I just read Emma Donoghue’s excellent novel Room–the film version of which is up for a slew of Academy Awards Sunday night. The book’s about a five-year-old named Jack, whose entire life has taken place in an 11-by-11 foot room, where he is confined with his mother. (That situation becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book, so this is not a spoiler.)
Before starting the book and even as I was reading the early pages, I had the feeling that it took place in a completely unspecified location — or, if anywhere, somewhere in Britain, where I had the sense Donoghue lives. It turned out I was wrong on that last point — she is a native of Ireland now based in Canada. And as I read on in Room, I found I was wrong on the first point, too: We eventually learn that Jack and Ma and Room are in the United States.
I was gobsmacked to learn it, because Jack and Ma both talk like they’ve spent their whole lives hard by the North Sea. I’m reasonably certain that wasn’t intentional on Donoghue’s part. She and/or her editors have scrubbed away most of the obvious Britishisms. Jack says elevator instead of lift, trash instead of rubbish, sweater instead of jumper. Spelling-wise, it’s favorite instead of favourite and program instead of programme
But when it comes to the subtle things that separate the two varieties of English, Jack and Ma almost always come down on the British side. Consider:
- At one point, Jack says, “Now I’m 5, I have to choose.” An American kid (or adult) would say “Now that I’m 5.”
- He writes, “Ma’s washing up real slow.” American English: “washing the dishes” or “doing the dishes.” (Numbers 2 and 1 are so uncommon in the U.S. that they’ve never been written about in this blog.)
- Ma tells Jack, “And I also had — I have — a big brother called Paul.” An American would say “named Paul.”
- Jack says poo instead of poop. Enough said on that subject.
- He uses the very British proper, as in “if I put on my proper shoes” and “I’m not doing proper pictures, just splotches and stripes and spirals.”
- Probably the most common Britishism is bits, used to mean “pieces” or “parts.” The word appears 62 times in Room (having a book on Kindle is great for this kind of investigation), and most are pure British, including: “She doesn’t have many soft bits but they’re super soft”; “she’s putting the hem back up on her brown dress with pink bits”; and “For dessert we have a tub of mandarins between us, I get the big bits because she prefers the little ones.”
An important moment in the book, referred to frequently later on, happens when Ma points to Jack’s reflection in Mirror and says,
“The dead spit of me.”
“Why I’m your dead spit?”…
“It just means you look like me. I guess because you’re made of me, like my spit is.”
When I encountered it, I thought “dead spit” was a bit of poetic invention. But I looked it up and it turns out it’s a common British expression for what Americans call “spit and image” or “spitting image.”
I don’t blame Donoghue for all of this. Only someone as neurotically obsessed with the differences between American and British English as I am would be expected to be aware of the trans-Atlantic register of every word or phrase. But the personnel who see a manuscript to publication are expected to attend to such matters. And Donoghue’s editors let her down.
[Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.]