London Sunrise

Positive British Words

East Sheen, a neighborhood south of London, 6:00 am. December 27, 2021

Nothing like a burning sunrise to encourage the day’s potential to shine. I took this photo from the third floor of a townhouse in East Sheen, off Richmond Road, about 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport. A few days later, Omicron descended upon everyone in the townhouse, one after another.

Looking on the positive side, being vaxxed and boosted paid off for the family and me. I got off with a few days sounding like an imitation Lauren Bacall with her deep voice. No fever or loss of taste or smell. Even the youngest only experienced fever at night. Being together for Omicron certainly beat being apart and not knowing its impact on the family.

As I settled in for a few Omicron days, I decided to use the time to make an amateur’s study of the differences in the British take on “English” and words employed by their American cousins. I enjoyed a quote by George Bernard Shaw: Britain and America—”two countries divided by a common language.” At the end I will include a comparison of the words that appealed to me. Some words surprised me, for example, my grandsons wore “jumpers.” Really? While I think of myself as open-minded, this didn’t seem likely. Until I learned their school sweaters were called “jumpers.” I got used to it.

Even though gray skies are the norm (50% of the time) and the pitter-patter of rain falls frequently in London, the Brits take it in stride. They manage to maintain their sense of humor. The words most likely to be heard are “lovely” and “cheers.” The cakes (British Baking Show), garden roses (even in December), and children are “lovely.” One thinks of earlier references to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon in America, where “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.”

But this is different. The language expresses a refreshing outlook, particularly as we roll into the second year of the Pandemic. Omicron races through neighborhoods in London, just as it does in America. Yet “lovely” expresses a tone, that denotes a positive forward attitude, whether  or not it’s just the usual response in Britain. “Cheers” is a multipurpose response. “Cheers, I’m glad to see you.” “Cheers, your team/my team won the game.” “Cheers, to the high school/college graduate” (though the term high school is somewhat different in England). To be authentic, you want to sound more like Prince Charles or his mum, the Queen, and pronounce it “chairs.”

The third word that often reached my American ears: “brilliant.” You might judge that not everything that gets this tag could live up to the American meaning; that isn’t the point. I believe people strive for higher goals based on expectations. Rather than judging children’s initial attempt as being below the bar and criticizing the attempt, would it be more productive to find their effort “brilliant” in some area? Then they might be encouraged to “give it a go,” as the Brits would say, and continue striving?

As Omicron took the East Sheen neighborhood by storm, neighbors would say “touch wood” to wave it off in a comical way. Later I learned this was the British version of “knock on wood” and wondered how it evolved (see below). Challenges occur on both sides of the Atlantic. How you react is the key to your success.

{Touch Wood Superstition – Pick your as version. The first traces to the Celtics, who were said to knock on trees to prevent ruining their good luck and to “thank the leprechauns.” Or the Christian version—the wood of Christ’s cross was said to protect against the evil of the devil. Then, the German perspective: Stammtisch’s tavern had a table made of oak. According to legend, the guests believed that touching the table brought protection against the devil, who was unable to touch oak. Finally, in the 1800s, children developed a chasing game, “Ticky Touchwood.” Those children who touched wood were immune from being tagged.}

Downton Abbey Incentive

Like many American females taken by the male accents they heard on Downton Abbey, I enjoyed listening to British speech in London, even if I did not always understand the meaning of the words. To continue my British education, I listen to the BBC report on NPR in Austin. I have produced a chart of British words and equivalent American usage—some from first-hand discovery, others unique comparisons I thought you would enjoy.

Traffic Safety – Britain vs. America

Finally, I could not finish without a few words about traffic safety. It amazed me that there are many fewer stoplights in London than in Washington, D.C. or any other major American city. Scattered along city streets are “pelicans”– large yellow dots of light about five foot above the pavement that arise from single poles along highways, like Richmond Road. (Thus the name “pelicons,”in keeping with the British sense of humor.) Pedestrians push a button, then step out into the street as traffic stops. It’s hard to believe cars will stop, but they do. Roundabouts are circular roadways that allow drivers to cross to one of three directions–to the first right, straight across, or the second right–from where they entered. Virginia installed some further out rural areas, where highways met. They worked, but drivers would need to adjust!

Driving on the left side of the road also requires drivers to make their left-hand turn without driving in front of oncoming traffic–one of the more dangerous moves American drivers make. But drivers coming in from sidestreets depend on courtesy of other Britaish drivers, who let each other into the lane of traffic. It works because drivers exceed expectations. The statistics show the difference. Britain’s population is one-fifth of the United States, with 68 million Brits to 335 million Americans. The U.S. had 36,560 traffic fatalities (not collisions or injuries, but deaths) in 2018 vs. 1839 in Britain. Based on population, one-fifth of the fatalities would total 7312. Granted Britain is much smaller geographically, with fewer large cities and smaller towns not as far flung, but England lost a fraction of its people to driving fatalities.

One possibility might be that getting a driver’s license in England is more complicated than in the States. People study seriously to pass. Some compare it to getting a PhD. in safety. This may be too much of a challenge, but somewhere in the middle of the British difficulty and frankly the American ease in getting a license might be called for. Teenagers, as a rule, in Britain don’t attempt a license until they are older. Senior drivers are increasing in both countries, creating other challenges. Making it more difficult to get a license in America would be difficult to sell–but are we willing to lose more people on the highways? The simple fact is that in the U.S. highway fatalities are roaring back after the Pandemic’s emptier roads.  

OK, off soapbox. So what do they call khaki pants in the U.K.? Trousers. Look below for a more complete list comparing American and British English words.

British                                   American

            agony aunt                          advice columnist

            (dust) bin                             garbage can     An aging aunt: “I don’t think I’m ready for the bin.”

            barrister                               attorney           A barrister prepares documents but is not in court.

            biscuits                                cookie

            bonnet                                 car hood

            casualty                               emergency room

            draughts                              checkers

            flats                                     apartments

            car park                               parking lot

            chemist                               pharmacy/drug store

             crisps                                  potato chips

            dual carriageway              divided highway

            football                             soccer          Parents of elementary kids play in the evening.

            high street                         main street      See: “London’s High Streets” my December 17 Blog.

            (bank) holiday                  vacation            As we have vacations, Brits have holidays.

            Juggernaut                        18-wheeler        In London, commercial trucks are smaller in UK.

            jelly babies                        jelly beans

            ice lolly                             Popcycle

            green fingers                    green thumb

            knickers                           female underwear

            maths                               math                  British figure there is more than 1 type of math.

            nappy                               diapers

            pet hate                            pet peeve

            pavement                         sidewalk        Not paved, but ill-fitting 12″ squares mashed together.

            pub                                   bar               Pub food is better. Variety. Well beyond wings & BBQ.

            reception                          preschool                                                         

            reception room               living room Ground floor, floors above are the first floor.

            removals                         movers

            ring road                         beltway

            roundabout                     traffic circles  

            torch                               flashlight                                                                                              trousers                           pants

underwear            pants Confusion: When you say “pants” in UK, it means underwear.

            vest                                 undershirt

            Wellies                            rain boots

There you have it. A roundabout comparison of language and a few tidbits tossed in for flavor. In February will folow up with Paul McCartney’s Lyrics exhibit at the British Library (and a link to his YouTube interview discussing his life’s work. Next we’ll address the habits that we seek to manage at the turn of the year to see if we might turn a leaf on our own 2021 old songs.

3 thoughts on “London Sunrise

  1. Laurie

    Jolly good! Marmie – so enjoyed your blog. I had the pleasure of recently living in the UK for 2 years and now my daughter is engaged to a Brit, so I was nodding away as I read this.

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