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Guest column: A symphony of words resonates in the New World

Patrick Webb travels in search of a comfort station


For The Daily Astorian

Published on December 21, 2017 10:00AM

Last changed on December 21, 2017 11:19AM

An American-British English dictionary seemed like a good idea when Patrick Webb emigrated to the United States.

An American-British English dictionary seemed like a good idea when Patrick Webb emigrated to the United States.

Oscar Wilde had it right.

He reportedly quipped that the English “have really everything in common with America . . . except, of course, language.”

I am frequently reminded that he had a point. As a transplanted Briton, I still have communication issues. Sometimes I just cannot make myself understood.

When, at 23, I readied to flee the despondency caused by Margaret Thatcher’s ascension and settle in the New World, I realized I would need help assimilating into the Western states. I bought a British-American Language Dictionary and toted it in my hand luggage that day I touched down at Sea-Tac in 1980.

My linguistic adventure began when I married my American sweetie and landed my first job in Camas, Washington. Working as editor of a weekly newspaper was a perfect opportunity for a first-generation immigrant to absorb the finer elements of American society and your post-colonial ways right away (“from the git-go,” as my neighbors said).

My new home was a mill town, coincidentally twinned with Wauna, and then owned by Crown Zellerbach. I learned to pronounce Our Esteemed Benefactor as “Crown Zee,” having been corrected when I called it “Crown Zed.”

I never drink and drive, because that’s never a good idea, but also because I can just visualize myself being pulled over by the Peelers and ordered to recite the alphabet to demonstrate my sobriety. After 25 correct letters, I would reach the final one and inevitably forget where I was. Jail, ridicule and more expensive car insurance would follow.

Inadvertent insults

At the newspaper, I set about Americanizing my stories so readers could understand. The owners had hired an Irishman a couple of editors before me, so I followed in his beloved footsteps, embracing drive-up banks and oddities like Groundhog Day. Folks made allowances (“cut me some slack”?).

Humour became humor. Favour became favor. Programme became program. Transport became transportation. Those were easy, although that last unnecessary “-ation” still causes me to think “ugh!” Calling blokes by their last names instead of Mr. Smith on second reference was easy, though it sounded rather blunt for ladies. I embraced Associated Press style for state abbreviations, military ranks and a consistent manner to write dates, and will never unlearn those.

I knew I was saying goodbye to muggins (a sucker), grotty (unpleasant, rooted in grotesque), Biros (ball-point pens, a brand name), woollies (sweaters) and plimpsoles (sneakers). Local now meant a union group, not a favored pub (bar/tavern). Kip (sleep) and loo (restroom) went out the window; cack-handed became all thumbs.

Gardens become yards, green thumbs turn into green fingers, skiving off is called goldbricking, and men’s braces are rather amusingly called suspenders, the latter the name for alluring underwear items worn by English ladies to hold up their nylon stockings.

But nuance lurked in that dusty newsroom; it would clobber my bonce (head) when least expected. In my native land, scheme is interchangeable with program or project. It is a totally neutral word with no negative connotations that someone is trying to con, cheat or defraud. I had to obliterate that pejorative from my vocabulary after inadvertently insulting the city public works director’s pet project.

Bonnet and boot?

All this helps proves Oscar Wilde was indeed hunky dory, and not at all barmy. In Great Britain, politicians stand for office; here they run. British felons protest their innocence, while here they protest their convictions. In London hotels, the ground floor is called the ground floor, which means the first floor is the second floor. Confused?

Tabling a motion in England means delaying discussion, the exact opposite of here. Try refereeing sports, where “a foul on Michael Jordan” means he committed the foul and wasn’t the victim. Missing from my trusty dictionary, however, was my late mother-in-law’s favorite slang word, kitty-corner. It took ages for me to realize that meant diagonally opposite.

In Great Britain, regular is the euphemism my Mum reserves for mention of bowel movements. Here it refers to myriad stuff, like Coca Cola, and even petrol, by which I mean gas. Like potato crisps (chips are fried with fish), petrol is one of my hold-out words. The first house I owned in Southwest Washington was heated with gas (the vapor), so I have always preferred to call heating gas “gas” and car gas “petrol.”

Several parts of my car/automobile retain British labels. I comprehend hood and trunk, but bonnet and boot seem more natural. Mechanics understand, but mention of the accelerator pedal draws blank stares; so, too, the gear lever, which I now call the stick shift.

Corrupted by the Yanks

When I write “blokes,” I mean “guys.” On one visit before I emigrated, I recall shopping with my American host near Boston’s Faneuil Hall. He bantered with two attractive female market traders, then inexplicably asked, “Do you guys have any mushrooms?” Four decades later, I use this gender-ignoring plural on trips to England, having adopted it as an affectation. Family members say I have been “corrupted by the Yanks.”

Yanks, of course, is a not-always-playful pejorative in England, just as Yankee is in the South here, though Britons mean all 360 million, not merely those inhabiting the original Northern states.

Because this is a family newspaper, I cannot mention the many British words to describe bathroom functions, advanced cuddling maneuvers, or the naughty bits of gentlemen and ladies. You Americans miss out on some doozies to describe your floozies.

The classic American phrase that appears in these dictionaries is “comfort station,” which gives Britons cause for chortling when American euphemisms are rolled out. However, I can honestly say that in my travels in 35 states, I have never found one!

North Coast writer Patrick Webb was born in England but has spent more than half of his life in the United States. He is the retired managing editor of The Daily Astorian.

Webb’s British-American Dictionary

British — American

Letter Z (pronounced “zed”) — “zee”

rozzers, Peelers, Old Bill — cops, fuzz

muggins — sucker

grotty — unpleasant

Biro — ball-point pen

woolly — sweater

plimpsoles — sneakers

local (favorite pub) — local (union group)

kip — sleep

loo — rest room

cack-handed — all thumbs.

garden — yard

green thumb — green fingers

skiving off — goldbricking

braces — suspenders

bonce — head

scheme (neutral project) — scheme (corrupt project)

ground floor — first floor

first floor — second floor

diagonally opposite — kitty-corner (various spellings)

crisps — chips

chips — French fries

petrol — gas

gas — gas

bonnet — hood

boot — trunk

accelerator — gas pedal

gear lever — stick shift

bloke — guy

Yanks (all Americans) — Yankees (specifically Northeast Americans)

settee — Davenport


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