H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.IV. American and English Today
2. Differences in Usage
An Englishman, entering his home, does not walk in upon the first floor, but upon the ground floor. What he calls the first floor (or, more commonly, first storey, not forgetting the penultimate e!) is what we call the second floor, and so on up to the roof—which is covered not with tin, but with slate, tiles or leads. He does not take a paper; he takes in a paper. He does not ask his servant, “Is there any mail for me?” but “Are there any letters for me?” for mail, in the American sense, is a word that he seldom uses, save in such compounds as mail-van, mail-train and mail-order. He alwaus speaks of it as the post. The man who brings it is not a letter-carrier but a postman. It is posted, not mailed, at a pillar-box, not at a mail-box. It never includes postal-orders but only post-cards, never money-orders, but only postal-orders or postoffice-orders. The Englishman dictates his answers, not to a typewriter, but to a typist; a typewriter is merely the machine. If he desires the recipient to call him by telephone he doesn’t say, “’phone me at a quarter of eight,” but “ring me up at a quarter to eight.” And when the call comes he says “are you there?” When he gets home, he doesn’t find his wife waiting for him in the parlor or living-room, but in the drawing-room or in her sitting-room, and the tale of domestic disaster that she has to tell does not concern the hired-girl but the scullery-maid. He doesn’t bring her a box of candy, but a box of sweets. He doesn’t leave a derby hat in the hall, but a bowler. His wife doesn’t wear shirtwaists, but blouses. When she buys one she doesn’t say “charge it,” but “put it down.” When she orders a tailor-made suit, she calls it a costume or a coat-and-skirt. When she wants a spool of thread she asks for a reel of cotton. Such things are bought, not in the department-stores, but at the stores, which are substantially the same thing. In these stores calico means a plain cotton cloth; in the United States it means a printed cotton cloth. Things bought on the instalment plan in England are said to be bought on the hire-purchase plan or system; the instalment business itself is the credit-trade. Goods ordered by post (not mail) on which the dealer pays the cost of transportation are said to be sent, not postpaid or prepaid, but postfree or carriage-paid.
An Englishman does not wear suspenders, but braces. Suspenders are his wife’s garters; his own are sock-suspenders. The family does not seek sustenance in a rare tenderloin but in an underdone undercut or fillet. It does not eat beets, but beet-roots. The wine on the table, if white and German, is not Rhine wine, but Hock. Yellow turnips, in England, are called Swedes, and are regarded as fit food for cattle only; when rations were short there, in 1916, the Saturday Review made a solemn effort to convince its readers that they were good enough to go upon the table. The English, of late, have learned to eat another vegetable formerly resigned to the lower fauna, to wit, American sweet corn. But they are still having some difficulty about its name, for plain corn in England, as we have seen, means all the grains used by man. Some time ago, in the Sketch, one C. J. Clive, a gentleman farmer of Worcestershire, was advertising sweet corn-cobs as the “most delicious of all vegetables,” and offering to sell them at 6s. 6d. a dozen, carriage-paid. Chicory is something else that the English are unfamiliar with; they always call it endive. By chicken they mean any fowl, however ancient. Broilers and friers are never heard of over there. Neither are crawfish, which are always crayfish. The classes which, in America, eat breakfast, dinner and supper, have breakfast, dinner and tea in England; supper always means a meal eaten late in the evening. No Englishman ever wears a frock-coat or Prince-Albert, or lives in a bungalow; he wears a morning-coat and lives in a villa or cottage. His wife’s maid, if she has one, is not Ethel, or Maggie but Robinson, and the nurse-maid who looks after his children is not Lizzie but Nurse. So, by the way, is a trained nurse in a hospital, whose full style is not Miss Jones, but Nurse Jones or Sister. And the hospital itself, if private, is not a hospital at all, but a nursing-home, and its trained nurses are plain nurses, or hospital nurses, or maybe nursing sisters. And the white-clad young gentlemen who make love to them are not studying medicine but walking the hospitals. Similarly, an English law student does not study law, but reads the law.
If an English boy goes to a public school, it is not a sign that he is getting his education free, but that his father is paying a good round sum for it and is accepted as a gentleman. A public school over there corresponds to our prep school; it is a place maintained chiefly by endowments, wherein boys of the upper classes are prepared for the universities. What we know as a public school is called a board school or council school in England, not because the pupils are boarded but because it is managed by a school board or county council. The boys in a public (i. e., private) school are divided, not into classes, or grades, but into forms, which are numbered, the lowest being the first form. The benches they sit on are also called forms. An English boy whose father is unable to pay for his education goes first into a babies’ class (a kindergarten is always a private school) in a primary or infants’ school. He moves thence to class one, class two, class three and class four, and then into the junior school or public elementary school, where he enters the first standard. Until now boys and girls have sat together in class, but hereafter they are separated, the boy going to a boys’ school and the girl to a girls’. He goes up a standard a year. At the third or fourth standard, for the first time, he is put under a male teacher. He reaches the seventh standard, if he is bright, at the age of 12, and then goes into what is known as the ex-seventh. If he stays at school after this he goes into the ex-ex-seventh. But many leave the public elementary school at the ex-seventh and go into the secondary school, which is what Americans call a high-school. “The lowest class in a secondary school,” says an English correspondent, “is known as the third form. In this class the boy from the public elementary school meets boys from private preparatory schools, who usually have an advantage over him, being armed with the Greek alphabet, the first twenty pages of ‘French Without Tears,’ the fact that Balbus built a wall, and the fact that lines equal to the same line are equal to one another. But usually the public elementary school boy conquers these disabilities by the end of his first high-school year, and so wins a place in the upper fourth form, while his wealthier competitors grovel in the lower fourth. In schools where the fagging system prevails the fourth is the lowest form that is fagged. The lower fifth is the retreat of the unscholarly. The sixth form is the highest. Those who fail in their matriculation for universities or who wish to study for the civil service or pupil teachers’ examinations go into a thing called the remove, which is less a class than a state of mind. Here are the Brahmins, the contemplative Olympians, the prefects, the lab. monitors. The term public elementary school is recent. It was invented when the old board school system was abolished about 1906. But the term standard is ancient.” The principal of an English public (i. e., private) school is a head-master or head-mistress, but in a council school he or she may be a principal. The lower pedagogues used to be ushers, but are now assistant masters (or mistresses). The titular head of a university is a chancellor or rector. He is always some eminent public man, and a vice-chancellor or vice-rector performs his duties. The head of a mere college may be a president, principal, master, warden, rector, dean or provost.
At the universities the students are not divided into freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, as with us, but are simply first-year-men, second-year-men, and so on, though a first-year-man is sometimes a fresher. Such distinctions, however, are not as important in England as in America; members of the university (they are called members, not students) do not flock together according to seniority, and there is no regulation forbidding an upper classman, or even a graduate, to be polite to a student just entered. An English university man does not study; he reads. He knows nothing of frats, class-days, senior-proms and such things; save at Cambridge and Dublin he does not even speak of a commencement. On the other hand his daily speech is full of terms unintelligible to an American student, for example, wrangler, tripos, head, pass-degree and don.
The upkeep of council-schools in England comes out of the rates, which are local taxes levied upon householders. For that reason an English municipal taxpayer is called a ratepayer. The functionaries who collect and spend money are not office-holders, but public-servants. The head of the local police is not a chief of police, but a chief constable. The fire department is the fire brigade. The street-cleaner is a crossing-sweeper. The parish poorhouse is a workhouse. If it is maintained by two or more parishes jointly it becomes a union. A pauper who accepts its hospitality is said to be on the rates. A policeman is a bobby familiarly and a constable officially. He is commonly mentioned in the newspapers, not by his name, but as P. C. 643 A—i. e., Police Constable No. 643 of the A Division. The fire-laddie, the ward executive, the wardman, the roundsman, the strong-arm squad, the third-degree, and other such objects of American devotion are unknown in England. An English saloon-keeper is officially a licensed victualler. His saloon is a public house, or, colloquially, a pub. He does not sell beer by the bucket or can or growler or schooner, but by the pint. He and his brethren, taken together, are the licensed trade. His back-room is a parlor. If he has a few upholstered benches in his place he usually calls it a lounge. He employs no bartenders. Barmaids do the work, with maybe a barman to help.
The American language, as we have seen, has begun to take in the English boot and shop, and it is showing hospitality to head-master, haberdasher and week-end, but subaltern, civil servant, porridge, moor, draper, treacle, tram and mufti are still rather strangers in the United States, as bleachers, picayune, air-line, campus, chore, stogic and hoodoo are in England. A subaltern is a commissioned officer in the army, under the rank of captain. A civil servant is a public servant in the national civil service; if he is of high rank, he is usually called a permanent official. Porridge, moor, scullery, draper, treacle and tram, though unfamiliar, still need no explanation. Mufti means ordinary male clothing; an army officer out of uniform (American: in cits, or in citizen’s clothes) is said to be in mufti. To this officer a sack-suit or business-suit is a lounge-suit. He carries his clothes in a box. He does not miss a train; he loses it. He does not ask for a round-trip ticket, but for a return ticket. If he proposes to go to the theatre he does not reserve or engage seats; he books them. If he sits down-stairs, it is not in the orchestra, but in the stalls. If he likes vaudeville, he goes to a music-hall, where the head-liners are top-liners. If he has to stand in line, he does it, not in a line, but in a queue. If he goes to see a new play, he says that it has just been put up, not put on.
In England a corporation is a public company or limited liability company. The term corporation, over there, is commonly applied only to the mayor, aldermen and sheriffs of a city, as in the London corporation. An Englishman writes Ltd. after the name of a limited liability (what we would call incorporated) bank or trading company, as we write Inc. He calls its president its chairman or managing director. Its stockholders are its shareholders, and hold shares instead of stock in it. The place wherein such companies are floated and looted—the Wall Street of London—is called the City, with a capital C. Bankers, stock-jobbers, promoters, directors and other such leaders of its business are called City men. The financial editor of a newspaper is its City editor. Government bonds are consols, or stocks, or the funds. To have money in the stocks is to own such bonds. As Englishman hasn’t a bank-account, but a banking-account. He draws cheques (not checks), not on his bank but on the bankers. In England there is a rigid distinction between a broker and a stock-broker. A broker means, not a dealer in securities, as in our Wall Street broker, but a dealer in second-hand furniture. To have the brokers in the house means to be bankrupt, with one’s very household goods in the hands of one’s creditors. For a City man to swindle a competitor in England is not to do him up or to do him, but to do him in. When any English business man retires he does not actually retire; he declines business.
Tariff reform, in England, does not mean a movement toward free trade, but one toward protection. The word Government, meaning what we call the administration, is always capitalized and plural, e. g., “The Government are considering the advisability, etc.” Vestry, committee, council, ministry and even company are also plural, though sometimes not capitalized. A member of Parliament does not run for re-election; he stands. He does not make a campaign, but a canvass. He does not represent a district, but a division or constituency. He never makes a stumping trip, but always a speaking tour. When he looks after his fences he calls it nursing the constituency. At a political meeting (they are often rough in England) the bouncers are called stewards; the suffragettes used to delight in stabbing them with hatpins. A member of Parliament is not afflicted by the numerous bugaboos that menace an American congressman. He knows nothing of lame ducks, pork barrels, gag-rule, junkets, pulls, gerrymanders, omnibus-bills, snakes, niggers in the woodpile, Salt river, crow, bosses, ward heelers, men higher up, silk-stockings, repeaters, steam-rollers, ballot-box stuffers and straight and split tickets (he always calls them ballots or voting papers). He has never heard, save as a report of far-off heresies, of direct primaries, the recall, or the initiative and referendum. A roll-call in Parliament is a division. A member speaking is said to be up or on his legs. When the house adjourns it is said to rise. A member referring to another in the course of a debate does not say “the gentleman from Manchester,” but “the honorable gentleman” (written hon. gentleman) or, if he happens to be a privy councillor, “the right honorable gentleman,” or, if he is a member of one of the universities, or a member of one of the learned professions, “the honorable and learned gentleman.” If the speaker refers to a member of his own party he may say “my honorable friend.”
In the United States a pressman is a man who runs a printing press; in England he is a newspaper reporter, or, as the English usually say, a journalist. This journalist works, not at space rates, but at lineage rates. A printing press is a machine. An editorial in a newspaper is a leading article or leader. An editorial paragraph is a leaderette, or par. A newspaper clipping is a cutting. A pass to the theatre is an order. The room-clerk of a hotel is the secretary. A real-estate agent or dealer is an estate-agent. The English keep up most of the old distinctions between physicians and surgeons, barristers and solicitors. A barrister is greatly superior to a solicitor. He alone can address the higher courts and the parliamentary committees; a solicitor must keep to office work and the inferior courts. A man with a grievance goes first to his solicitor, who then instructs or briefs a barrister for him. If that barrister, in the course of the trial, wants certain evidence removed from the record, he moves that it be struck out, not stricken out, as an American lawyer would say. Only barristers may become judges. An English barrister, like his American brother, takes a retainer when he is engaged. But the rest of his fee does not wait upon the termination of the case: he expects and receives a refresher from time to time. A barrister is never admitted to the bar, but is always called. If he becomes a King’s Counsel, or K. C. (a purely honorary appointment), he is said to have taken silk. In the United States a lawyer tries a case and the judge hears it; in England the judge tries it. In the United States the court hands down a decision; in England the court hands it out. In the United States a lawyer probates a will; in England he proves it, or has it admitted to probate.
The common objects and phenomena of nature are often differently named in England and America. As we saw in a previous chapter, such Americanisms as creek and run, for small streams, are practically unknown in England, and the English moor and downs early disappeared from American. The Englishman knows the meaning of sound (e. g., Long Island Sound), but he nearly always uses channel in place of it. In the same way the American knows the meaning of the English bog, but rejects the English distinction between it and swamp, and almost always uses swamp or marsh (often elided to ma’sh). The Englishman seldom, if ever, describes a severe storm as a hurricane, a cyclone, a tornado, or a blizzard. He never uses cold-snap, cloudburst or under the weather. He does not say that the temperature is 29 degrees (Fahrenheit) or that the thermometer or the mercury is at 29 degrees, but that there are three degrees of frost. He calls ice water iced-water. He knows nothing of blue-grass country or of the pennyr’yal. What we call the mining regions he knows as the black country. He never, of course, uses down-East or up-State. Many of our names for common fauna and flora are unknown to him save as strange Americanisms, e. g., terrapin, moose, June-bug, persimmon, gumbo, egg-plant, alfalfa, catnip, sweet-potato and yam. Until lately he called the grapefruit a shaddock. He still calls the rutabaga a mangelwurzel. He is familiar with many fish that we seldom see, e. g., the turbot. He also knows the hare, which is seldom heard of in America. But he knows nothing of devilled-crabs, crab-cocktails, seafood-dinners, clam-chowder or oyster-stews, and he never goes to oyster-suppers, clam-bakes or burgoo-picnics. He doesn’t buy peanuts when he goes to the circus. He calls them monkeynuts, and to eat them publicly is infra dig. The common American use of peanut as an adjective of disparagement, as in peanut politics, is incomprehensible to him.
In England a hack is not a public coach, but a horse let out at hire, or one of similar quality. A life insurance policy is usually not an insurance policy at all, but an assurance policy. What we call the normal income tax is the ordinary tax; what we call the surtax is the supertax. An Englishman never lives on a street, but always in it. He never lives in a block of houses, but in a row; it is never in a section of the city, but always in a district. The business-blocks that are so proudly exhibited in all small American towns are quite unknown to him. He often calls an office-building (his are always small) simply a house, e. g., Carmelite House. Going home by train he always takes the down-train, no matter whether he be proceeding southward to Wimbleton, westward to Shepherd’s Bush, northward to Tottenham or eastward to Noak’s Hill. A train headed toward London is always an up-train, and the track it runs on is the up-line. Eastbound and westbound tracks and trains are unknown in England, and in general the Englishman has a much less keen sense of the points of the compass than the American. He knows the East End and the West End, but he never speaks of the north-east corner of two streets. When an Englishman boards a ’bus, in fact, it is not at a corner at all, but at a crossing, though he is familiar with such forms as Hyde Park Corner. The place he is bound for is not three squares or blocks away, but three turnings. Square, in England, always means a small park. A backyard is a garden. A subway is always a tube, or the underground. But an underground passage for pedestrians is a subway. English streets have no sidewalks; they always call them pavements or foot-paths or simply paths. An automobile is always a motor-car or motor. Auto is almost unknown, and with it to auto. So is machine.
An Englishman always calls russet, yellow or tan shoes brown shoes (or, if they cover the ankle, boots). He calls a pocketbook a purse, and gives the name of pocketbook to what we call a memorandum-book. His walking stick is always a stick, never a cane. By cord he means something strong, almost what we call twine; a thin cord he always calls a string; his twine is the lightest sort of string. When he applies the adjective homely to a woman he means that she is simple and home-loving, not necessarily that she is plain. He uses dessert, not to indicate the whole last course at dinner, but to designate the fruit only; the rest is ices or sweets. He uses vest, not in place of waistcoat, but in place of undershirt. Similarly, he applies pants, not to his trousers, but to his drawers. An Englishman who inhabits bachelor quarters is said to live in chambers; if he has a flat he calls it a flat, and not an apartment, which term he reserves for a single room. Flat-houses are often mansions. The janitor or superintendent thereof is a care-taker or porter. The scoundrels who snoop around in search of divorce evidence are not private detectives, but private enquiry agents.
The Englishman is naturally unfamiliar with baseball, and in consequence his language is bare of the countless phrases and metaphors that it has supplied to American. Many of these phrases and metaphors are in daily use among us, for example, fan, rooter, bleachers, batting-average, double-header, grand-stand-play, Charley-horse, pennant-winner, gate-money, busher, minor-leaguer, glass-arm, to strike out, to foul, to be shut out, to play ball, on the bench, on to his curves and three strikes and out. The national game of draw-poker has also greatly enriched American with terms that are either quite unknown to the Englishman, or known to him only as somewhat dubious Americanisms, among them, cold-deck, kitty, full-house, jack-pot, four-flusher, ace-high, pot, penny-ante, divvy, a card up his sleeve, three-of-a-kind, to ante up, to stand pat, to call (a bluff), to pony up, to hold out, to cash in, to go it one better, to chip in and for keeps. But the Englishman uses many more racing terms and metaphors than we do and he has got a good many phrases from other games, particularly cricket. The word cricket itself has a definite figurative meaning. It indicates, in general, good sports-manship. To take unfair advantage of an opponent is not cricket. The sport of boating, so popular on the Thames, has also given colloquial English some familiar terms, almost unknown in the United States, e. g., punt and weir. Contrariwise, pungy, batteau and scow are unheard of in England, and canoe is not long emerged from the estate of an Americanism. The game known as ten-pins in America is called nine-pins in England, and once had that name over here. The Puritans forbade it, and its devotees changed its name in order to evade the prohibition. Finally, there is soccer, a form of football that is still relatively little known in the United States. What we call simply football is Rugby or Rugger to the Englishman. The word soccer is derived from association; the rules of the game were established by the London Football Association. Soccer is one of the relatively few English experiments in portmanteau words. Another is to be found in Bakerloo, the name of one of the London underground lines, from Baker-street and Waterloo, its termini.
But though the English talk of racing, football, cricket and golf a great deal, they have developed nothing comparable to the sporting argot used by all American sporting reporters. When, during the war, various American soldier nines played baseball in England, some of the English newspapers employed visiting American reporters to report the games, and the resultant emission of wild and woolly technicalities interested English readers much more than the games themselves. An English correspondent, greatly excited, sent me the following report from the Times of May 26, 1919:
This jargon, as I say, flabbergasted England, but it would be hard to find an American who could not understand it. As a set-off to it—and to nineteenth hole, the one American contribution to the argot of golf, if African golf for craps be omitted—the English have an ecclesiastical vocabulary with which we are almost unacquainted, and it is in daily use, for the church bulks large in public affairs over there. Such terms as vicar, canon, verger, prebendary, primate, curate, nonconformist, dissenter, convocation, minster, chapter, crypt, living, presentation, glebe, benefice, locum tenens, suffragan, almoner, dean and pluralist are to be met with in the English newspapers constantly, but on this side of the water they are seldom encountered. Nor do we hear much of matins, lauds, lay-readers, ritualism and the liturgy. The English use of holy orders is also strange to us. They do not say that a young man is studying for the ministry, but that he is reading for holy orders. They do not say that he is ordained, but that he takes orders. Save he be in the United Free Church of Scotland, he is never a minister, though the term appears in the Book of Common Prayer; save he be a nonconformist, he is never a pastor; a clergyman of the Establishment is always either a rector, a vicar or a curate, and colloquially a parson.
In American chapel simply means a small church, usually the branch of some larger one; in English it has acquired the special sense of a place of worship unconnected with the Establishment. Though three-fourths of the people of Ireland are Catholics (in Munster and Connaught, more than nine-tenths), and the Protestant Church of Ireland has been disestablished since 1871, a Catholic place of worship in that country is still a chapel and not a church. So is a Methodist wailing-place in England, however large it may be, though now and then tabernacle is substituted. Chapel, of course, is also used to designate a small church of the Establishment, as St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. A Methodist, in Great Britain, is not ordinarily a Methodist, but a Wesleyan. Contrariwise, what the English call simply a churchman is an Episcopalian in the United States, what they call the Church (always capitalized!) is the Protestant Episcopal Church, what they call a Roman Catholic is simply a Catholic, and what they call a Jew is usually softened (if he happens to be an advertiser) to a Hebrew. The English Jews have no such idiotic fear of the plain name as that which afflicts the more pushing and obnoxious of the race in America. “News of Jewry” is a common headline in the London Daily Telegraph, which is owned by Lord Burnham, a Jew, and has had many Jews on its staff, including Judah P. Benjamin, the American. The American language, of course, knowns nothing of dissenters. Nor of such gladiators of dissent as the Plymouth Brethren, nor of the nonconformist conscience, though the United States suffers from it even more damnably than England. The English, to make it even, get on without circuit-riders, holy-rollers, Dunkards, hard-shell Baptists, United Brethren, Seventh Day Adventists and other such American ferœ naturœ and are born, live, die and go to heaven without the aid of either the uplift or the chautauqua.
In music the English cling to an archaic and unintelligible nomenclature, long since abandoned in America. Thus they call a double whole note a breve, a whole note a semibreve, a half note a minim, a quarter note a crotchet, an eighth note a quaver, a sixteenth note a semi-quaver, a thirty-second note a demisemiquaver, and a sixty-fourth note a hemidemisemiquaver, or semidemisemiquaver. If, by any chance, an English musician should write a one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth note he probably wouldn’t know what to call it. This clumsy terminology goes back to the days of plain chant, with its longa, brevis, semi-brevis, minima and semiminima. The French and Italians cling to a system almost as confusing, but the Germans use ganze, halbe, viertel, achtel, etc. I have been unable to discover the beginning of the American system, but it would seem to be borrowed from the German. Since the earliest times a great many of the music teachers in the United States have been Germans, and some of the rest have had German training.
In the same way the English hold fast (though with a gradual slacking of the grip of late) to a clumsy and inaccurate method of designating the sizes of printers’ types. In America the simple point system makes the business easy; a line of 14-point type occupies exactly the vertical space of two lines of 7-point. But the English still indicate differences in size by such arbitrary and confusing names as brilliant, diamond, small pearl, pearl, ruby, ruby-nonpareil, nonpareil, minion-nonpareil, emerald, minion, brevier, bourgeois, long primer, small pica, pica, English, great primer and double pica. They also cling to a fossil system of numerals in stating ages. Thus, an Englishman will say that he is seven-and-forty, not that he is forty-seven. This is probably a direct survival, preserved by more than a thousand years of English conservatism, of the Anglo-Saxon seofan-and-feowertig. He will also say that he weighs eleven stone instead of 154 pounds. A stone is 14 pounds, and it is always used in stating the heft of a man. He employs such designations of time as fortnight and twelve-month a great deal more than we do, and has certain special terms of which we know nothing, for example, quarter-day, bank-holiday, long-vacation, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Per contra, he knows nothing whatever of our Thanksgiving, Arbor, Labor and Decoration Days or of legal holidays, or of Yom Kippur. Finally, he always says “a quarter to nine,” not “a quarter of nine.” If it is 8.35 he usually says that it is five-and-twenty minutes to nine. But he never inverts any other number; it is twenty-three minutes to and twenty-seven minutes past. He rarely says fifteen minutes to; nearly always he uses quarter to. He never says a quarter hour or a half hour; he says a quarter of an hour and half an hour.
In English usage, to proceed, the word directly is always used to signify immediately; in American a contingency gets into it, and it may mean no more than soon. In England quite means “completely, wholly, entirely, altogether, to the utmost extent, nothing short of, in the fullest sense, positively, absolutely”; in America it is conditional, and means only nearly, approximately, substantially, as in “he sings quite well.” An Englishman does not say “I will pay you up” for an injury, but “I will pay you back.” He doesn’t look up a definition in a dictionary; he looks it out. He doesn’t say, being ill, “I am getting on well,” but “I am going on well.” He doesn’t use the American “different from” or “different than”; he uses “different to.” He never adds the pronoun in such locutions as “it hurts me,” but says simply, “it hurts.” He never “catches up with you” on the street; he “catches you up.” He never says “are you through?” but “have you finished?” He never uses to notify as a transitive verb; an official act may be notified, but not a person. He never uses gotten as the perfect participle of get; he always uses plain got. An English servant never washes the dishes; she always washes the dinner or tea things. She doesn’t live out, but goes into service. Her beau is not her fellow, but her young man. She does not keep company with him but walks out with him. She is never hired, but always engaged; only inanimate things, such as a hall or cab, are hired. When her wages are increased she does not get a raise, but a rise. When her young man goes into the army he does not join it; he joins up.
That an Englishman always calls out “I say!” and not simply “say!” when he desires to attract a friend’s attention or register a protestation of incredulity—this perhaps is too familiar to need notice. His hear, hear! and oh, oh! are also well known. He is much less prodigal with good-bye than the American; he uses good-day and good-afternoon far more often. A shop-assistant would never say good-bye to a customer. To an Englishman it would have a subtly offensive smack; good-afternoon would be more respectful. Various very common American phrases are quite unknown to him, for example, over his signature, on time and planted to corn. The first-named he never uses, and he has no equivalent for it; an Englishman who issues a signed statement simply makes it in writing. He knows nothing of our common terms of disparagement, such as kike, wop, yap and rube. His pet-name for a tiller of the soil is not Rube or Cy, but Hodge. When he goes gunning he does not call it hunting, but shooting; hunting is reserved for the chase of the fox. When he goes to a dentist he does not have his teeth filled, but stopped. He knows nothing of European plan hotels, or of day-coaches, or of baggage-checks.
An intelligent Englishwoman, coming to America to live, told me that the two things which most impeded her first communications with untraveled Americans, even above the gross differences between English and American pronunciation and intonation, were the complete absence of the general utility adjective jolly from the American vocabulary, and the puzzling omnipresence and versatility of the verb to fix. In English colloquial usage jolly means almost anything; it intensifies all other adjectives, even including miserable and homesick. An Englishman is jolly bored, jolly hungry or jolly well tired; his wife is jolly sensible; his dog is jolly keen; the prices he pays for things are jolly dear (never steep or stiff or high: all Americanisms). But he has no noun to match the American proposition, meaning proposal, business, affair, case, consideration, plan, theory, solution and what not: only the German zug can be ranged beside it. And he has no verb in such wide practise as to fix. In his speech it means only to make fast or to determine. In American it may mean to repair, as in “the plumber fixed the pipe”; to dress, as in “Mary fixed her hair”; to prepare, as in “the cook is fixing the gravy”; to bribe, as in “the judge was fixed”; to settle, as in “the quarrel was fixed up”; to heal, as in “the doctor fixed his boil”; to finish, as in “Murphy fixed Sweeney in the third round”; to be well-to-do, as in “John is well-fixed”; to arrange, as in “I fixed up the quarrel”; to be drunk, as in “the whiskey fixed him”; to punish, as in “I’ll fix him”; and to correct, as in “he fixed my bad Latin.” Moreover, it is used in all its English senses. An Englishman never goes to a dentist to have his teeth fixed. He does not fix the fire; he makes it up, or mends it. He is never well-fixed, either in money or by liquor. The American use of to run is also unfamiliar to Englishmen. They never run can hotel, or a railroad; they always keep it or manage it.
The English use quite a great deal more than we do, and, as we have seen, in a different sense. Quite rich, in American, means tolerably rich, richer than most; quite so, in English, is identical in meaning with exactly so. In American just is almost equivalent to the English quite, as in just lovely. Thornton shows that this use of just goes back to 1794. The word is also used in place of exactly in other ways, as in just in time, just how many and just what do you mean? Two other adverbs, right and good, are used in American in senses strange to an Englishman. Thornton shows that the excessive use of right, as in right away, right good and right now, was already widespread in the United States early in the last century; his first example is dated 1818. He believes that the locution was “possibly imported from the southwest of Ireland.” Whatever its origin, it quickly attracted the attention of English visitors. Dickens noted right away as an almost universal Americanism during his first American tour, in 1842, and poked fun at it in the second chapter of “American Notes.” Right is used as a synonym for directly, as in right away, right off, right now and right on time; for moderately, as in right well, right smart, right good and right often, and in place of precisely, as in right there. Some time ago, in an article on Americanisms, an English critic called it “that most distinctively American word,” and concocted the following dialogue to instruct the English in its use:
But this Englishman failed in his attempt to write correct American, despite his fine pedagogical passion. No American would ever say “take the first turning”; he would say “turn at the first corner.” As for right away, R. O. Williams argues that “so far as analogy can make good English, it is as good as one could choose.” Nevertheless, the Concise Oxford Dictionary admits it only as an Americanism, and avoids all mention of the other American uses of right. Good is almost as protean. It is not only used as a general synonym for all adjectives and adverbs connoting satisfaction, as in to feel good, to be treated good, to sleep good, but also as a reinforcement to other adjectives and adverbs as in “I hit him good and hard” and “I am good and tired.” Of late some has come into wide use as an adjective-adverb of all work, indicating special excellence or high degree, as in some girl, some sick, going some, etc. It is still below the salt, but threatens to reach a more respectable position. One encounters it in the newspapers constantly and in the Congressional Record, and not long ago a writer in the Atlantic Monthly hymned it ecstatically as “some word—a true super-word, in fact” and argued that it could be used “in a sense for which there is absolutely no synonym in the dictionary.” It was used by the prim Emily Dickinson forty or more years ago. It will concern us again in Chapter IX.
It would be easy to pile up words and phrases that are used in both America and England, but with different meanings. I have already alluded to tariff-reform. Open-shop is another. It means, in England, what an American union man (English: trades-unionist) calls a closed-shop. And closed-shop, in England, means what an American calls an open-shop! Finally, there is the verb-phrase, to carry on. In the United States it means to make a great pother; in England it means to persevere.… But the record must have an end.