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BRITS BITS: An American in England: Making sense out of local lingo

Brits Bits graphic art. (U.S. Air Force graphic illustration by Gary Rogers/Released)

Brits Bits graphic art. (U.S. Air Force graphic illustration by Gary Rogers/Released)

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- When I first arrived in England, I was excited. The fact that it was not only my first assignment, but my first time overseas was almost overwhelming. I couldn't wait to explore the country and learn its rich history. Seeing as the language spoken in England is English, I assumed that would only make my stay here easier. I was wrong.

Almost from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was bombarded by words that were in English, but made no sense to me. I was told to meet my sponsor in the underground at the airport. I hadn't really studied up on British slang or the different words they used, so I walked around asking people what the underground was and how I was to get to it. I eventually found it and upon doing so, I thought, "Oh, it's a subway. Why don't they just call it that?"

Another word that still doesn't really make any sense to me is "lorry". Because it is so commonplace to call a truck a lorry here, no one took the time to explain to me that they were in fact one and the same. Whenever someone would talk about one, I would just smile and nod, trying to figure out what kind of vehicle they were speaking about. In my defense (or is that defence?), it's not like there is a very discernible correlation between the word lorry and what it isĀ -- a truck. However, after what seemed like my 10th traffic safety briefing, it all finally clicked.

Sometimes, the difference in words gets awkward. I cannot even describe the laughter from my British coworkers whenever I, or any of the Americans around them, say something about our pants! In Britain, "pants" are the American equivalent of underwear. This difference can take a normal conversation about the awesome new khakis I just bought and turn it into one that is unintentionally raunchy.

An even more common, and inappropriate, British word is the word they have for "eraser." If someone were to casually ask you for a "rubber" at work in the states, you might want to reconsider why you are speaking to this person. However, in Britain, the curious individual would probably just want something to fix a mistake he made with a pencil. This is actually a term I had heard of in high school, during one of my instructor's stories of her trip to England, and I have not had the pleasure of having to actually be asked that - yet.

While certain words can be strange and uncomfortable to deal with, so can certain gestures. Shortly after arriving in country, I nearly severed a friendship that had barely even begun. While in the states it's perfectly acceptable to throw up the peace sign when departing someone's company. In Britain, the acceptability and wholesomeness of the gesture is based entirely on the direction in which your palm is facing as you render it. I made the mistake of rendering it palm-in - a common, and more comfortable, way in the states. This caused the accepter of the gesture to rush over to me, and in a very calm, but worried voice, tell me to stop doing that before I offend the wrong person. Since that day, I have made a conscious effort to give the peace sign palm-out, so I don't get beat up.

Possibly my favorite, or least favorite, part of British inflection of our common language is the pronunciation of English words. I cannot begin to recount the number of times I have had a hearty chuckle because of the different, and in my mind sometimes silly, way things are pronounced. I have noticed many words which end with the letter "a" will have more of an "er" sound at the end of them. Most commonly I hear it in words like "bananer" and "ideer" and names like "Rebeccer." This gives me near-infinite opportunities to poke fun at the pronunciation of the particular word.

One of my favorite things to do is get a British person to say these two words: pasta and pastor. Because of the way each is pronounced, they sound almost identical. After saying the words, we both usually have a good guffawing out of how similar they sound.

While I do have a good time poking fun at the British dialect, the Brits have to put up with the same level of confusion because of our slang and way of speaking. Case in point: football. That one word can make two people become very confused very fast if they do not know which football the other person is talking about. I have just learned to either call it "American Football" or simply "Hand-egg." They usually know what I'm talking about.

It was once said, "Americans and British are one people separated only by a common language." Well, that is correct. We are one people, and great allies, separated by our ways of speaking the same language. And that's what I think is great. It draws tourists to each other's countries, inspires discussion and debate, and it brings us together in a very roundabout (get it?) way. So, while I may not entirely understand the British way of speech, I respect it.