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London: An Olympian fight for the English language

As George Bernard Shaw once observed, England and America are two countries divided by a common language. That trans-Atlantic linguistic divide will be magnified by Olympic proportions when an estimated 250,000 Americans come to town for the London Games.
By HT Correspondent | AP, London
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2012 12:14 PM IST

The lorry driver taking kit to the football pitch was so knackered he pulled into the lay-by near the petrol station for a quick kip.

Huh?

For American readers, that translates as: The truck driver delivering uniforms to the soccer field was so tired he pulled into the rest area near the gas station for a nap.

As George Bernard Shaw once observed, England and America are two countries divided by a common language. That trans-Atlantic linguistic divide will be magnified by Olympic proportions this summer when an estimated 250,000 Americans come to town for the London Games.

Yes, the Internet, television, movies, global travel and business have blurred language differences, and many people in the US and UK are familiar with those bizarre figures of speech from both sides of the pond.

Yet important differences remain, prompting this rough guide to just a few of the potential colloquial conundrums that await baffled American visitors to the old country. (A caveat: This is not a definitive, all-inclusive list and doesn't take into account different spelling, accents, Cockney rhyming slang or expletives!)

Food and drink
Those are "chips" that go with your burger, instead of fries. You'd like some potato chips? Those are "crisps."

A soft drink or soda? That would be a "fizzy drink." A soft drink can refer to any nonalcoholic beverage. If you want the hard stuff, go to the "off-license" rather than a liquor store.

If the waiter asks if you'd like "pudding," he's referring to dessert in general, not necessarily the soft treat that Bill Cosby once pitched in TV ads. By the way, if you see "black pudding" or "blood pudding" on the menu — well, that's not dessert at all. It's sausage.

A "cracker" isn't only what you put cheese on. It's also a very good thing, as in "That goal was a cracker!" It can be an adjective, too: "London will put on a cracking opening ceremony."

Olympic lingo
Let's talk "sport." That's singular in Britain, not like sports in the US.

Those "blokes" (guys) hawking 100-meter final tickets? They're not scalpers, they're "ticket touts." Incidentally, if you can't get any tickets, you can always watch on "telly" where the commercials are called "adverts."

You'll definitely do a lot of "queuing" (waiting in line), especially at Olympic venues for security checks. Whatever you do, don't "jump the queue."

Going to watch the finish of the marathon or cycling road race? Yes, the venue is the "Mall." No, that's not a shopping center. It's that iconic boulevard leading from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. And, it's pronounced the "mal."

Headed to the Olympic Stadium to watch track and field? The preferred term in England is "athletics."

Of course, soccer is "football." The sport is played on a pitch, rather than a field. A player might kick the ball into the "stand," rather than stands — and there definitely are no bleachers. Players wear "shirts," not jerseys, and "boots," not cleats, and their uniform is called their "kit."

Travel talk
Londoners don't walk on the sidewalk. They walk on the "pavement."

That crosswalk? It's a "zebra crossing" (pronounced zeh-bra, not zee-bra).

The best way to travel around the city during the Olympics will be by the "Underground," the rail network commonly known as the "Tube." It's not the "subway" — that's a pedestrian underpass.

Tube trains have "carriages," not cars. When you get on or off the Tube, don't forget to "mind the gap" between the platform and the train.

On the road
Anything to do with cars can be oh-so confusing — and not just because you drive on the left side of the road here.

London's roads are full of maddening traffic "roundabouts," not circles or rotaries.

The hood and the trunk? No, no. That's the "bonnet" and the "boot." The windshield is the "windscreen," side-view mirrors are "wing mirrors," the stick shift is the "gear stick."

A highway is a "motorway." You park in the "car park."

Randomly speaking
You take "the lift," not the elevator.

That little corner store where you can buy newspapers and magazines and snacks? It's usually called a "newsagent." You might hear someone say, "I'm popping down to the newsagent for a packet of fags."

"Fags" is slang for cigarettes.

Looking for a trash can? Try a "rubbish bin" instead.

Thumbtacks don't exist; they're "drawing pins."


Express yourself
If someone is feeling "chuffed," don't worry. That means they're delighted, as in, "I'm chuffed to bits that I got tickets for the closing ceremony."

If someone says they're "gutted," it has nothing to do with fish. They're just bitterly disappointed, as in the British Olympic sprinter who's "gutted" after failing to qualify for the 200-meter final. By contrast, he'll be "over the moon" if he makes it.

You'll hear "Cheers" a lot, and not just in the pub. It's a term for thank you. So is "Ta."

On the other hand
Some words take on a totally different, even opposite, meaning in the two countries.

"Torrid" is a prime example — positive in American sports, negative in Britain.

In the US, if Kobe Bryant goes on a torrid run in the fourth quarter, he's scoring a bunch of points. In England, if Chelsea striker Fernando Torres is having a torrid season, he can't put the ball in the net.

Dressing down
The lexicon for clothing can be a minefield.

Be particularly careful when you talk about "pants." In Britain, that refers to underwear. Trousers is the more appropriate term. (Pants can also be an adjective, meaning bad or lousy, as in "That film was pants.")

Suspenders don't hold up trousers; "braces" do. In British English, "suspenders" are what Americans call a garter belt.

Weather or not
For those cool evenings, pack a "jumper," as opposed to a sweater. Or a jacket called an "anorak." But note: "anorak" is also a somewhat derogatory term for a nerdy, obsessive person.

And, finally, with London's rainy reputation in mind, don't forget to carry an umbrella.

Yes, if there's one phrase worth remembering, it's this:

Bring a brolly.

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