American Character(s), British Lingo, II

Not long ago, I described some examples of an American character in a novel by British author William Boyd who uses Britishisms. The same problem, writ larger, occurs in the new novel Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five and is strongly identified as a British author. Klara and the Sun is a science-fiction novel set in what’s strongly implied, if not outright stated, as the United States. And in a recent interview, the author confirmed that the U.S. was the setting. I enjoyed the book (though not quite as much as Ishiguro’s somewhat similar Never Let Me Go), and I don’t want to give away anything of the plot, so I’ll just say that the narrator is presented as an American.

I’ve learned after all these years that the differences between American and British language are very many and often very subtle, and thus it’s extremely difficult for an American to provide 100% convincing dialogue for a Brit, and vice versa. Klara and the Sun proves the point. Even after Ishiguro’s own efforts, and those of the book’s editors, I found all these Britishisms emanating from American characters:

  • “It’s not enough just being clever” (instead of “smart”).
  • “… smart-looking” (as opposed to “cool-looking” or “good-looking”).
  • “the animal carried on making its noise” (as opposed to “continued” or “went on”).
  • “Josie always visited her en suite before retiring to bed” (as opposed to “bathroom.” I’m not sure about “retiring.”)
  • “… foldaway chair …” (I assume this is what we would call a “folding chair.”)
  • “… these were slightly different to the ones outside our store”( as opposed to “different from” or “different than”).
  • “There it was, throwing out Pollution from three funnels the way it had always done.” (Americans would say “the way it always had.”)
  • “I want to take Josie out for a coffee and cake” (as opposed to “coffee and cake”).
  • “For a while she was keen on a German car…” (as opposed to “had her eye on” or “had her heart set on”).
  • We’ve time to kill” (as opposed to “we have” or “we’ve got”).
  • “This turning” (as opposed to “Turn here”).
  • If I’m honest…”
  • “Chrissie will come and collect you in half an hour” (as opposed to “pick you up”).
  • “… the plastic mineral water bottle” (as opposed to “the plastic water bottle”).
  • ” … on the day …”
  • “Atlas Brookings [a school] –now Rick no longer wished to go there — was rarely mentioned.” (Americans would insert the word “that” between “now” and “Rick.” This also showed up in the Boyd novel.)
  • hire driver.” (I think that’s the same as “taxi driver” but in any case we don’t say it.)
  • Give that a go, Klara.”

Now, you’ll notice that there are links to NOOBs posts on a number of examples. But except for “give it a go” or (maybe) “a coffee” I don’t think they are common enough in the U.S. for the characters in the book to use them.

Clearly, British novelists need someone to vet the dialogue of their American characters. I am available.

48 thoughts on “American Character(s), British Lingo, II

  1. I don’t think I know what a hire driver would be. A hire car would be called a rental in the US but in the UK we say taxi driver, or cabbie if being colloquial.

    1. Where I come from in Scotland, there is such a thing as a private car hire driver; a bit like a taxi driver, but it must be pre-booked, you cannot hail it from the street.

  2. That’s really pretty astonishing. You would think that he or his editors would have had an American proofread this. Excellent examples, Ben, and every single one of them is something no American would ever say, unless s/he was trying to speak British, or had become infected by a NOOB.

  3. Hi Ben!

    Brilliant final line…Britishism-wise. Indeed lots of our linguistic differences are subtle, but veteran PBS/BBC viewers would catch almost all of your cited slips. Others should give pause to almost any good editor.

    Fun read in any case, and I hope this finds you enjoying the end of summer.

    Best regards,
    Phil Kann, D’port ‘75

  4. ” … before retiring to bed” is interesting: I would never expect an American to use “retiring,” nor a Brit to follow that with “to bed.” The first is pretentious for an American, and the second, redundant for a Brit.

    1. Possibly not redundant if you there is an ambiguity between retiring – giving up working – and retiring – going to bed – but I don’t think I’d say the latter.

  5. “Clever” and “smart-looking” seem natural to me from my teen-age years in the 60s in central Texas, but I don’t think I’ve used them much since then. My mom used to use “retiring” for “going to bed,” but I recall it as being pretentious. And I think “different to” is creeping into American English; it was appearing in my students’ papers along with “whilst” (both driving me nuts) before I retired several years ago.

      1. Indeed. Not the first time I’ve noticed this. I remember when the term “pants” for rubbish started appearing I had people telling me it was an Americanism. (It seems to be British school slang and now only to be found as an anagram indicator in cryptic crosswords.)

    1. I noticed as well that the first two could well be used by Americans, although I recall seeing them more in writing from the first half of the 20th Century; thus they are probably now considered archaic or dated.

  6. I believe we’ve been here before, but I really don’t think ‘if I’m honest’ is a britishism. I’m certain that ‘to be honest’ is the universal norm over here.

    The point about ‘en suite’ is that it’s actually attached to the bedroom. ‘Bathroom’ could be anywhere in the house.

    I don’t think ‘foldaway’ is in general usage in Britain: I’ve not heard it in these last sixty or more years.

    1. Yes, but no American would ever use en suite at all. Ever. Again, my personal experience is my British wife, who has persisted in using the term with Americans for 30 years to blank stares. Perhaps an American would say “en suite” to mean “following that” or “and then” if s/he was speaking half French, but s/he would never use it for a bathroom.

      1. The connected bathroom might be attached to a master bedroom, and then it might be called the master bath. but I was in a house last weekend that had a bath attached to every bathroom. I’d just call them bathrooms unless I was trying to describe the house (I have a friend who’s thinking about moving), and then I’d just call them “attached baths.” My friend speaks 4 languages, so she might understand “en suite,” but not coming from *me*!

  7. Britons writing American speech should always have it checked by a native, and vice versa. American authors writing British speech usually (but not always) change obvious words like ‘sidewalk’ and ‘diaper’, but I am often pulled up by words like ‘tombstone’ (gravestone) and ‘foyer’ (hall), and expressions such as ‘he walked three blocks’. The one that really should have been picked up was a British character saying she worked in ‘notions’. I had no idea what this was, but thanks to the internet found out it is what we call ‘haberdashery’.

    1. “Notions” in that sense is very rare, perhaps archaic, in American English. I think I’m only familiar with it because when I moved into the Lower East Side of Manhattan many years ago there were still stores with signage indicating they dealt in “notions”. These weren’t haberdashers; they sold buttons, and ribbons, and snaps, and clasps and suchlike. All the stuff garment factories might buy other than the fabric and thread. They mostly sold in bulk to actual manufacturing firms, but I suppose they also did retail trade to people who made their own clothes at home, and to people working in theater costume departments and suchlike.

      I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “notions” in that sense was once, or even still is, current in Britain as a term of art in the garment industry.

      1. I spent many of my formative years in small town Texas in the 70s and 80s, and notions were very much a part of life at that time in that place. People– well, mostly women– did a lot of sewing, either making or altering or mending clothes or Halloween costumes or other garments. Clothes cost a lot more money then than they do now, and the assumption was that most people knew how to sew.

      2. Upon further investigation, I learn that the term “notion” and “notions” probably is used in Britain in that garment-industry sense. The difference in usage is in the word “haberdashery”. In Britain a haberdasher sells haberdashery, a.k.a. notions; in the US a haberdasher sells men’s clothing, hats, and accessories, .

      3. David Ballard, you’re right; in fact, most fabric stores had sections marked off as “notions,” often with drawing of a spool of thread and threaded needle to lead us there. Not sure if I could walk into a fabric/craft store today and ask for “notions” and get sent where I wanted to go.

  8. Speaking of nuance: to my British ears (and based purely on these excerpts) the author seems to be using rather old fashioned words and phrases.

  9. So, I have to ask, how would you differentiate between a water bottle filled from the house tap, to one bought in a shop filled with mineral water?

    1. I’m not convinced you HAD to ask, but I’ll give one answer, because I’d never thought of this until your question. 🙂 Americans would not differentiate: We would just call it a bottle of water. Interestingly, however, if you say “bottled water” in American, you mean water that is bought, never a water bottle you filled from the tap. We don’t use “mineral” at all to describe water. I don’t know why– maybe it’s considered too snooty or redundant or irrelevant or medicinal.

      1. Oh, and if you were in a pub and wanted a mineral water, you’d say so so that you didn’t get a glass of tap water. (I know people who refuse to drink tap water.)

      2. I guess with the selection of mineral waters vs spring waters, we might start seeing requests for “mineral,” but for the time being, it’s just “bottled”–although it might be “sparkling” or “flat.” The joke’s on us, anyway, since the rumor mill says a lot of it is pretty much just drawn from the local tap.

      3. I was amused to discover in Germany it’s not still or sparkling but “mit Gas oder ohne Gas.”

      4. I think also there would be a general sense that complimentary water would be from the tap (or a tap – not necessarily the same one that provides water for the city) and that water you have to pay for is bottled. (And would generally be given to you still in the bottle, so there could be no chicanery there.)

      5. Yes, but when I go for a long walk in hot weather I often take with my my own water bottle filled from the tap. (Did this just last week,)

      6. (American) I would use mineral water to request something like Pellegrino (if not just asking for the brand). I think most Americans almost never have actual mineral water which is why it’s seldom used. As for the several commenters using “tap,” I would call it a faucet unless it’s the valve sticking out the side of a plastic or metal carboy full of water, tea, gatorade, etc., in which case that is a tap. But this is likely a regional difference like “pop” vs “soda”. Do the British use the word tap or faucet or both?

      7. Faucet is rarely used in the UK. The device that you get water from in your house or in a pubic lavatory is always a tap.

        Chambers tells me that a faucet is “A pipe inserted in a barrel to draw off liquid”, but I don’t I’ve ever heard the word used like that.

      8. Incidentally, the reference to complimentary water reminds me that the automatic delivery of a glass of water to your table when you sit down rarely happens in a UK restaurant. You usually have to ask for it and specify tap water otherwise they’ll bring you mineral water and charge you for it. Restaurants want to make money, and the mark-up on drinks is a major earner.

      9. In Ireland until about the 80s a mineral water (or a “mineral”) was a soda or pop. We also called it “a bottle of fizzy” or “a fizzy drink”.

  10. Tom Upshaw, I’d also use “tap” (sometimes, although I know I used it more when I lived with my parents in the 50s and 60s b/c Daddy did) for the outside faucet, but I’d always refer to water that came out of the line as “tap water,” not “faucet water.” (For some reason I absolutely can’t put my finger on, I seem to associate “tap water” with water suitable for drinking, but “faucet water” with the stuff that comes from the–er…tap? faucet?–outside, and therefore sketchier for drinking.) If I order water at a restaurant, for example, and the server wants to know if I want sparkling or still/flat, I tell them I want tap water.

    Paul Dormer, when I take off with my bottle filled with water, I just call it my water bottle. I guess I don’t think its state of fullness/emptiness is anybody else’s business!

    1. You’re right about that, it would be tap water, never “faucet water”. So tap is clearly preferred, not sure why some of us used faucet all our lives for the actual metal thing sticking out of the sink.

      1. Does that mean that tap water came out of taps before “faucet” became the usual word? Does anybody say “beer faucet”?

      2. A beer tap would have been from a barrel or keg, but now with these modern complex “beer plumbing systems” at pubs I suppose beer faucet may well be appropriate, ha.

    2. Still, I think it the UK there is a distinction between a bottle filled with water from the tap to one bought in a shop containing mineral water.

      1. I hadn’t given it any thought until now but you are right. I would say “water bottle” for the former and “bottle of water” for the latter – and I think everyone in UK would instinctively know what I meant.

  11. I couldn’t find it elsewhere by searching the site or index, but would be interested in a discussion of “rise” vs “increase”. I note that some Britishisms are being used more now in the U.S. than they had been, mainly coming through the international finance realm. “Interest rate rise” is now sometimes used, for example, when that used to be an “interest rate increase.” Although “rising interest rates” has always been fine. In other words, rise can be used as a noun in the UK but only a verb in the U.S. (until as I said recently). I wonder if there are other verbs in the simple present tense that are used as nouns more in the UK than in the U.S.

  12. You could write the same article in reverse about Ted Lasso. English characters speaking in Americanisms. Last episode a real Clanger “He’s on his period” instead of He’s got his period.”

    1. See also my post a while back of the British policeman in a British police station saying, “I’ll be a horse’s ass, I didn’t know he was a spelunker.”

      But it’s British people in London on TV shows giving distances in blocks that gets me. Whoever writes that has obviously never visited London. (I was once asked directions in London by a group of Americans wanting to know how many blocks it was to ‘Lie-sester’ Square.)

      1. Maybe the Oxford dictionary should be apprised of how that’s wrong:
        expressing good wishes before drinking.
        “Cheers,” she said, raising her glass”
        expressing good wishes on parting or ending a conversation.
        “Cheers, Jack, see you later.”

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