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                      We have really everything in common with America nowadays
                      except, of course, the language. (Oscar Wilde 1888)

During my first semester of college, I turned to the guy sitting at the desk next to me and asked, “Do you have a rubber?”  It was not until I saw the puzzled and surprised look on his face that I realized I’d said something wrong, but I had no idea what.

That was my first – and perhaps most dramatically embarrassing – moment of miscommunication since moving to the US, but there was also that time I was plant sitting for a friend. Her landlord poked his head out of an upper story window to question why I was on his property and had me repeat the words “I’m here to water the plants” a few times because he couldn’t understand my British accent (the same often happens when I am asking for a “glass of water”).

And then there were all the times I’d asked for “crisps” and quickly repeated the request using the word “chips” – which in the UK are what one eats with battered fish, usually cod, wrapped up in newspaper and seasoned with salt and vinegar.

I’ve had people make fun of me for calling a “flashlight” a “torch” or “aluminium” “aluminium” rather than “aluminum” (I won’t give up on that one – ever), but I, too, at first, had had my share of mocking: “Americans put gas in their tanks?  It’s a liquid not a gas.”  And, “American football?  Football?  Only the team’s kicker actually uses his foot on the ball – the rest are playing rugby wearing superfluous padding.”

However, this is my adopted home, so while I do still prefer “trousers” over “pants,” I say “garbage” for “rubbish” and “sidewalk” for “pavement,” “apartment” for “flat” and “cookies” for “biscuits.”  My brother says I sound like an American, yet my students love hearing Shakespeare in what they call “an authentic accent.” I guess my accent is mongrel now and my vocabulary too.

Webster has to bear the blame for all this.

After all, after learning twenty-six languages and spending eighteen years, he single-handedly created a dictionary and textbooks in support of American nationalism, believing in the importance of a new language for the new republic, one divorced from European aristocratic decadence. Webster not only Americanized English spelling (I still love and use those poor u’s in “colour” and “flavour” and the second “l” in “traveller” etc.), but he also believed his texts could mold and shape behavior, endorse American virtues such as political and religious freedom and the importance of popular, common usage over tradition and convention.

I admit that even simple English words can be atrociously difficult to spell (“bough?” and “night?”), and certain English accents can be hard to understand at times, especially given that just a few – very few – miles make a huge difference, so sometimes even we have difficulty understanding ourselves (for a bit of comedic fun, check out this sketch by the Two Ronnies [1976] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO6EE1xTXmw), yet dialects seemingly entrenched in their regions are also very mobile, so I was not surprised to come across a recent article on BBC News that marks the slow incursion of Britishisms into everyday American life.

This is due partly to popular books and TV shows such as the Harry Potter series, Top Gear, and Doctor Who and partly due to advertisers and journalists using British terms – and some of those users being British ex-pats – and, in part, because British is “trendy” and considered a bit “posh” (even if at times those who have “converted” to British English because they had married Brits and now live in the UK like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are seen as being utterly pretentious).

What surprised me was learning that the word “diaper,” something that I had always associated with American English and was totally foreign to me, was actually a British word that had fallen out of common usage in the late 19th century in England but not in the US, and I found out in the OED that the word “nappy” has been used in reference to babies only since 1927. Languages, like national boundaries, are very fluid, and new words are always being created or imported from other languages.  British English, reflecting its political and religious history, is a mixture of Saxon, French, Latin, Greek, Celtic, with imports from almost every country, India (e.g. bungalow), Norway (e.g. iceberg), China (e.g. gung-ho), etc.  I’ve always enjoyed looking up etymologies, and, like people, words definitely have a story to tell.

By the way, if you are wondering what it was that I was asking that guy in class for, I had needed an eraser when asking for that rubber.  I definitely never made that particular mistake again.

– Eleni Anastasiou, 20th October 2012