I am pleased to announce that I have been taken on by an American literary agent, the charming Priya of the Lotus Lane Agency. This prompted me to dig up from one of my many boxes an American-English dictionary. It is a slim volume, almost bulimic, and it was first published in 1971.
This antiquity makes it a curious book. It preserves the distinction between the American billion (a thousand million) and the British (a million million): a numerological nomenclature that we abandoned twenty or thirty years ago. I believe that in the City billions have been smaller since the sixties.
Other terms testify to their times. I had no idea what a blackleg was, but imagine that in 1971 it was vital information for the travelling strike-breaker.
Mainly, though, it shows the areas in which our languages have drifted apart. Every third word or so is to do with either cooking or clothes. Barrettes, bathrobes, bellpeppers, bobbie pins, broils, business suits, candy, cheesecloth, clothes pins, collar stays, cookies, corn starch, cream of wheat and so on and so forth are still absent from English English. I knew about three of them, but the rest are a complete surprise. Do Americans really call it a lima bean rather than a broad one? Astonishing. Do swedes really become rutabagas beyond the Atlantic storms?
I suppose it’s natural that these words should have drifted. Cooking is more talked about than communicated. It doesn’t pop up much in films (movies) and novels in the way that serial killers do. Families have their own names for favourite dishes, so it is natural that a nation should as well.
And all those clothes! It is permanently amusing to an Englishman that American men like to wear their pants, knickers, vests and suspenders on the outside. If I tried that I would be arrested. Again.
What interests me about the clothes is that clothes do appear in novels. People are always being introduced as wearing a derby and jockey shorts, yet American novels have not affected English English. Why? I would guess that it is because clothes are almost never mentioned in films. On screen we can see what somebody has on (trousers and a tweed jacket) and no character needs to speak the words.
It’s an old streetwalker of a book: outdated but fun. I never knew that a robin was a different creature in America. However, the book misses my favourite difference. Few legal activities give me more pleasure than hearing an angry American telling me that he’s really mad and really pissed, because in English that means that he’s drunk and insane.