12 May 2006

When I was a kid... musings on the US

When I was a kid, I thought it was really cool that all Americans used gas in their cars. I mean it's cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and goes further than petrol. A whole country that doesn't use petrol! How cool is that.

Then I realised - gas is petrol.

Which led me to wonder - If Americans call petrol gas, then what do they call gas? I asked a couple of Yanks this question - it just seemed to confuse them.

When I was a kid, I was told in no uncertain terms that words like colour and flavour had a U in them - to spell them without one is American, and not proper English. And words that end with ise or isation didn't have a Z in them - again, an Americanism that was not tolerable in any other English speaking country (so we were told). It plays havoc with spellcheckers, which seem to all be American at times.

When I was a kid, I thought that the word 'ass' meant donkey, and wondered why Americans couldn't come up with a better insult - like arse.

When I was a kid, I laughed my head off when I heard Americans talk about 'fanny-bags'. Such a strange mental image. Wouldn't it be more comfortable to wear a 'bum-bag'?

When I was a kid, I read American books - and learned to convert the farenheit to celcius, and the miles to kilometers.

When I was a kid, I sometimes found a new book by a British author I loved - then opened it to find the same text I knew. There was a different title on the cover because that edition had been published in the US.

Over here we get used to all this stuff when we are kids. We learn how to convert 'American" into 'Australian'. We learn a lot about the US. Meagen once wondered on this post if only American kids played cowboys and Indians. It really made me wonder if people in the US realise the extent that their culture is transported around the world - it's not for nothing that we call it cultural imperialism.

But I've realised the extent to which I make assumptions about the US. I assume that, while we have to understand you, you have never had to understand us. I've noticed on my blog, and the comments I make on others, that for some reason I feel the need to clarify things when I know the Americans do it different. If I say fanny I have to emphasise that I mean vagina. If I write arse or colour I cringe in case you think I just can't spell. I feel the need to convert ks to miles for your benefit. I wouldn't just write Howard and assume you knew who he is, even thought you just write Bush (see, even slipped a hint in there!).

I could never tell if you just don't know that things are different elsewhere, or if you just assume we can work it out for ourselves. But I haven't given you the benefit of the doubt, assuming that you do know or that you can work it out for yourselves. This is very patronising on my behalf.

So, from now on, I'll try to minimise my explainations. If I write about the Anzacs and you don't know who they are, you can ask, or just look it up. If you think my spelling sucks - you may well be right, but you can check an English dictionary* (not an American one) if you want to make sure.

But before I go, I really want to know some things.

Do you know that we call gas petrol?
Can you convert miles into ks and farenheit into celcius?
Do you know what fanny means over here (or did you before you read my blog?)
Do you know that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's stone is actually Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone everywhere else?

Maybe we've been underestimating you.

*Bugger the English dictionary. Check the Macquarie dictionary.


Leela Lamore said...

Brilliant post, all questions I have asked myself.

Very interested to hear what more readers have to say.

Personally I do understand all these things as you can imagine :)

Hugs from Leela

Stinkypaw said...

Very interesting post, things I started wondering about when I got exposed to some "international" friends.

When I started travelling I realised that not everybody spoke English the same way - I'm French-Canadian - even in our own country we speak "different"!
I was confused at times with friends from England who refered to French Fries as chips, at the local bar (pub). For me chips are what they ref. to as crisps. It toook me a while to adjust, but I thought it was so cool since I just love to learn different expressions.
It's the same with French. I went to a French (European) college and the French we speak in Montreal is a world apart. The same word means to very different things, which at times, got me into some trouble. Nothing too serious, just a bit insulting...

I grew up with the miles and pounds, etc. While I was in school we converted to the metric system - that was a big adjustment. Now using km I have an idea of the distance, but for weight I still use the pounds, and cups... That gets confusing at times. Just have to know that a pound is 454g. Same thing for the temperature they announce 10 degree C, I automatically convert to 50F - I know that 10C is cool, but I prefer the F.

To answer your questions:
Do you call gas petrol, petrolium? or Fuel?
I knew what fanny meant when I met TC (A Brit friend)
Yes I can convert, and I do!
I didn't know that the title of Potter changed - I have and the Philosopher's Stone.

The American way polluted the world a little too much. I like diversity and I believe that we should embrace it. It's those differences that makes us who we are. When I meet an "Aussi" I know where he's from listening to him, same thing with an Irish, and that's amazing. If we were all "americanised" it would be so bad, and if you ask me quite bland...

I guess, in a way, what makes me different is the fact that I am NOT American, don't even want to be construed as one either. I am Canadian, French -Canadian to be exact.

By the way, I don't really know who Howard is, must be a politican...(Thanks for the hint!) ;-D

hasarder said...

Thanks, Leela!

And merci, stinkypaw!

When I think of chips, I think of what the English call 'crisps'. I used to think it was so funny when my (English) grandad asked me if I wanted 'sweeties and crisps' instead of 'lollies and chips'! What the English call chips we call hot chips. Except in McDonalds where they're called fries.

And we use the word pub too - the bar is just the place in the pub where you get your drinks.

With Harry Potter - it was the occasional poster from the first movie floating around that made me realise it's called the Sorcerer's Stone in the States. It was the most obvious example I could think of to illustrate my point.

'Americanisation' seems bland, when it's crowding out differences in other countries. I think what people resent is the lack of choice and diversity. In Australia we are fighting a losing battle to keep even 15% Australian content on the TV and radio - it's being crowded out by cheaper US imports, and now the new 'free trade agreement' we have signed with the US (that's free trade FOR the US, not for us).

Languages are disappearing at an alarming rate all over the world for many reasons. It's a great loss for those of us who love diversity.

But just think of Latin. It started as a very small language in a very small area of Italy surrounded by other languages. Then it grew and covered half of Europe, swallowing languages in it's wake. Then it broke up and out of it's ashes arose French, Italian, Spanish, half of English, etc. The same will happen with American English - not in our lifetimes, but eventually.

By the way, Howard is John 'teflon' Howard, our Prime Minister. Teflon because no matter how much he lies and cheats and gets caught, no one can make anything stick to him.

Leela Lamore said...

When I was in Belgium the people there HATED the way the Dutch spoke well dutch ... the Belgiums said it had too much of an American accent from watching too much MTV. Then again the Belgiums also believed their French was better than the French *smile*.

FTN said...

Did you need an American to chime in?

1 - Yes.
2 - Yes, although I rarely have to. KM is easy, but I have to think about Celcius for a moment.
3 - Yes, my wife spent a summer in Australia and had to learn some lingo. "Chucks and tea" (did I spell that right?) confused her at first.
4 - Yes.

I don't at all think I'm "smarter" than the average American... However, I would venture that the "average" American probably doesn't know those four things.

It's just different languages and slang. One isn't any better than the other. I suppose it just depends on your blog's audience. Are most of your readers in Australia?

Desmond Jones said...

hasarder -

Great post. First, let me answer your questions (just for reference, I'm an American - a "Yank" as they call us in Canada).

- I know about gas and petrol; lorries, spanners, bonnets, and many other "Britishisms". It's not uncommon for me to read books from British publishers, so I'm used to 'colour' 'realise' and 'theatre', etc. I don't think of them as misspelled, just British.

- I'm an engineer in the auto industry, and virtually all the work I do from day to day is done in metric units. I'm actually more comfortable with pressures in kilopascals than in psi. I freely admit, tho, that I don't think of my weight in kg, or my height in cm, without stopping to do some math. Once I tried to cook from a metric recipe, and that was a disaster.

- I know about 'bum', but 'fanny' was a new one for me. I imagine that 'fanny bag' would be a fairly humorous concept, at least as Americans throw the term around.

- didn't know about the Harry Potter title, but I've always been perplexed as to why it's so common for British books to be published under different titles in the US. Or why the Beatles' albums had different songs on them in England than in the US. Just seems dumb.

And I actually do know who "Howard" is, altho I expect I'm a little weird that way - I'm a bit of an Ozzie-phile

A story, just for fun -

A woman I know was travelling on business in London. Her contact met her at the airport and drove her to her hotel. Once she had checked in, he turned to leave, asking her, "Shall I knock you up about eight, then?"

Which, to an American, is either hilarious or crude, but in England, it's quite innocent. . .

hasarder said...

FTN - Almost half my readers come from the US, and the other half from the rest of the world (including here). I think that's why I was so conscious of writing "Australianisms".

I remember you saying once that your wife spent time in Australia. But I must confess - I can't work out what 'chucks' is. Tea, yes - either the drink or the evening meal, depending on context. But chucks? Maybe you mean 'chooks' (chickens).
Um, yes... it's your spelling, not my ignorance. Must be. ;)
Give me an explaination! I hate not knowing things.

Desmond - I read somewhere that there's a law that things must be 'repackaged' for the American market. But I can't find the reference - and I can't work out why they feel the need.

And that was a funny story! My best was when I asked a Japanese guy what airline he took to come here. It was QANTAS - but he pronounced it 'cunt-arse'. I didn't have the heart to tell him why I was laughing.

Leela - hmmm, yes I've heard that about the Belgians. I know that the French make them the butt of all jokes - like we do the New Zealanders. I'm sure it goes in reverse too.

Damnation's Cellar said...

Excellent post. As another American chiming in here, let me answer your questions:

1. I do know about petrol
2. I can't convert miles or farenheit without looking it up. I rarely have a need to do so.
3. I'd not heard that meaning of fanny, so I'll count that as my learning experience for the day! Thank you.
4. I do know about the Philosopher's Stone.

I work with someone from the UK and we have had similar discussions about -ise and -our. And about the various incarnations of cooked potatoes. I had to make a special trip to McDonald's when I was in the UK just to see what they called the things.

Hasarder said, regarding Latin, Then it broke up and out of it's ashes arose French, Italian, Spanish, half of English, etc. The same will happen with American English...

This is already happening, though not officially. And "we're" kicking and screaming to prevent it from happening.

FTN said...

Chooks, yes, chickens. It was my spelling -- I had no idea how it was spelled, so I was just going by how I remembered her pronouncing it.

My wife was also quite surprised when the family she was staying with actually went outside to kill the chicken before dinner.

hasarder said...

Thanks, DC!

FTN - Someone once told me they were cooking a roo for tea because we was coming over. When we arrived, there was the roo, freshly shot.

When I was a kid I went rabbit shooting with my dad, and we'd gut and clean them and have rabbit stew for tea. Those were the days...

And when I was a kid I watched my uncle kill a chook, reach up it's bum and pull out its heart and stuff. I can't remember if I ate that chicken or not.

Ah, memories.

I couldn't deal with any of that shit now. I let the butcher do it all.

Maegen said...

Sorry for the overload on the American comments, but I've gotta pipe up. I think it's your right to post on your blog however you like, without feeling obliged to please your audience when it doesn't please you! Screw off if you don't like what I write, you know!

I think you're right that American English, and "American-ness" in general is being toted and spewed around the world in excess. I really hate to see resentment towards Americans for that. It's a tragedy for languages to diminish or eventually disappear, but it happens, and not only because of English. It's a problem of being highly influenced by a more powerful entity (language, system, economy, whatever). Societies do what is most effective- linguisticly, economically, governmentally, etc). Essentially, the burdon is on the natives. It is their job to either limit the external influence, resist change, or promote a duality that encourages pride in the thing that is endangered.

I think we face this within our own cultures as well as globally. Living in Bulgaria, I can see the pressures to change. Bulgaria, a very small country, has been regionally isolated. You can see regional dialects here with similar degrees of variation to regional dialects in the US, a nation at least 10 times Bulgaria's size. But now, as Bulgarians travel around the country for business and pleasure, there is pressure to lose one's dialect now. Retaining your traditional customs is sometimes looked at as backward or a ploy for tourism. Here they struggle with the need to change to become more "European." What changes should they make? My notion is that some of the issues regarding their accension have arisen from deeply imbedded cultural norms. After a history of over 1000 years, Europe is asking for changes in less than ten. Besides the pressing EU issues, I see a country that has resisted modernization for generations, with a new generation that is begging for assimilation, for the "MTV2" image, for the "European lifestyle." There are giant conflicts in families, schools, towns, etc. on account of this dichotomy and whether or not it should be gapped.

All that to say, what to change, keep the same, lose, adapt, integrate, reject- everything must be decided by the effected party (individual or culture). Don't be bullied.

*disclaimer* I'm really not all about American cultural imperialism here. I recognize it and think it's sad. But sadly it's the way inter-cultural relations have always worked. It's just a new issue for inter-cultural relations to be so global and wide spread.

**I did know gas was petrol
**I can only aproximate miles to ks, and I'm no good with F to C
**I did know what fanny means
**I only learned about the Philosopher's Stone after living in Europe

hasarder said...

Pipe up all you want, Maegen! I was after American comments and yours are always particularly thoughtful and interesting.

I think it's a shame too that people resent Americans for the Americanisation of the world. After all, it's the multi-national corporations that are perpetuating it, not the bulk of American people.

Actually I agree with everything you said. Inter-cultural relations have always been this way, and globalisation is just making the process faster and more wide-spread. It really is up to the 'natives' to resist or reject if they want to. And encouraging pride is a very important aspect (regardless of what I said about national pride in a previous post). I know someone who is so bereft of pride in his culture that he has completely thrown it away in favour of western English-speaking culture. I think that's a tragedy and a great loss.

Over here we have the 'cultural cringe', the feeling that Aussie stuff is no good, or is only good after it has been accepted by other parts of the world. This is just as important a factor in the insidious spread of Americanisation as the push by American companies. After all, if we valued Aussie movies more, and saw Hollywood movies less, our cinemas would have to take notice or they'd lose money.