Dear speakers of British English:

Judging from the comments on YouTube, and the occasional American/Canadian making a fool of themselves on your television shows, I have this feeling that nobody has told you that "to get off with [someone]" has a very different meaning in North America than it does in the Commonwealth. In AmE, the phrase "to get off" has explicitly sexual connotations, and indicates that whatever it was you were up to with the named person involved an orgasm. Hence the reflexive pronominal construction, "to get [oneself] off", i.e., wank. Saying that someone "gets off" on something is therefore a mildly rude phrase, which retains a metaphorical tint of taboo sexuality, something along the lines of "screw you". The AmE equivalent to the phrase you want is "to hook up with [someone]", which has much the same range of meaning, although with a progressively more explicit skew as the speaker and audience age out of their awkward-horny-teenage years and into their slutty-university-student phase. If you specifically mean the sort of snogging and groping without progressing into overt sexual activity that inexperienced teens tend to engage in, the phrase is "to make out with [someone]".

I'm not trying to correct you here -- it was your language first -- but I thought you might want to be aware that this gap in meaning, in combination with the fact that you do keep shipping over Russell Brand, generates for us an image of an entire island full of casual slut-puppies that you probably did not intend to convey.

(If this does happen to be what you mean, good job! Our country was first colonized by a combination of political suck-ups, venture capitalists, and religious zealots who had already been chucked out of every country in northern Europe, so we do our best to make fun illegal here, or at least prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, you exported a load of debtors, horse thieves, and other petty criminals to Australia, and look how they turned out. It's enough to make you wonder if the Golgafrinchans had the right idea.)

"Pants" is also not short for "underpants" here -- it's short for "pantaloons", and we use it to refer to trousers. If you are a dude and try to end an embarrassing anecdote by telling us that you were horrified to sober up and realize you were lying on a stranger's front lawn wearing only your pants, we're going to picture you in jeans and wonder what you think is so mortifying about that. The equivalent for a guy is to recount waking up in nothing but his "shorts". "Knickers" to us is an obsolete style of pants for male children which end about halfway down the calf (or more recently a style of ladies trousers inspired by these, also known as "clamdiggers" or "capris"). You get your definition of the word from a type of ladies' undergarment which is constructed along similar lines, which we call "bloomers" after the surname of an early suffragette who popularized them in the 1850s as a more practical thing to wear under skirts than the giant hooped crinolines in fashion at the time. Girls and women's underwear is referred to as "panties", although on the whole I think most Americans would have some idea what you were talking about, particularly as the phrase "don't get your knickers in a twist" exists here as an uncommon variant of "don't get your panties in a bunch".

Furthermore, I'd like to draw your attention to the phrase "I'll catch you up", particularly if you are writing dialogue for American characters. BrE uses it to mean "you go on ahead, and I will start off somewhat later, but at a faster pace, such that at some point along the route we will meet". In AmE, this would be "I'll catch up with you," using a prepositional phrase rather than a direct object pronoun. AmE also has the phrase "I'll catch you up," but it means something along the lines of, "you've arrived in the middle of something and I am now going to dump a giant wadge of context and exposition on you, so that you are at least no more lost than the rest of us are". It's conceptually the reverse of the BrE phrase -- "I'll catch you up" to an American means that "I" arrived first and "you" are showing up in media res, rather than saying that "you" are going ahead and "I" will be trailing behind you.

Also, we don't say "biro". We have no idea what a biro is. (Nor do we have any idea who Biro was, but you've probably already gathered that history is not really our strongest subject.) It's a pen. A ballpoint pen if you want to make sure you don't get a felt-tip marker, or god forbid a fountain pen.

"Fairy liquid" does not exist in the US, so we don't have the faintest clue what you're talking about, unless you are somehow squeezing the stuff out of little pixies. "Washing-up soap" is also perplexing, as "washing up" does not automatically mean "cleaning dishes" in AmE. The only thing we do with soap is wash things, and frankly we wonder what the hell you people are doing with it that makes you feel the need to specify. It's "dish soap" to us. (Which creates some interesting and sometimes hilarious problems. Although you can say "dishwashing detergent" if you want to narrow it down to the dry powdered stuff, akin to laundry detergent, "dish soap" as an umbrella term covers both kinds. More than one small helpful child, or clueless student living away from home for the first time, has tried using the wrong kind in the dishwasher. Proper dishwashing detergent does not froth up like fairy liquid does, and the watertight seal on most dishwashers will eventually fail if something -- like, for example, loads of boiling hot foam -- stops the water from draining straight out through the grate on the bottom. The result is Bubblegeddon.)

Mercifully, we can guess at "hoover", as the company is American and they're all over the place here, too. And I wouldn't worry about any of the spelling differences -- there are a lot of people over here who can't spell for shit in their own dialect, they'll never even notice if the word is different in yours.

Comments

  1. "Fairy liquid" always sounded pretty dirty to me, so thanks for clearing that one up. :)

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  2. Huh, some things now make more sense.

    I would like to point out however that 'panties' sounds slightly obscene to my English ears, and rather crass/cheesy, especially when compared to the word 'knickers'. I really hate reading porn where 'panties' is the go-to word so I swap it for knickers in my head.

    What do you call shorts, as in short trousers, in AmE if 'shorts' refers to boxers/underpants?

    Does it make more sense once you realise that 'washing up' is a noun in the UK? We'd never say 'I need to wash up my clothes', because 'I need to do my washing' is short for 'I need to do my clothes washing'. Thus 'washing up' refers solely to washing the dishes, whilst 'washing' refers primarily to doing laundry.

    And as to soap, we don't use it for anything except washing either. The thing is that since there are many different sorts of washing, each with its own kind of detergent, it makes sense to specify which type of soap you need. Even more so when the word soap conjures an image of a solid bar of soap used for the washing of hands. It follows then that washing up requires washing up liquid, unless you're using a dishwasher, in which case you need dishwasher powder. Washing clothes needs laundry detergent or washing powder and washing oneself requires bubble bath/shower gel/shampoo.

    Do many Americans really not notice when 'ou' is used instead of 'o' alone, in words like colour, or when '-ise' is used instead of '-ize'?

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    1. Short trousers are called "shorts" also. It's usually clear from context which you mean, although mix-ups sometimes happen, and are usually hilarious. You can also just use "boxers" if that happens to be the kind you're wearing. AmE also has the common general term "underwear", as in "underwear drawer", the drawer of your bureau where you keep all your assorted undergarments.

      "Washing-up" grammatically is a gerund noun phrase; "doing the washing-up" is how I usually hear it. While "to wash [something] up" would probably be understood as a verb in AmE, it's not a usual phrase here, and would be construed to mean something akin to "washing [something] down" -- to give it a good scrubbing from top to bottom. (As for clothes, AmE varies on whether the phrase is "to do the wash(ing)" or "to do (one's) laundry" by region.) It's just that speakers of AmE would parse the phrase "do the washing up" as missing either a direct or an indirect object -- we say "to do/wash the dishes", and the British phrasing sounds to us as if you've failed to specify what you'll be washing. Thus, "washing up soap" or "washing up liquid" doesn't automatically connect up with the idea of dirty plates and pans and so forth. Rather than defining the kind of cleaning you'll be doing with it (the "washing up (of the dinner dishes in the sink)"), it sounds like you're defining the activity you will be using it to engage in (it will be used for "washing up" things, as opposed to performing some other action) -- and if you feel the need to mention that you will be washing things with soap, that implies that there is something else you could be doing with it, which is just perplexing.

      Most Americans, I find, do not notice a hell of a lot of things. I sometimes wonder if they often find themselves walking into doors they've forgotten to open before they try to go through them. It's sometimes considered snooty to use "Theatre" or "Centre" in place names, rather than the AmE theater and center, but other than that, no, a lot of the time it just passes them by. The main problem is that you need to know how these things are spelled in AmE before you notice that someone has spelt them in BrE instead.

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  3. :D

    Thanks for explaining the grammar! It makes much more sense. My own knowledge of which bits of sentences are which is truly dreadful due to the complete failure of the English school system to teach grammar as a subject after the 1980's. I believe we had precisely one lesson in Year 6 (ages 10-11) on grammar explaining the very basics of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. I learned more about English grammar through studying German and French than in my English lessons. Sucks to be us.

    Huh, I'll have to remember that about "Centre". The thing with the word "center" is that here it's a different word to "centre", the former being the middle of a thing and the latter being a building of particular purpose. Although, I have noticed that more and more places are using the American spelling instead.

    Also, just to say I spent quite a few nights reading ALL your posts, and I loved it! Especially the posts about body language as it's something I'd not given any concious thought to, preferring instead to wander round in my own little oblivious cloud. It was fascinating to watch the videos and then really *see* the stuff you pointed out. And, gotta love a bit of RDJ. ;)

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    1. Oh, they don't teach grammar here, either. The first time I had the option to take a foreign language class was in high school (about age 14), and the instructor was having to explain basic things like subject and object and verb tenses in English before she could explain them in French. I just speak a lot of languages and have a truly obscene amount of talent for spotting patterns.

      Sometimes I forget that other people don't and baffle them by accident. When I was taking German in college, the prof used to give some token extra credit for writing out the little grid of case endings somewhere on the page, and rather than try to smash "nominative, accusative, dative, genitive" across the top and "masculine, feminine, neuter, plural" down the side, I used to mark mine up in Japanese instead -- male, female, neuter/none, and plural can be written in one kanji each [女・男・無・達] and the cases correspond reasonably well to the common particles [は・を・に・の]. I did it on a couple of quizzes, and Frau Doktor was most amused, once she got me to translate them back.

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  4. I'm British but live in the Americas so get a lot of exposure to American english (but even when living in the UK I got a lot of exposure to American english via the TV). In most cases I quite happily intrnally translate americanisms hardly noticing that I am doing so. However, the one exception is wash up. I still do a double-take whenever I visit friends who ask me if I'd like to wash up as soon as I arrive.
    Sometimes when I'm waiting in doctors' surgeries with nothing to do, I play a game that involves seeing how long a string of words I can find that have cross meanings - for example
    UK US
    Silencer Muffler
    Muffler Comforter
    Comforter Pacifier
    and so on

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    1. And you just tripped over another one -- doctors don't have "surgeries" here, they have "offices". ("A surgery" is the operation itself, and a doctor is "in surgery" when s/he is currently working in the operating room in the surgical department of the hospital.) Which I suspect actually highlights a crucial difference between attitudes in medical care in the UK and in the US...

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    2. And while I'm at it, "A&E" confuses the hell out of us, too. Americans think that A&E is a cable television channel, where it's short for Arts & Entertainment (neither of which are actually on that channel anymore, but that's a different matter) rather than accident & emergency. It's an "ER" or "emergency room" to most randoms in the US; medical personnel will also sometimes use "ED" for "emergency department", but this varies by region and hospital. "Casualty" for a place where serious emergencies go is not unknown here, but is used almost exclusively for military medical units, where the injured patients are still known as "casualties".

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    3. Not many English people I've met would say they need to go to Casualty in conversation. It's well known though because of the long-running BBC soap opera of that name: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualty_%28TV_series%29, which I'm guessing you've heard of?

      There are a whole host of differences in the two systems as far as I can make out.

      Is there an equivalent of the GP (General Practitioner) service in the States? Every bit of medical advice I've come across recommends going to your specific medical doctor such as your gynae/paediatrician/endocrinologist/etc. Do people try and work out what's wrong with themselves first then collar the appropriate doctor without going via a general channel?

      In the UK, the first port of call is the GP if you're just ill, or the walk-in clinic if you've had some sort of accident that hasn't resulted in you bleeding everywhere. Walk-in centres are also good if you're away from your home town because you don't need to be registered with a local GP, and they are also often next door to the sexual health clinic. Handy!

      A GP will diagnose you and either tell you not to worry, prescribe you something or refer you to the appropriate hospital department, where you should be seen within the month if you're not in imminent danger of death. You don't get to meet a specialist until further down the line of treatment options. And even if you do get to see a specialist, it's unlikely that you'll ever see them again, especially if it's a one-off issue.

      On the other hand, prescription charges in England are roughly £7 a pop regardless of what it is (except contraception which is free without question). It is also free to see your GP, who you can almost certainly see the day you need to without needing to book in advance, although you may need to be up and queueing at the surgery door by some ungodly hour like 8am.

      Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

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    4. They used to be GPs here -- now they're PCPs, primary care physicians. The idea of walking in and seeing them that day would have Americans in hysterics. It does not happen. There are walk-in and urgent-care clinics, which may or may not be covered by insurance, assuming you have any. If you have anything that can't wait a few days (because you're dying, because you might be dying and it's best to check, or because you are in pain and won't quit calling your PCP's answering service to complain), they tell you to go to the ER. How long you wait depends on what you're there for and where you go. In AZ, the only time I was ever in the ER for less than 4-6 hours on behalf of me or anyone else was the time I dragged in a roommate who was randomly passing out and seizing; she was seen immediately. There's a billboard for one of the local places in Brighton that gives an average door-to-doctor wait, and I've never seen it go higher than 45 minutes.

      The big collective practices that insurance companies like to send you to do generally handle OB/GYN, but a "sexual health clinic" really isn't on the table there. All the ones I've ever been to are run by Planned Parenthood, which specifically exists to provide various forms of both contraception and prenatal care. They're private (a charity, actually) and considered "out of network", i.e., you must specifically submit paperwork to the insurance company in order to get their services paid for, if in fact your insurance covers this. Cheap hormonal birth control pills run about $25/mo. What they will give you depends on where in the US you are.

      You generally cannot get other specialists covered without going to your PCP for a referral first, even if you know perfectly goddamn well what is wrong with you. When I was a teenager, in order to get at a dermatologist for acne treatment, I had to wait a month and a half for the first available appointment with my PCP, where he literally walked in and said, "You want something for acne? Here is the name of the nearest dermatologist," and it cost whatever our co-pay was for doctor appointments at the time, probably $25. If you had an axe sticking out of your face, they would probably make you wait for a day and a half in the ER waiting room, then subject you to nineteen different irrelevant but billable tests before they would even give you the name of an axe-removal-ologist, who would probably be clear across town and also on vacation, with no emergency cover.

      Dental work is not typically covered. You need to specifically also buy dental coverage if you want it to be. A Brit friend once complained at me that he had to shell out 150 quid for a root canal or similar. He quit moaning after I told him that an uninsured root canal here can easily cost more like $1000, particularly if you insist on being knocked out. Optometric stuff is also not typically covered, although that's easier to get on the cheap, what with the internet.

      Prescriptions vary widely. A lot of common stuff -- antibiotics, moderate painkillers, some antidepressants, some muscle relaxers and sedatives -- is available for $3-25, but that has nothing to do with the insurance companies and everything to do with the competitive capitalist goodwill of large pharmacy chains. If you need something expensive and cannot pay for it, you either have to petition the state to recognize that you are to poor to live so that they'll pay for it, or just, er, die.

      I happen to live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now, where they take the commonwealth part seriously and will pay my medical bills for me first and sort it out later, but most other parts of the country are not so humanitarian. I had quite a complicated time getting some very basic maintenance prescriptions in college because I was still on my parents' insurance, and there were no pharmacies in town that took that particular plan.

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  5. Good lord, no wonder the ObamaCare bill* was such a break-through! I knew it was bad, but not how bad. :-O

    If you go to A&E/ER here, you'll be seen by a triage nurse within about half an hour if you're not at immediate risk when you first talk to the Receptionist. Once you've been triaged your wait legally has to be less than 4hrs, with only a small percentage allowed to be longer than that over a fixed period, else the Dept/Hospital gets its knuckles rapped by the goverment representative body.

    The sexual health clinics I've been to have been pretty awesome really. They do basic STI testing and contraceptive advice (all will offer condoms, pills and the implant. Others with minor surgery facilities will also be able fit IUDs and the Mirena). They can also offer basic abortion advice and refer you to a hospital or a Marie Stopes clinic for the obligatory counselling and the procedures. I've never had anyone be rude or judgemental towards me, and they don't assume you're straight.

    The more I hear, the more I am thankful for the free contraceptives. They start you off on the most basic and cheapest one and go from there. I tried three different combined pills then went on the new mini-pill, at which point I realised that synthetic oestrogen does not agree with me. After that, I got the Mirena, and it's kept me baby-free for three years so far, AND kicked my endo/cysts into touch. Hurrah!

    Commiserations about the acne/dermatologist referral. They charged you $25, just to tell you to go somewhere else?!! Sod that!

    And as for dental care costs, no wonder dental insurance is so important to Americans! The CA questions/posts about teeth take on a much greater significance. Unfortunately, I think it's true that many Brits do not have great teeth. There's still a significant lingering fear in my parents' generation about going to the dentist. Also, from what I gather, getting a root canal done is hell even with anaesthesia.

    Optometry here is covered for U18's, the over 60's, diabetics and certain (ex-)members of the armed forces. There's also means-testing for adults on low incomes. I had to pay for my own glasses for the first time this year. Sad times.

    *Speaking of ObamaCare, how much of a difference has it made so far?

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    1. Fuck if I know. I don't go to the doctor unless I think I might die, or at least if I think I might get to the point where I think death would be a great option if it didn't require me to get up and move. The last three ailments I bothered getting medical care for were 1) panic attack that had lasted for a day and a half and prevented me from eating/sleeping/doing anything else, 2) cracked molar (this is where I found out opioids don't work right on me -- whee!), and 3) ear/sinus infection so horrible I had to walk down to the student health clinic with one hand on a wall so I didn't fall over. The only well-person visits I do are "please renew my contact lens prescription" and "please give me more birth control pills", which are both acceptably cheap.

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