You say potato…

Things Americans Say

Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]

Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

33 thoughts on “You say potato…

  1. These are great, Michael! Though some do grate, I love how English travels, with time and geography; it’s all a bit of a jumble as it is, so we mightaswell make our own way with it. We only need travel to a neighbouring county (you could probably do one of these for each!) to catch new phrases, or to find some of our words have a slightly different meaning there. These differences are charming, I think. Indeed, if only this could be applied elsewhere. As always, thoughtful stuff – and a belated happy birthday. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. American English is different in different parts of the country, not to mention different ethnic groups, and of course in different generations. I think Spanish is even more varied–each Spanish-speaking country in the Americas has its own variations. And in NYC we have Spanglish as well.
    Your point is well taken, of course. I was thinking today about how people say “I hate (insert ethnic group or country)”. How can you hate all the people of one nation? Or one race or religion? We’re really all the same. A mixture of good and bad, with a small amount of people on the edges of the bell curve of goodness and evil. It’s a mystery to me why we can’t work together to make things better for all…(K)

    Liked by 4 people

  3. You say “cotton buds”, we say “Q-Tips”.

    Having lived and (continue to long for) my real home, yours, and not the “fake” home, mine, my speech patterns and vocabulary oft times reflect where I once lived and assimilated. And then there’s…bloody hell , Michael, I’m absolutely overthemoon homesick now, and me thinks ‘tis your fault! Good thing for me I’m coming “home” September…just in time to save myself from myself.

    More important: last paragraphs…spot on. Raye

    Liked by 2 people

  4. LOVE these drawings Michael, those characters really are superb. I’m just (finally!) trying to learn German, my husband’s language, and the different way they used words really highlights the cultural difference. As you say, I’m a foreigner in Germany but these differences can be something to celebrate rather than fight over. People are strange huh?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I grew up in Southern USA – Nashville, TN to be exact. When I moved to the midwest – Michigan to be exact, I found so many differences in language. Even here in MI there are vast differences between the Detroit suburbs where I live and the city whose college freshmen I often taught. Then there is the Upper Peninsula which speaks it’s own dialect. The most lyrical dialect I have heard though is Jamaican. It is so different I cannot understand much when two Jamaicans are speaking ‘their language’, but then when they speak to me as a tourist, they lapse into ‘my language’. I could listen to that dialect all day and find just the sounds enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha, LuAnne, that’s a lovely story. The author, Robert Macfarlane wrote a whole book about English dialect words for various things we see in the landscape and it really caught the imagination. Language and dialects are so fascinating and so precious: it’s a pity they’re used to kudhr people negatively.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interestingly that you mentioned that chicken broth and chicken stock refers to the same thing. This week when out grocery shopping I found a box of chicken broth and a box of chicken stock on the same shelf. But come to think of it, there are quite a number of Brits living in my small university town in northern California. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a lovely post. I had a great friend who is from England and sometimes when doing laundry or getting dressed I will think of her as I reach for my “knickers”. Another thing we have in common is that we put them on one leg at a time. I’m so happy to be catching up with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Haaaaaaa! Brilliant! And important. We humans seem to be hard-wired to notice differences (probably rel to self-defense or protection of the “tribe”) but noticing doesn’t have to generate fear. We ARE all different and all the same.
    Still, it’s fun to explore linguistic variations. I watch a lot of tv from the UK (BBC America & AcornTV) & enjoy the way we “English” speakers use words in wildly different ways. My current favorite is the words “fringes” & “bangs.”
    Anyway – thank you for sharing this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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