It’s been over two years since I moved to the US and I wanted to share some of my latest comparisons between English and American ways (language, culture, architecture etc). It seems like every week, I notice new ones that amuse and confound.
When I think of the language differences between your ordinary Englishman and your American, I often hear Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Roger’s song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in my head.
“You say eether and I say eyether,
You say neether and I say nyther;
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,
Let’s call the whole thing off!”
Aside from different pronunciations, spelling, and vocabulary for things like “boot” vs the “trunk “of a car, I’ve noticed that Americans use the brand names of products to refer to items a lot more. Instead of asking for a “cotton bud,” these are known as “q-tips,” one of the most prominent cotton bud brands here. Here are a few others:
- Plasters = Band-Aid ®
- Slow Cooker = Crock Pot
- Jelly = Jell-O ™
- Tissue = Kleenex ®
- Lip balm = Chapstick ®
- Tip-Ex = White Out ®
- The Train = The Metro
- Ice Lolly = Popsicle ®
- Ice Pole = Otter Pop ®
- Sellotape = Scotch tape ®
- Paracetamol = Tylenol ®
- Coffee cake – If you order “coffee cake,” don’t expect a coffee tasting cake. Coffee cake is a cinnamon flavoured cake with an icing and crumb topping, which is eaten with coffee. The first time I tried coffee cake, I found the coffee flavour to be VERY subtle. Non-existent in fact
- Plastic cups in restaurants – The majority of restaurants serve water in plastic cups. This may seem silly, but, plastic cups remind me of being relegated to the kid’s table at dinner. I’m seven years old, with my brother to my right, sitting in a corner with unbreakable plastic cups and Lion King crockery.
- Pedestrian crossing lights – When you cross a road here, the pedestrian crossing flashes a white man when you can cross and a red hand when you have to wait. I’m so used to the English version with the red and green man, that despite the colour difference, if I’m standing with someone I know, I still say “it’s a green man” to prompt them to cross. While you’re waiting to cross, a loud voice repeats the word “WAIT!” until you’ve crossed. I’m assuming the voice was installed to help someone with partial sight, similar to how the crossings in England beep when it’s time to cross but it always irks me listening to the robotic voice telling me to “WAIT!” This is what it sounds like: Irritating WAIT voice at a pedestrian crossing.
- Patriotism – A part of me loves how patriotic some Americans are. The feeling when everyone stands up during the American anthem is contagious. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming for my English sensibilities. I went to a Dodger baseball game my first 4th of July here and I overheard a woman say emphatically “GOOD GAME, GOOD FIREWORKS, GOOD AMERICANS!”
- Contactless Payment – It still surprises me that only a small number of businesses here accept apple pay and no one has contactless bank cards! Americans also don’t use “chip n pin” at the till and instead make their marks on receipts with a ballpoint pen.
- Guns – I’ve been to two different firing ranges and was shocked by the relaxed security. I’ve been subjected to more vigorous screening entering a museum! The first place I visited kept our ID behind a counter until we left. We took my brother and sister-in-law to a different place Downtown and they didn’t even ask us for ID. Maybe we look like very respectable citizens…? Both places did have strict security protocols in the actual shooting range area, but it felt too easy to get in. As an aside, for a gal from a country without handguns, I’m also a remarkably good shot.
- Nature – One of my favourite things about LA is all the hummingbirds, which we don’t have in England. I’ve been trying to tame several in our neighbourhood for a while. The different flora and fauna, in general, make me very happy. I’ve traded my conker trees for palm trees and my sheep for raccoons. I wouldn’t say these are better and I miss conkers falling in the Autumn, but for now, skunks, coyotes, and mountain lions (oh my) are still a bit of novelty for me.
- I’m still sometimes surprised how much space we have over here. The beaches are huge and the pavements (sidewalk) and roads are much wider. When I’m back in England, squeezing in-between cars outside Victorian houses and along windy country roads make me feel rather agitated.
- Spanish Architecture – In England, Victorian, Georgian, and Edwardian styles are prolific. Over here, there’s a tonne of Spanish inspired buildings.
- Plug sockets – Electrical outlets over here don’t have on and off switches, they’re always “on” and if the socket isn’t working, you can press a reset button. I used to drive my husband crazy in London because I liked to turn the sockets off when they weren’t being used. He would assume his phone was happily charging away only to realise the socket wasn’t on!
- Supermarkets – When shopping at the Grocery Store, there’s usually someone who packs your groceries at the till. This always makes me feel uncomfortable and I think I offend people when I try to help.
- Crisps – LAYS are the same as WALKERS but the colours corresponding to specific flavours are mixed up. As a serious crisp fan, this is a big deal! Salt and Vinegar are in blue packets not green and my beloved Cheese and Onion flavour doesn’t exist out here. Some claim that the equivalent is the LAYS Sour Cream and Onion, but that’s a rotten lie.
- Kettles – So far, I haven’t met an American who owns a kettle at home. If you need to warm up water to make a cup of tea, you use the microwave.
Despite all the differences living an American life vs an English one, some things are starting to feel normal. I’m now used to the Spanish architecture despite originally thinking it ugly. In fact, I like it and I’m in the process of trying to visit every single California Mission. Even the pronunciation of the letter “Z” as “Zeeee” rather than “Zed” sounds normal to my ears after saying it 100 times during my Winter Statistics class. It’s starting to feel normal to hear people talking about their “shrinks” and I now pause before writing the word colour or neighbour and think about which spelling I want to use.
That said, I don’t think I’ll ever lose my accent, my love of marmite or my aversion to proper nouns to refer to plasters and ice lollies. I’ll still say “bin” instead of trash and I’ll order “chips” when I mean “fries.” It’s not consciously an act of defiance, but I need to retain a bit of where I came from.
Special thanks to Mandy Pacheco for taking these pictures of me!