Tuesday, December 2, 2014
From Oops to Whoops
THE OPINION PAGES | OPED COLUMNIST
From Oops to Whoops
The Long Road From American to English
DEC. 1, 2014
Roger Cohen, New York Times
LONDON — It can be as insignificant as the slide from “oops” to “whoops.” It can be as blunt as the shift from “restroom” to “toilet.” It can be no more than the adaptation from “good job” to “well done.” But whatever precisely it is, the adjustment from American to English is momentous. A new nation was born in 1776, and a new language was born with it.
Having become an American, I returned to England a few years back after an absence of 31 years. I expected to speak the language. I was wrong. Somewhere in the interim the letter aitch had become “haitch,” with the result that spelling out my family name (surname) was painful. You had somehow morphed into the ghastly reflexive “yourself,” as in, “And for yourself?”
Virgin Media, and Sir Richard Branson’s monumental ego, had taken a stranglehold on the country and its lexicon, with the result that a cheesy, simpering, faux-friendly, off-key, faintly Essex hail-well-met affectation (Never just plain “Hello,” always “Well, hellooo there”) was near universal. I have found that it never stops grating. In the toilet of a Virgin train, an announcement in that voice asks you not to flush tampons, old phones — or your dreams. You get the picture.
I was at an event the other day. An English woman was presenting a documentary movie on the Arab Spring. She talked about the incredible commitment and courage of the young people behind the uprisings. “When I look at them, I am in awe,” she said, “I realize most of us are such weeds. Yes, we really are weeds.”
Unease was palpable in the cinema (movie theater) as the extent of amassed weediness was absorbed by the audience. There was a little awkward shuffling. Weed? I found my mind turning, as it often does, to what the best translation might be. Wimp came to mind. Wuss did, too, for a little more intensity. We’re just a bunch of wimps and wusses.
Cheers to that. Cheers to anything, in fact. It’s a toast, it’s a farewell. It’s whatever you want it to be. Yeah, cheers, mate.
Catch you later, dude.
People in England are nice. They’re lovely, just lovely, another of those words that’s everywhere in a different way. See you tomorrow, then. “Lovely.”
My kids, New York raised, started on me from the moment we touched down. “Baggage REclaim?” they asked at Heathrow. “Are you serious?” Well, um, um (a little British throatclearing to get them used to the new scene), yeah. So, “Baggage Claim” had become “Baggage Reclaim,” on what grounds it was not clear. There you had it. Oops to whoops. And then, driving into London and passing a petrol (gas) station, the incredulity of my son: “They don’t actually spell tires with a ‘y,’ do they?”
They do, darling, they do. And they say “maths” not “math.” And they “pop” a signature onto a document, and they “pop” a dish in the oven, and they “pop” in — you can scarcely move for all the popping going on. They have things called anoraks and plimsolls — you don’t want to know. They “get cracking,” in a soundless way, and they actually have a dessert called “Spotted Dick” (often served with golden syrup and custard); and cheese comes after dessert. And they don’t have mail boxes, sweetheart, those red things are letter boxes (into which you pop your mail, if you ever did that, which you don’t, being on WhatsApp).
Idioms are equally impenetrable. The culture wars, of course, have come to Britain. Even Black Friday shopping mania has come to Britain with or without Thanksgiving. There’s endless flux, but differences endure. You read things like, “Whitevan man does not eat braised endive.” White-van man would be the English guy who votes for the rightwing U.K. Independence Party and who hates all the immigrantloving urban eggheads driving Volvos. Rough translation: “Joe the plumber does not eat broccoli.” That’s very rough. As you will have gathered, the ocean is immense. Globalization has its limits.
Cell is mobile. Two weeks is a fortnight. Silverware is cutlery. And the flat that costs two million quid (three million bucks) with no lift is an overpriced London apartment with no elevator.
Don’t exaggerate, you will tell me. In a way you’d be right. London glides into New York more easily than into Birmingham. We get each other. But this is less than half the transAtlantic story. Language demands a different character of us on either side of the pond. That’s profound. I guess that for me, if there’s one word on which the differences hinge, it would be “sure.” In England, I think of it in terms of prudence, as in, “Are you really sure?” In America, it’s the beautiful, giveitawhirl, upforanything embrace of the unknown.
Will you take a road trip (drive) with me across the country, babe? “Sure.”