I must confess that, professional writer and editor though I am, I often forget the correct usage of toward and towards. The problem is that many experts will give you different answers for this sort of question.
While doing a quick Google search with this query in mind, I came across a fun little blog entry and ensuing Web discussion about the differences between American and British English. The conversation never ends...
In my never-ending discovery of new words and phrases belonging to the English language, I've discovered several that seem to be local to the East Midlands, or even just to Nottingham. Local dialects flourish in England. According to Bill Bryson, that Iowa-born, Yorkshire-dwelling, bestselling Anglo-American ambassador and astute language student:
"A paradox of accents is that in England, where people from a common heritage have been living together in a small area for thousands of years, there is still a huge variety of accents, whereas in America, where people from a great mix of backgrounds have been living together in a vast area for a relatively short period, people speak with just a few voices." (Mother Tongue, published in the U.S. by William Morrow, 1990)
Here a few gems I've learned since living in Nottingham, suitable for mixing it up next time you're bored at an office party.
'Ay up m' duc? Short for: Hey up, me duck? Translation: How are you? or How's it going? Pronunciation: Say it very fast in the front of your mouth. Notes: Do not be offended if a stranger calls you duck, or love, or chicken. Variations include ducky, lovey, lovely and chickie. They're all friendly terms given to a stranger, although sometimes can be patronizing, as doctor Max Pemberton wrote in this newspaper column.
All right? Standard UK Translation: What's up? used as a greeting, not expecting a real answer. Nottingham Translation: That's OK. Notes: As proof that even the English don't always understand each other, my English friend Jack tells this story about when she first moved to Nottingham from London and was working as a checker in a grocery store.
"I'd literally been in Nottingham a couple of weeks and I was packing a customer's bags. She said, 'You all right?" and I answered, "I'm fine, thanks," as I was packing her bags. She said, "You all right?" again and I answered, "Yeah, I'm fine." So she finally said, "No, you're all right, I'll pack the bags myself."
You can imagine how this is confusing to me, who still feels the need to answer the question, "All right?" with "Of course, I'm all right, why wouldn't I be?" instead of the standard, "You all right?" back.
Nesh Translation: People who feel the cold excessively. Notes: This one also comes from Jack, who learned it from her Nottingham-raised husband.
"Because I like to sit next to the radiator all the time, he says I'm nesh," she explained. "They're nesh, all those people who are always saying, 'I'm cold.'"
Jitty Translation: Alleyway between houses. Known as gangways in Chicago. Common usage: "To get to the door, just go up that jitty."
Mackle Translation: Cobble, craft, whip up, as in "I'll mackle something together."
Mash as in "mash the tea" Standard UK translation: brew or stew. "Brew the tea" or "Stew the tea." US translation: steep. "Steep the tea." Notes: Anybody else think, "Mash the tea" sounds funny?
You would think (or I would think) that after 16 months in England I would've gotten used to all of the language differences. But no, I am still amazed every few days by words I haven't heard before or that I haven't heard used in the same context. And I'm still (gently) mocked by friends for my use of words.
Here are a few that stand out from recent conversations:
We've had quite a cold snap in England the last several weeks, with temperatures hovering at or below freezing. When some folks commented, "You shouldn't be cold, you're from Chicago!" I replied, "No, I am cold. I've clearly acclimated to English weather." Cue the merriment. "Acclimated?" they hooted. "What a silly word. It's acclimatised." "That depends on where you are from," I said, perhaps with just a touch more austerity than was necessary
2. yonks: an age, a long time ago
Last Tuesday I was meeting with a colleague and she said, "I haven't seen Bill for yonks."
"For what?" I asked, quite puzzled.
"Yonks," she said, louder, not realising that I had no idea what she was talking about. After a moment, though, I figured it out.
"Does that mean 'ages?'," I asked.
"Oh, sorry," she apologized. "Yes, it does."
Yesterday I heard the word used again in conversation.
3. me old mucker: friend
When meeting up with my friend Kristen awhile back, she greeted me with, "Y' aw right, me old mucka?"
"Your old what?" I asked, quite astonished and wondering if I should be offended.
"Mucka," she said. (Well, really she said mucker, but with an English accent you don't hear the "er" part). "I guess it's a Nottingham term for friend. You know, it's what you'd call some guy down at the pub."
"Aha," I replied. "I love it! As long as it's not an insult."
It's hard to tell, sometimes.
This morning English Dad asked me to draw the curtains. I looked at him, bewildered. They were already shut.
He mistook my confusion for belligerence.
"Aren't you the one who closed them last night? Will you please draw them before you leave today?"
The penny dropped.
"Ah," I said. "Sorry, I was just doing a bit of inner translating there. At home we say 'draw' only in reference to closing the curtains. We say 'open' the curtains if we want to open them."
That's what I've always said, anyway.
I brought the subject up at the meeting I attended this morning. Of the 12 Brits in the room, 10 use "draw the curtains" interchangeably to mean open or close, while only two agreed with me that "draw" is an exclusive term for closing them.
Yet another example of how the smallest, idiosyncratic detail can lead to actual misunderstandings.
I'm a typical white American girl who, typically, is descended from a mix of Western European immigrants and feisty all-American pioneers.
I went to mostly white Arizona schools, a mostly white private college in Minnesota, and, as an adult in Chicago, worked primarily on the mostly white North Shore. So I don't know much about being a minority. Sure, there have been a few occasions here and there--mostly when attending multi-ethnic churches or working at places like McDonalds--when I've been a racial minority or had a different background from my peers, but I never knew what it was like to be marked by any distinguishing socioeconomic characteristic.
Until, of course, I moved to England. After a year being introduced as "Steph The American"; of smiling through endless, familiar conversations with new acquaintances about the differences between America and Britain; and of having all of my silly actions and comments explained away by friends with the slightly infuriating blanket comment, "Well, she's American, you know," I now have a tiny glimpse into life as a member of a minority group.
Please don't send the race police after me. I'm not complaining, and I know my experiences haven't exactly been a hardship. In fact, I enjoy most of them because I like connecting with people for whatever reason (even if I sometimes get tired of having the same conversation over and over and over again).
However, I now have a small understanding of what it is like to go through life with a marker, one that carries all sorts of associations and baggage over which I have no control. Is this what it's like to be black, I wonder? Or in a wheelchair? Or obese? Deaf? It is true that, despite their best intentions, many people will see the characteristic first, and this impression will inevitably color their perception of the person who bears it.
I was at a barbecue in May when I met a friend's fiance. My friends Laura and Tim, who were on the Discipleship Year program with me, were sitting across from us, and as Carl asked the familiar questions about America, I happily discoursed about the differences in our speech, language and culture. Then Tim turned to Laura and I heard him say,
"Is it wrong that I'm getting tired of hearing Steph talk about this?" he asked. "I've heard her have this conversation four or five times this year."
Laura just patted him on the shoulder.
"If you think you're tired of it, just think how Stephanie feels," she said. "She must have it all of the time, even when we're not around."
"Amen!" I said, and we all laughed.
The worst that's happened to me is that I've once in awhile been frustrated or slightly insulted by the way people here make blanket assumptions about the United States and then ask me to defend my country. For an extreme example I need look no further than one day a few weeks ago. I was chatting to a politically liberal friend from Continental Europe and said I was really looking forward to visiting the States next month.
"I won't go there until George Bush is out of power and has finished destroying the country," he responded.
I just passed the reputable American magazine Smithsonian over to my English teacher friend Simon to get an opinion about an article by novelist Richard Ford. Simon liked the article, but what he found most interesting was a sentence bearing the phrase: "who're said to have perfected the home concept."
"I've never seen the phrase 'who're' before," Simon said. "I'm not sure it's a legal contraction."
He handed the magazine to his girlfriend Julia, who peered at "who're" skeptically. Julia is also a teacher, although she teaches Year 3 (our second grade).
"I teach contractions in Year 3," she said, "and I'd mark that off. It's not a contraction."
"Yes, it is!" I protested. "I see it all of the time, and use it, as well."
"Well, then," announced Miss Julia, "it's a cultural contraction."
"You are allowed to use it," she continued, in her best shrill, schoolteacher voice, "but among the English, saying 'who're' would be like eating everything with tomato ketchup and holding forks in the right hand."
She gave a melodramatic gasp.
"No, no, that would never do," she finished.
I protested this statement, for while I do hold my fork in my right hand and only pick up my knife to cut something (as do all Americans with proper etiquette, unlike those European Continenal diners who eat with both hands, forks firmly in left and knives firmly in right), I do not eat everything with ketchup poured on top.
Except for my chips (French fries). But at least I don't eat them with mayonnaise.
True or false: The Brits are a reserved people not prone to public displays of affection.
If you answered True, then you are WRONG!
My first good English friend is a fellow journalist I'll call Nikki, whom I met when she did a short internship at Pioneer Press in 2004. A few weeks after she'd gone home, we at the newsroom received a lovely letter and package, and her card was signed with all manner of "love you"s, "miss you"s and kisses (xxx) and hugs (ooo). Nikki is a fantastic girl and wonderful friend, so, though we were a bit puzzled, we felt all warm and fuzzy and chalked the extremely affectionate messages up to her spirited and loving personality.
Then I decided to come to England to undergo the Discipleship Year service internship, and I started receiving emails from others in the program. I sat back home in my Chicago apartment last July and puzzled over an email that started out, "Hi everyone, I know we haven't all met yet but we've got a room for rent in our house" and ended with "Love, Rachel x". What was up with the loves and the symbolic kisses?
Then came an email from Pippa, who signed hers "Pippax." I tried to figure out what kind of a nickname Pippax was for Pippa (which is, in itself, a nickname for Philippa) until I figured out that the "x" was a kiss. She'd just forgotten the space.
I consider myself a rather exuberant, affectionate person, and I'm sure my friends would agree. Actually, probably just about anyone I know would agree that I'm a very outgoing extrovert. But letters or emails only get signed "love" if I'm writing to a family member (a CLOSE family member) or a very good friend. And xs for kisses? I don't think so.