Saturday, January 8, 2011

Disparities - and Dangers - of Language

We Canadians use bathrooms, Americans prefer restrooms, and the British, loos. Their cars must be cuter, since they have bonnets and boots, while ours have more prosaic hoods and trunks. I once received a puzzled look from an American waiter when I requested cutlery and serviettes, so I explained, “silverware and napkins” - terms that we also use.

Our cultures have shaped our common language in interesting ways, but we can usually understand one another. Although we North Americans might be a tad confused by that bloke in trainers and a naff jumper, carrying a brolly, who just finished a nosh-up of bangers and jacket potatoes after receiving his wage packet, and then stopped at the off-licence before getting into his estate car and entering a dual carriageway, followed by a bobby in a panda car. Unless you watch lots of British TV shows.

The “dangers”, or perhaps more accurately, pitfalls of language occur when we use ordinary words that mean something completely different in another region. Imagine my surprise when I read that “cottaging” in Britain means anonymous sex between men in public washrooms! So my blog titles like “The Enchantment of Cottaging” and “The Joys and Challenges of Island Cottaging” must have raised a few eyebrows. Cottaging in our part of Canada refers to spending leisure time at a seasonal home by a lake.

Australians must get a chuckle out of Canadians who run around labelled with a popular brand of casual clothing - Roots - and wonder if we’re advertising uninhibited natures.  The Aussie slang “root” is a slightly politer form of the F-word. Ironically, Roots outfitted the Canadian team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I wonder if that encouraged any Australians to “root” for Canada.

Some years ago when my husband, daughter, and I were in England for a few months on business, I was shopping for a new fanny-pack. I went into a posh department store and had a surprising reaction from two very dignified, middle-aged sales ladies. They looked at each other in astonishment, turned beet-red, and began to giggle. “Dear, we don’t call them that here,” one explained to me between titters when I had described what I wanted. “We call them bum bags.” I thought that a rather rude term, and wondered what was so funny and embarrassing about my request.

My daughter wanted to experience an English private, or as they call them, public school, so I arranged for us to spend a day at one in a nearby town. Upon learning that I had once been a high school teacher, the Headmaster asked if I’d be willing to talk to one of the senior English classes. Well, the topic they wanted to discuss was differences between Canadian and British English. So I started with the usual “You say lorry, we say truck. We have flashlights, you have torches.” And then I began talking about my perplexing experience at the department store.

The class went absolutely silent. The shocked looks among the girls and boys, as well as the teacher, changed to awkward amusement, and then whispered excitement. After the class, I saw the master conferring with other staff, who all looked at me with horror and scuttled away. He said to me, “Well, my class will NEVER forget you!”

Still in the dark about some dreadful faux pas that I had now made twice, I asked one of my husband’s colleagues over dinner at his house. He and his wife both blushed furiously, and he went to fetch a dictionary for me. That was how I learned that “fanny” is a British slang term for female genitalia. Imagining myself standing in the classroom and using the equivalent word, c**t, I was dreadfully shocked, but also highly amused. After all, I had done this in all innocence. I wonder how British schools teach books like Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which have characters named Fanny.

I still dine out on this story, which elicits riotous laughter from Canadians. Ah, the vagaries and delights of the English language!


  1. Now this my idea of the use of language. When ever I read your work I come away having learned something. What informative fun!
    Thanks Gabriele,

  2. Thanks, Ruth! It's fun to write as well.

  3. Great story Gabriele! My husband's work colleague used the term b*gg*r-off at a family dinner table in England, and the host reprimanded him with "we don't use that kind of language at our house." Having heard and/or read this term in many British comedies, I know he didn't realize it was equivalent to saying "F-off!" He learned an embarrassing lesson that day.

    And, I suppose you know that your southern neighbors say bathroom when in the home and restroom when in public. ;) Fun post today! I learned a new naughty word.

  4. I knew that you Americans also used "bathroom", but didn't know of that distinction between private and public ones, Jeannette. Interesting! We also have restrooms and washrooms, and some rustic cottages still use outhouses, which would probably make Brits scratch their heads.

  5. Gabriele, I have had similar language disconnects when I taught in England in the public school system. I was the supply teacher but of course in England they are called "Relief Teachers". I was called "Miss" as were all the women teachers. I like to call children "students" when in the classroom and the Grade 2 children (although in the UK they are Level 2 children) looked strangley at me and explained that they were "pupils" in elementary school and "students" when they go to university. The list of disconnects goes on with several embarrasing moments including complimenting a woman on her "lovely vest" - only to find out that it was really called a "waist coat" and that a "vest" was an undergarment, that should not be possible to see. - Janet Williams, Canadian author,

  6. And the waist coat was probably pronounced "wescott" or something like that, wasn't it, Janet?



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