mike, make sure you don't fall into the " I could care less" trap. You can just imagine your British readers tut-tutting.

    1. True, and I wouldn't want David Mitchell on my case, either!

  5. I now have a sufficient quantity (and demographic) of cultural proof-readers necessary to get the manuscript in shape. Thanks to all who offered!

  6. Anonymous2:53 AM

    In the Harry Potter fandom, getting a "beta reader" to take out all the americanisms is called "Brit-picking". Now, there is a word that should spread to general parlance!

  7. I wish I had seen this earlier, I used to proof-read my father's books.

    I bought your book for my 18 year old son, and he certainly didn't complain. He enjoyed the book, but I suppose he is of a generation that is gradually losing the ability to tell what is an americanism and what is not. Yes, Kirby grips. Or hair grips for the little brown ones and Kirby grips for the larger flatter silver ones.