The old cliché, two nations divided by a common language is, of course, true to some extent. The English language can become remarkably perplexing to a Brit when it is in the hands of an American (Editor: Shouldn’t that be “mouth of an American”, not “hands”?). Before my American readership reach for their guns, let me point out that I am not blaming anyone for the confusion. I just never fully appreciated that American English was capable of causing me such bewilderment before I began living here, especially in public situations, where I am prone to bouts of faux pas, following swiftly by outbursts of embarrassment. Anyway, here is my latest installment of: “How to Speak American English”.
Confusing Question Number 1:
“Is plastic okay?”
Normally asked by a guy in a green apron who is lingering near the checkouts in a supermarket. He is normally very old, or very young.
“Yes, I suppose so, as long as it is degradable.”
“Who’s Plastic? I didn’t know he was ill?”
Correct response. The store attendant is a bag packer and he is asking you if you want your produce (fruit and veg) putting into a plastic carrier bag, or whether you have brought or wish to buy a reusable bag made from a more durable material. You can therefore answer: yes or no, accordingly.
Reason for confusion. Bag packers in the UK are relatively rare, you are usually expected to pack the bags yourself. The staff member working the till will most likely refer to a “plastic bag” or “carrier bag,” if the topic of bags comes up (which isn’t by any means a certainty), rather than just “plastic”.
Confusing Question Number 2
“Could you pass me a Sharpie?”
Normally asked by American family members.
Dropping your jaw open and adopting a blank expression. The family members will then just ask the same question over and over again, apparently perplexed by your bewilderment.
A Sharpie is not druggie slang for a syringe. Nor is “passing a Sharpie” slang for some kind of sexual behaviour. It is in fact a form of pen, similar in some ways to a felt tip pen, but fatter and more cigar-shaped. You should therefore pick up the pen and pass it to the relevant family member, if requested to.
Reason for confusion
Sharpies are not a traditional part of British life and therefore must be comparatively rare, if indeed they exist at all in the UK. Although, should they ever gain a foothold in Blighty, I suspect that they will breed like wildfire and spread all over the country, rather like tobacco and the grey squirrel did.