The gradual Americanization of my personal British language

February 10, 2011

The stunning Arizona landscape at twilight

On my first trip to the US, I stored some luggage at Newark airport. The security guard asked my name for the label, and as I started my surname, “Zed… Ay… Em…”, he interrupted: “Wah?”. I tried again, ‘Zed, Ay…”. “Huh?”. I mumble at the best of times, but I was fairly sure I enunciated clearly on the second repetition. Eventually, as I resorted to “You know, the last letter of the alphabet”, I finally got “Ah! Zee! ZEE!”, with much bewilderment as to why I’d been calling it something completely foreign.

I couldn’t comprehend how an American didn’t understand what “Zed” was, yet I’d guess that most Britons would know what letter “Zee” was. Over the last 10 years, though, I’ve slowly realized that the American language has become the de-facto English standard of the world, and how – as I’ve traveled outside of the UK for the past year – I’ve slowly become an American speaker.

We started our year of travel in Arizona, which I was a little hesitant about, due to the political unrest that was stirring at the time regarding illegal immigration. As it turns out, I quickly fell in love with the place: the Arizona desert at dawn and dusk has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we met more liberal, open-minded residents than the media would have you believe exist in a Republican state.

We stayed a few miles down the road from Cave Creek, a small cowboy town whose most famous resident writes exceedingly poor popular books about vampires and werewolves. It’s easy to dismiss the “cowboy” part of the description of many places (“just because they have a bar with ‘saloon’ in the name, doesn’t mean it’s a cowboy town!”), but I think it’s fair to use it for Cave Creek. The first bar we visited had a large, working rodeo area at the back, and locals came to the bar on horseback; arrive on any given night and you’ll see a row of horses tied up-front, or being drunk-rode home.

Three of us walked in, maneuvering between the older, weathered, bulky locals dressed in denim and leather chaps. I was driving, so decided to order lemonade.

Now… In the UK, if you order lemonade at a bar, you’ll get a Sprite, 7-Up or some soft-drink derivative. It’s not the most masculine option, but it’s not embarrassing. In the US, as I quickly discovered, this isn’t always the case. I was presented with a large – and I mean LARGE – glass full of still, pink liquid. PINK. P.I.N.K. In a bar full of cowboys.

At that moment, I decided I should probably start to consider cultural differences more carefully before making any decisions.

A few months later, when we arrived in Vancouver (Canada), I quietly chuckled at the numerous Mr. Lube signs. Sure, lube is also slang in North America for sexual lubricants, but in the UK there’s NO WAY a company would call itself Mr. Lube; it would be the equivalent of a supermarket chain being called Mr. Dildo. The same holds for fanny; the British have such a crude, rudimentary (and hilarious!) sense of humor that if a word can have a sexual connotation, then that’s it’s primary meaning.

There are exceptions, of course: the famous example of British people “bumming a fag” (being given a cigarette for free) is actually fairly commonplace, and said without any hint of double-entendre.

Talking of literal terms, I previously used to ask for directions to the “toilet”: in a British restaurant, I’d ask “where is the toilet, please?”. Traveling, however, has taught me to be slightly more obtuse; I now ask where the “washroom” is. Sure, it’s the actual toilet that I’m usually interested in, but the word “toilet” seems to have an uncouth or downright rude meaning in the US and elsewhere.

This holds true in Mexico, Laos, and most other non-European countries where American English is the “proper” school-taught English. Our two months in Japan did as much to influence the Americanization of my language as our two months in the US, as I became accustomed to talking about “sidewalks” and “movie theaters”, not pavements and cinemas. And, maybe because I spend nearly every waking hour with Amy, I now also say the North Americanized “ten after three” rather than “ten past three”.

The proliferation of American culture extends to currency too; having spent months in Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries where prices are often double-quoted in local and US currencies, I’m now accustomed to using US dollars as my base currency by which I compare prices. The Great British Pound Sterling is a distant memory.

Vietnam, in particular, has a fixation with US dollars. As we walked around Hanoi and Hoi An we witnessed dozens of people crouched on the side of the street, burning fake bank notes. We were told that these notes would be transferred to their dead relatives who could use the money to buy houses and other mundane possessions in the afterlife. Of course, most of these bank notes were US dollars – not Vietnamese Dong – because US dollars are accepted everywhere, including the afterlife!

We’ve also been working as we travel, which has influenced my language. In particular, I’ve become accustomed to Americanizing most of my online writing – not just for our clients, the majority of which are based in North America – but also for Search Engine Optimization purposes (notice how I spelled that with a Zee?). Google and other search engines have got better at de-localizing search queries and online content, but I’m always mindful about using the spelling and language that makes sense to the largest group of online users, i.e. Americanized

Even with these conscious changes to my vocabulary, I still cling to some remnants of my native language. I downright refuse to say “gotten”, which I think is an absolutely ugly, old-fashioned word. I also have a fondness for “autumn”, “full stop”, “whilst”, “petrol”, and many other British terms that I refuse to let go of, at least for the moment. But some things just sound better the American way.

Have a nice day.

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3 Responses to “ The gradual Americanization of my personal British language ”

  1. Carey on February 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Whilst!?! I bet Amy loves that. Try to sneak in an amongst too.

  2. John on May 7, 2011 at 10:40 am

    “….and how – as I’ve traveled outside of the UK for the past year – I’ve slowly become an American speaker.”

    Not only speaker, but also writer – the English version is ‘travelled’ !

  3. Seb Chan on February 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I’m still not convinced about the change – I’m going through it right now too. I like to baffle my colleagues by suggesting we ‘meet fortnightly”. And, being from Australia, we have a very different meaning for ‘thongs’ too.

    And of course, British humour is far more entertaining, crude as it may be. But that’s what VPNs are for. Oh and the cricket.

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