American or British English?
I spent a considerable amount of time the other day trying to convince a friend that cookie is the American word for biscuit. She was unconvinced, and felt that cookies contained a secret ingredient which made them rise above the ordinary biscuit.
Then there are those guys and gals at MacDonald’s. The conversation goes like this.
Me: Can I have regular chips please?
He/She: Chips? (frowns) You mean french fries?
Me (resigned):Uh okay, french fries.
He/She: Right away ma’am!
French fries are what Americans call fried potato sticks. By chips Americans mean crisps, although when we were kids we called them wafers. I’ve got used to it now…but the question of whether to use British or American English persists. Well, at least while writing for both audiences, such as on this blog.
Take the word homely. It used to have positive connotation for me – it meant simple. Another meaning, with a negative connotation, crept upon me so slyly that I didn’t even realise it – unattractive or plain. When I checked The Economist Style Guide (ninth edition) I realised that this is the American meaning. The book is a great reference book because not only does it have a chapter on British and American English, it is an excellent style guide. It’s a known classic on this subject. The chapter on American and British English is a new addition. Meanings of American and British words, as well as the differences in grammar, punctuation, and spellings are given.
Here are some American English words commonly used in India today. Many of these are considered more elegant, modern, and “right” – for example using the word french fries (not just at MacDonalds) is considered more “right” than the word “chips.” It’s almost as if the British have started using these American words too!
Elevator rather than lift
Antenna over aerial
Dumb instead of stupid
Apartment instead of flat
Here are some British English words commonly used in India although the American equivalents are understood quite well.
chemist instead of drugstore or pharmacy
pavement instead of sidewalk
torch instead of flashlight
cupboard or wardrobe instead of closet
Stock instead of inventory
At times we Indians use both American and the English variants:
Bank holiday (British) and public holiday (American)
Holiday (British) and Vacation (American)
Mobile phone (British) and cell phone (American)
Some words mean different things in the UK and in America:
Asian in the UK means from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka but in America it means originating from East Asia or continental Southeast Asia
The word school means a place of primary or secondary education in the UK but in America it means any educational institution
As to which English to use, The Economist style guide suggests that if you use words that are almost exclusively understood by one audience, it’s best to provide a translation. That is if you are writing for both audiences. The guide has a fairly comprehensive list of British and American words although there are plenty of sites on the net (including the wiki) which give this information.
There is the About.com site with a table which helps you convert British English to American English and vice versa.
And as for the Economist Style Guide, it’s worth a dekho…oops, that was Indian English! Here are some curious samples of Indian English which brought a smile to my face.
What a nonsense/silly you are! or Don’t be doing such nonsense any more.: occasional – idiomatic use of nonsense/silly as nouns
go for a toss is meant to go haywire or to flop, as in my plans went for a toss when it started raining heavily. A cricket analogy
on the anvil is used often in the Indian press to mean something is about to appear or happen. For example, a headline might read New roads on the anvil
(Photos by me)