Learning English Pt. 1


Last night Adam M. and I had a very educational conversation with my neighbor, Anna. The thing about being an American expatriate in the UK is that things look very similar, but are ever so slightly different. It’s this slight difference in common things that I’ve found produces the most culture shock, since I’ve already let my guard down and allowed American assumptions to creep in.

My plan is to keep a running list of subtle differences in language and everyday life. This is my first installment.

  • Paper: the English use A4 (sometimes A3 or A5) paper, this is slightly longer than the standard 8.5″x11″ paper in the US and can make photocopying important documents tedious.
  • Chips: ok, this is a popular one. ‘Fish and chips’ refers to fried fish and French fries. Common toppings include mayonnaise, salt and vinegar, or tartar sauce. Ketchup is available upon request. American ‘chips’ are called ‘crisps.’ Also, salt and vinegar crisps are much more popular on this end of the Atlantic. Below is a photo of the remains of my first ‘fish and chips’ experience… unfortunately I didn’t have the prescience to take a photo before I’d devoured it… it also came with minty peas… which were surprisingly good.
  • Bum bag: the British term for what Americans would call a fanny pack. ‘Fanny’ means something different in the UK, by the way.
  • Lemonade: I was happy to see ‘lemonade’ on the pub menu, but was a little disappointed when the bartender must have misheard me and gave me sprite. It turned out that ‘lemonade’ refers to a clear, carbonated drink that tastes like sprite or 7-up. By the way, ‘soda’ in the UK refers to carbonated water. One would call coca-cola a type of ‘fizzy pop’. This brings back memories of a dormitory talk by professor Rob Robinson at Stanford where he grouped the members of my dorm by hometown based on whether we used words like ‘soda’ over ‘pop’ and such. As a futher note, 2 liter fizzy pop bottles are taller and skinnier than 2 lieter soda bottles… I suspect a similar thing is true in comparing average human morphology as well.
  • Electricity: the Old Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was the site at which J.J. Thompson discovered the electron. Probably unrelated, UK electrical outlets are different from those in the states; the plug is much bigger and the outlets have separate on/off switches. Marshall scholar Lee B. explained this (with remarkable insight) by noting that US plugs have the positive and negative ends much closer to each other and generally further from one’s fingers. Hence any sparks are unlikely to reach one’s hands. However, UK plugs are wider and ones fingers are closer to the positive and negative ends, making sparks a slightly more significant danger. To prevent this, one can turn off the electricity in an outlet before inserting or removing a plug. Confusion about this procedure led me to believe that my lamp bulb had broken, costing me 8p and a couple of trips from the grocery (Sainsbury’s) because the bulbs are different here also. Anyway, since the opportunity for a tangential photograph has arisen, below is a photo of a plaque commemorating J. J. Thompson’s discovery:
  • Which side do I walk on? British cars drive on the left-hand side of the road with their steering wheels on the right-hand side of their cars. However, it seems like it’s a toss up when it comes to pedestrian traffic. This isn’t a concern in most places in the states where sidewalks have a relatively standard width (perhaps to accomodate American human morphology…), however, places like Cambridge are full of little alley-ways that are a bit narrow even for two-way pedestrian traffic:
  • No 2am snack shopping. At Stanford my favorite study break was a quick trip to the supermarket (Safeway) to purchase snacks. This would often occur in the late evenings where one of the checkout clerks would be really mean to students (anybody know if Tony is still there? He was really mean.). In Cambridge (and I suspect other parts of the UK) most stores close very early by American standards. The Sainsbury’s market closes at 10pm (6pm on Sundays) while most shops close around 5 or 6pm. This doesn’t even allow for evening window shopping, a favorite activity in places like the 3rd Street Promenade in Los Angeles. I wonder if this is reflective of American consumerism?

2 Responses to “Learning English Pt. 1”

  1. Hey Flip,

    your last pic here is AWESOME! Is it Cambridge ?


  2. Tommaso–yep, that’s Cambridge! That’s about as high quality of a photo as I have, unfortunately, as it was taken with my mobile phone’s camera. I’ll make a point to bring my actual camera with me more often.

    Thanks for the comment!

%d bloggers like this: