My American husband has been here in Australia for ten years now. He’s pretty much acclimatized to the lingo, the weather, and the food, and the culture shock when he arrived was sufficient that he’s clear on what is American (chili) and what is not (panel beaters).
I grew up in the UK, moved to Australia, spent 5 years in Arizona, and I’m currently writing mostly American characters living in America. Here’s the thing: I get confused! I think I have the spelling differences down, and I’ve sorted out which US punctuation quirks I will and will not accept. Where I run into trouble is with the language and cultural references.
My Aussie friends have a childhood frame of reference that’s unknown to me, other than the blond hunks of Chopper Squad (Baywatch in the bush with a higher male-to-female ratio and less flesh) – that show plus kangaroos and koalas were the sum total of my knowledge about Australia before we moved here. I returned to the UK for a couple of years in the 90s, only to discover I was out of step again because I’d missed the British 80s (when the term “pear-shaped” apparently evolved).
Five years in the States further muddled my distinctions between what is British, what’s Aussie, and what language, food, and pop culture references Americans do and don’t “get”. I’m writing American characters and I need to purge non-Americanisms… but I don’t always remember exactly where my own language patterns come from. Google and my husband are good sources, but if I don’t know what I’m saying is uniquely British, I don’t know when to ask what an American would say instead!
Without delving into the “cookie/biscuit” debate, here are a few words and phrases I’ve had to catch myself on because my natural British and Aussie inclinations aren’t suitable for American English:
Keen to/on – meaning eager: I’m keen to get started on this project or I’m keen on starting this project.
Gone midnight (or any time) – meaning after, when there’s a sense of being late: It was gone midnight when he got home or It’s gone 9 o’clock and she’s still asleep.
Pissed – To Americans, pissed means angry. To me, pissed off means angry and pissed means drunk.
Off [of] – I cringe whenever I make my characters say “off of”, and in fact for the most part I don’t. I just did a quick search of my books and found only a few instances, such as this one: “They’re domestic animals, bred to leech off of humans.” The phrase can usually be replaced with from: She took it off of him / She took it from him.
Come and see – When two verbs are mashed together (“come see”) the second is the infinitive form. That’s what I was taught in French class. In English we insert to, or more usually and: “Come and see what I bought.” Skipping that little word feels unnatural to me, so I’ve compromised in my writing – in dialogue it’s “come see” and “go jump”, but not outside of dialogue. Which I’m sure breaks some sort of “deep POV” rule?
Ring – I had no idea this one was “wrong” until recently, but American’s don’t ring you on the [mobile] phone, they call you on the [cell] phone.
Whinging – We noticed Australians using this a lot when we first immigrated here, and it means whining (as in complaining, not the sound of whining). A whinger (rhymes with ginger) is a person who complains a lot. My husband had no idea what this word was, so I assume it’s not in the American language.
Grotty – meaning both dirty and unwell: The shower is grotty. / I feel a bit grotty today.
Shop/shopping – Almost every American shop is a store. I go shopping, or do the shopping, or go to the shops. I don’t go to the store. I would use the word store when paired with a chain-store name, such as: “Where is the nearest Target store?”
I buy food from the supermarket, not groceries from the [grocery] store, and I bring home my shopping, not my groceries. Having said that, I just found this example in my email of the supermarket referring to its products as groceries, but people don’t generally use the word except for “green groceries” (for which “fruit & veg” is far more common):
We have shopping centres, not malls, although younger Aussies certainly say “mall” as well. A mall, to me, is an outside pedestrian walkway lined by shops.
Visit – Americans tend to visit with you, rather than visit you.
Car – I call a car, a car! In America they seem to substitute vehicle and automobile a lot.
Stuff to do – When I have a busy day ahead with lots of separate places to be, I have “stuff to do” or “things to do”. I don’t “run errands” or “do chores”. To me, running an errand means going out specifically to do something for someone else (such as pick up their dry cleaning). My own stuff to do is not an errand.
How does all of this measure up to your experiences, either in the English-speaking world or your English classes for those who learn it as a second language?
In a later post I’ll go into the food differences between the three countries, or specifically the American food items I’ve come across that either don’t exist here or are called something different (again, I will skip the big cookie debate… for the most part), and the British/Aussie food items I had to avoid using in my books because they’re not common over in the States.