Three years spent in Pakistan, combined with four in the UK, have firmly convinced me that there is no such thing as “English.” There’s Britspeak and there’s American, and Bob’s your uncle!
It isn’t just that there are different names for the same things. There are times when it almost seems planned to drive a Yank nuts. Imagine how you would feel if you wandered into a UK grocery store, asked for a can of tomato paste, got home, opened the can, and found that what you had was thin old tomato puree. Then imagine how you might feel a few weeks later when you went to the same store, asked for a can of tomato puree, paid for it, took it home, and found that this time you had thick old tomato paste. You’d begin to suspect, as I did, that maybe someone was not too fond of Yanks. And yet the odd truth is that the Brits call them by the exact opposite names.
Why? I don’t know. Dig up Winston Churchill and ask him.
Then there was the day right after we arrived in England when my brother-in-law, Peter, was helping us find a place to live until we got into base housing. Lolly and Betty, Lolly’s sister, had elected to wait outside in the car while I followed Peter into a busy tobacconist shop.
The “chap” ahead of us at the counter asked a question, got a negative reply, and growled, “Knickers!”
As Peter walked up to the counter I asked him loudly, “What did he mean when he said ‘knickers’?”
Peter didn’t answer, so I asked again, louder this time because it was noisy in the small store. Two women in line behind us, and three at the other end of the counter, were all chattering away.
“Hey, Pete!” I asked. “What did he mean by ‘KNICKERS’?”
Instant dead silence!
I didn’t ask again, of course. I’m dumb, but not that dumb. Outside, Pete explained that knickers were women’s underdrawers and that Brits used the term the same way we make reference to a pair of objects located in the male nether regions.
I tell you. You had to be careful over there.
The craziest one happened while Lolly and I were still in Karachi. One thing most Americans do not know is how different shopping is in other countries. Here in the States if you have the money and want something legal, it’s yours. Not so in some other countries, where no matter how much money you have you can’t get some things.
Your money will buy anything made in the country. But from another country? Forget it! It’s called a “foreign exchange” problem. That thousand rupee note in your hand, while it may buy enough curry and rice to break the axles on a dump truck, won’t get you a one-ounce Hershey bar or a bottle of German beer or even one lousy Russian cigarette.
Or so I discovered when I got off the aircraft in Pakistan and found that other than the barest necessities in the embassy commissary, I would have to do without if I didn’t have a checking account back in the States to buy things by mail order. I soon had a stateside account, which meant that after Lolly and I were married we looked forward to packages from Sears Roebuck et al, which almost led to the sudden demise of quite a decent brother-in-law.
Betty and Peter, who later went to England and now live here in Arizona, were at our house in Karachi one day when I brought home a box from Sears. Betty looked at the box as I came in and asked, “Oh, what have you received, Tom?”
“A new windbreaker and some sneakers.”
Ten minutes later we were still trying to get Peter to stop laughing. And it wasn’t helping much that Betty was almost useless because she too was giggling half the time.
I’m sure you can guess what a “windbreaker” might be in Brit, right? Well a “sneaker” is a very quiet one of what “windbreakers” produce.
So if you look at a Brit with a straight face and tell him you just got “a new windbreaker and some sneakers” it’s bound to tickle his funny bone. It certainly had a wild effect on Peter I tell you, Johnny. If it were really possible to die laughing, he’d have been a goner.
Think about it. Turn the translation around and think of how hard you might laugh if you asked the same question of a Brit and he told you he had bought a nice new (bleep) and some (bleeps) to go with it.
See? There ain’t no such a thing as English, and Bob’s your uncle!
Which, by the way, means “and that’s that,” but don’t ask me why.