Getting sorted

by carl on March 8, 2011

There was a buzz recently on the email discussion group of the Editors Association of Canada when one member asked the group what “I’ll get you sorted” meant.

Soon someone posted the answer: it was British English for “I’ll straighten you out.” Another editor had identified it from an episode he’d seen of the UK soap opera Coronation Street.

Easy for us to say. A Canadian, hearing the line from the children’s song, “Don’t tip your muck in my dustbin,” might figure it out that it meant “Don’t dump your trash in my garbage can.” An American would likely hit the button for Google Translate, only to find it couldn’t translate from the Queen’s English.

The differences between British and American English have sometimes led to anger and almost violence. Winston Churchill, in his trilogy, The Second World War, reported an encounter between American General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff and the staff of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The Americans wanted to table an issue, and the British refused. They were so angry at the response from the other that they almost came to blows. It turns out that “to table an issue” meant “put it on table for discussion” in the United States but it meant “take it off the table” in the United Kingdom.

The everyday phrases aren’t so bad: “holidays” vs. “vacations” for your two to four weeks of paid leave from your employer, “standing in a queue” rather than “waiting in line,” “junction” rather than “intersection” for the point where two roads cross. And a building is “in Oxford Street” while a theatre is “on Broadway.”

I was washing and rinsing the pots, pans and dishes in a youth hostel in Dover, England, years ago when a French woman, seeking to improve her English, asked me what I was doing. “It depends,” I replied. “Here in England, I’m doing the washing up. But in the States or in Canada, I’d be washing the dishes.” English dishwashing detergent even says “Washing-Up Liquid” on the label.

Punctuation rules also change when you cross the Atlantic. Single quotation marks (‘like this’) are used in Britain, and the comma or period at the end of a quoted phrase is usually placed outside the closing quotation mark. In the United States, double quotation marks (“this kinda thing”) are used, and a comma or period is always put inside a closing quotation mark.

George Bernard Shaw said that America and Britain were “two countries divided by a common language.” That was true almost from the birth of the American republic. Noah Webster, published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, with 37,000 words in 1806. In 1828, he titled his second work An American Dictionary of the English Language and included almost twice as many words.

Webster and others like him had two goals: to improve American grammar and spelling, and to differentiate the language from that of their former colonial masters. Webster dropped the “u” from colour, harbour and neighbour, and changed the suffix “-ise” to “-ize.” Somewhere along the line, the last letter of the alphabet became “zee” rather than “zed.” When there was a choice, early American nationalist writers and lexicographers used a Latin-based word rather than an Anglo-Saxon one.

The effects of this choice echoed down through the ages. American hippies, passing through Toronto on their way to Expo 67 in Montreal, laughed their heads off at the signs in the subway that said “Way Out” rather than “Exit.”

Comparing the grammar of the two dialects gets a bit more complicated. The British use learnt, spoilt, smelt, leapt, and lit for the past tense and the past participle, while Americans usually use learned, spoiled, smelled, leaped and lighted. In Britain, collective nouns take either singular or plural verbs, with government always doing the latter, as in “The government were ready to act on the issue.”

Wikipedia, in explaining these differences, quoted these lyrics from Canadian singer Elvis Costello’s song “Oliver’s Army”: “Oliver’s Army are on their way / Oliver’s Army is here to stay.”

In the educational system, there are some real differences. In the United States, it’s “taking a test” rather than “sitting an exam.” Americans use “writing an exam” for the task the professor does, while the British call that “setting an exam.” Preparation for the exam is studying or cramming in the United States, but revising in the United Kingdom.

The dot at the end of this sentence is a period to someone in Washington but a full stop to a person in London. And then there’s the “Oxford comma,” that comma between the next-to-last and last items in a series. In the States, journalists don’t use it if they follow the Associated Press Style Guide, but scholars do if they follow the Chicago Manual of Style. Personally, I just enjoy the Vampire Weekend video, “Oxford Comma.”

And there are the embarrassing moments. All you Brits coming over to study in the United States: please don’t ask to borrow a rubber from a classmate. The word is “eraser”: “rubber” means condom. Then there’s the tale of the American who looked aghast when a woman he asked out on a date in London says “Knock me up at 8 o’clock, will you?” You’ll get a similar reaction from a British lass hearing an American say, “Watch your fanny!” (This is merely rude in America but utterly obscene in England.)

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