Taking a lighthearted look at some words and phrases which can trip you up as you travel across the Atlantic one way or the other.
When I took my middle daughter to England for a visit and exploration in the early 2000s, the first thing she noticed was how many words were the same but had different meanings. We laughed over trousers versus pants, pants versus underwear, waistcoat versus vest, vest versus tank top, lift versus elevator, road versus pavement, pavement versus sidewalk, petrol versus gas, boot versus trunk, and boot sale versus garage sale. Now she’s lived and worked here for a few years she tells me she still slips up occasionally and her Brit colleagues have a good laugh at her latest dictionary mishap, such as crisps versus chips and chips versus French fries. When she first moved to England, she kept a journal of words with double meanings and got to over 100.
After spending a few weeks in the United Kingdom recently, I realise that Britain and America are still indeed still “two great nations divided only by language,” as playwright George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said.
On one outing with my daughter, I went to get take away (take-out) coffees and told her I wouldn’t need any help as I could double fist, by which I meant that I could carry back a coffee in either hand. Laughingly, she explained that in England the phrase simply isn’t used in polite company.
So, I thought I should compile a list of some of the dangerous traps for the unwary traveller. Here goes – and please don’t be offended. These words and phrases are offered for your amusement and enlightenment only.
In North America, many people have a cottage by a lake, an idyllic scene which springs immediately to mind if you say you’re going cottaging for the weekend.
The word cottage, which for most people still means a small, cosy, country home, is documented as having been in use in England during the Victorian era to refer to a public toilet, when the first stand-alone public loos were built to resembled small cottages. So, in Britain, cottaging is slang for anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory. By the 1960s its use in this sense had become an exclusively gay slang term.
As mentioned above, in North America, this simply means holding a drink in each hand, even two cups of take-out Tim Horton’s coffee.
But in England, this is a really weird sexual perversion, which I certainly won’t repeat here, but does involve two fists. You’ll have to use your imagination.
Let’s be clear, this is NOT about taking the dog for a walk.
Used by British Railways as far back as 1951, it originally referred to a person watching other people having public sex, such as in a railway carriage. Now it has become widely used to describe many people getting together to watch others having sex in public, often drawn together by social media. As observation is encouraged, voyeurism and exhibitionism are closely associated with dogging, which frequently takes place in isolated parking lots.
You might innocently think this is a simple winter activity that involves sliding down a snowy hill on a toboggan or inflated tube.
Yes, but sledding also means a sex position where the male partner lies on his back while the female partner rides him. Presumably one can also do this down an actual ski hill.
Outside the historic St Lawrence Centre in Toronto gas lighting is still used. OK, but there’s another meaning to this word, which can trip one up horribly if used in casual conversation.
Apparently, gaslighting now refers to a type of unpleasant mental manipulation where one person is trying to get the other person to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. It’s always a serious problem, according to psychologists, and a recognized type of abuse. The term comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, and the 1944 movie of the same name, in which a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.
Americans frequently refer to their bum as their fanny. In Britain it refers to the lady parts, so it is best not to call this convenient little travellers’ accoutrement a fanny pack. In England they usually call it a bum bag.
My mum was in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during WW II, which I hardly dare mention in polite society nowadays, although these tough women doing an exemplary job probably didn’t even raise a chuckle when they mentioned they were “in the FANYs.”
Leave a note in the comments section if you have any other words or phrases with double meanings to share. And if you feel this is all garbage, just bin it!
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