Saturday, July 29, 2006

False friends

I'm certainly not talking about the English people in my title. In fact, I find them quite friendly. In comparison with Texas, Connecticut, and California, I would put them just a little less friendly than Texans, more friendly than (Northern) Californians, and lots more friendly than Nutmeggers (Connecticuttites?). I suppose I should explain my subjective (naturally) criteria for judging. I like people to smile and/or exchange pleasantries as they assist you in shops and other businesses. I like it when someone standing next to you in line strikes up a conversation. I like comments from the cheap seats. I like it when people in the community feel they can talk to one another, even though they're strangers. That happens here, and it happens in Texas. And for me it makes moving about in life more pleasant.

However, the false friends I'm referring to are words. Those who have studied a foreign language may have heard the phrase. It refers to words which sound like ones in your native language, but which mean something else. There are some funny examples, like the Spanish word sounding like "embarrassed" means "pregnant", and the Italian word spelled and sounding like "smoking" actually means "tuxedo jacket" (from "smoking jacket"). But in this case I'm talking English to English. The most difficult thing about understanding people here is not deciphering the accents, nor learning the new words. It's getting a grip on the false friends.

For this blog I'll stick to the more food-oriented ones. Perhaps later I'll be inspired to list some of the non-food ones.

The one time I had trouble understanding my mum-in-law was when she was looking for a basin one day. I produced a large plastic bowl big enough to soak your feet in, and she said, "No, I'm looking for a basin." In the end, it turned out she was looking for a bowl.

Some others: What we in the US would refer to as legumes (i.e. beans and peas), the English call pulses. Pencil erasers are called rubbers; we all know what that refers to in the US (here a euphemism for rubbers is "something for the weekend"). That one caught out an English friend of mine who came to the US and taught young children "OK, everyone, now take out your rubbers." and then followed much tittering.

Biscuits here are crackers and cookies in the US. They do have crackers too, but I couldn't categorically say all biscuits are cookies, because I think digestive biscuits here are not sweet enough to be called a cookie, and too sweet and thick to be called a cracker. The closest thing we have to digestives in the US (besides Carrs sweetmeal) is graham crackers. Incidentally, chocolate chip biscuits or cookies here are pretty much guaranteed to be a shortbread with chocolate chips in, something I find most disappointing. The closest thing here to an American style biscuit is a plain scone (they're a little sweeter, but the texture is the same as a baking powder biscuit).

If something has fruit in it here, it probably means it has raisins (and/or dried black currants). Fruitcake, fruit muesli, fruit scones, all with raisins. But what we call raisins, they have a couple of names for: raisins, golden raisins, sultanas. I thought I knew the difference between a raisin and a sultana, but now I'm not so sure.

Now for the pudding. No, no, I don't mean a gooey creamy dessert, I just mean dessert. If someone asks you if you want pudding after your meal, and like me, you don't care for pudding (the gooey creamy stuff), don't be too hasty to refuse. It could be a bowl of fresh strawberries with cream (they often don't bother to whip their cream here, just pour double cream over whatever the dessert is), or a lovely sponge (cake), or gateau (cake or torte). I won't get into certain other items, as their names are a subject of a future blog. Or it could be cheese and biscuits (see above).

Then there's tea. Think you know what tea is? Tea means a number of things here. Sure, it's the drink (and unless told otherwise, expect hot black tea, what we in the US would call English Breakfast Tea, with the optional additions of milk and sugar, no lemons in sight, and certainly no ice!) Tea can also mean afternoon teatime, which, depending on what class you are, could be anywhere from 3-5PM (I think the higher the class, the earlier the tea, but I'm not positive about that). It can mean the afternoon tea itself, which not only includes a cup of tea, but some biscuits, sponge, gateau, or some other little sweet, or even a full complement of little sandwiches with the crusts cut off (salmon and cream cheese, cucumber and butter, tuna and mayonnaise, ham and butter, watercress and butter), plus petit fours, scones, truffles, and a few other bits and pieces. Tea can also mean dinner/supper, that is, the evening meal (or the evening mealtime). That caught us out once, too. While still living in the US, we were at a store one day near where some good English friends lived. It was about 5PM, and my husband suggested we drop in on our friends just to say hello. So we phoned them from the store, their 13-year-old daughter answered, and my husband said we'd be there in 10 minutes and "we'll expect tea," meaning a cup of tea. It so happened that the daughter was in the throes of helping her mum prepare supper, and panicked because she thought he meant that we would expect supper. Apparently she started peeling potatoes like there was no tomorrow! As it turned out, we did have supper there that evening, not a bad outcome considering ...



At 6:22 AM, Anonymous Vermi said...

We had an English bloke come work in the American office for a while. He quickly ran afoul of the "two countries separated by a common language" problem when he asked his (female) coworker if she had a rubber he could use.

We had a great deal of fun coming up with the other ways he (or we) could get in trouble. Fortunately, someone has compiled them all into a list. See

At 2:25 PM, Blogger I18n G.A.L. said...

Funny thing is, the english2american site isn't english to american, it's english to english explanation.

Stating the obvious, the blog is not about translation. If folks were interested in translation, they all know how to use Google.

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Melanie Parsons Gao said...

They teach British English here in China and Audrey often refers to the "rubber" in her pencil case. I haven't told her what the American meaning is but keep re-directing her to call it an "eraser"...

BTW I loved your pictures from Wales - beautiful!


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