Two countries separated by a common language

Jack blogs about language woes

I’m really not good at remembering names of customers (and not much better at faces). So I have a fall-back position of asking anyone who comes in if they have been in before or if they are looking for anything in particular. That’s when my secret weapon comes into play – my Scottish brogue! It usually produces exclamations of delight in return, people asking where I’m from, saying their great-grandfather came over from Scotland–although not always. Sometimes it results in blank looks or very confused responses, like “Hunh?”

It took a while before I was able to work out what was wrong, but finally the penny dropped. It wasn’t the accent so much as the vocabulary.

I frequently say that it’s a pity the Founding Fathers didn’t stipulate that everyone in the US would speak Sioux or Cherokee or another indigenous language. That way anyone coming here from the UK would realize that they’re in a foreign country and not assume that they understand the locals (or vice-versa). For instance I used to say, “The book you just ordered will be here within a fortnight.” The customer would stare, then mumble, “so – my books will be here in four nights? Could I pick them up the next morning?”

It seemed that writing the date of delivery would be easiest, until I realized that in the UK, we write the day first, and it is month first in the US. Still, this did clear up why my church kept singing Happy Birthday to me on May 2nd instead of February 5th.

A wee antiques shop lies not far from our bookstore, and people often ask how to find it. Directing someone to “turn right at the bottom of the steps and walk a hundred yards up the pavement” garnered funny looks as well. In the UK the sidewalk is called the pavement and the pavement is the road.

Then there is the issue of the fresh shortbread I make; I once extended a plate to a woman with the invitation, “Care for a biscuit?” She looked very suspicious.

But not as suspicious as the lady whose phone number I was writing down last week. When I misheard her, I found the eraser didn’t work. So I said, “Oh, one moment, madam, my rubber is malfunctioning.”

She hasn’t been back since, that woman.