Thursday, January 17, 2008

How long is a piece of string ?

The Psychotic Secretary has been posting recently of some of her adventures on first moving here, which brought back old memories of my first trips and then subsequent relocation to the US.

On my first trip alone were several language faux pas, from loudly announcing to a colleague across a very busy mall that I was going to go downstairs and buy some fags (I think every Brit who has been here has pulled that one). Through to a female business contact who announced in a bar “Look at the fanny on that”, I being of the male persuasion nearly broke my neck as me head spun round faster than the Exorcist wondering what kind of bar she had brought me too, however it was just some guy in jeans, look up the meaning and understand why Brits giggle uncontrollably when Americans talk about a 'fanny pack', I'm sorry we just can't help it.

My personal favorite was a presentation at a very large and very well known Federal integrator down in Mannassas, VA. While setting up the projector to my laptop (this was 93 so back in the days when getting these things to work required black robes and a suitable sacrifice to the gods of IT), this rather well built gentleman at considerable volume announced that “My suspenders are too tight today”, now that’s all well and good, and innocent. However, being fresh of the metaphorical boat from the UK and yet to be indoctrinated into the myriad differences in language I immediately wen with my meaning for the word and completely lost the plot, you see in the UK what you call suspenders are what we braces. However in the UK what we call suspenders you call a garter belt. Now you see my mental image ?. Good, it was the toughest presentation I have ever faced, involving many, many trips to the “Giggle Loop”.

Even today I can be flummoxed by what seems an incredibly simple question to answer, eg. “Is Britain on the metric system ?”

Now if you are from the UK you know the answer, but trying to respond, "yes, sorta" and "it depends" doesn't seem to cut it for someone from the US where even slang language itself is much more precise.

To try and explain :-

We use metric for small distances (mm, cm), weight (grams) almost exclusively...hmm, ok, that's not very easy.

Let me start again - distances first - mm and cm for short distances (* see note), though 2 feet is more often used than 60cm, athletics is metric (100m, 200m, 400m 10,000m), but longer distances are more often in miles (eg Nottingham to Lincoln is 40 miles).

Weight - grams for cooking weights, ie. small. Heavier weights would be tons rather than metric tonnes, and kilograms are used a lot. But for how much you weigh though you might know how many kilos you weigh as the scales have kg on them, you are more likely to know it in stones - 1 st. = 14 pounds. But we don't know our weight in pounds, more like 13 st 6 lbs (188 lbs) as that's what the scales say. So in "Whole Lotta Rosie" by AC/DC, Rosie weighed in a 19 stone, she's quite a big girl.

Petrol (gasoline to you lot, when we say Gas we mean natural gas - the stuff you cook or heat your house with), the petrol pump measures in litres, but we think of a car's economy in miles per gallon. Oh, and just to throw a complete wrench (spanner, which also means someone of dubioUs intelligence) to it all a British (Imperial) gallon is bigger than a US one

UK gallon = 4.55 litres
US = 3.8 litres

Fun isn't it, might as well just ask us how long a piece of string is.

* - for those with depraved mind, ‘equipment’ length is always quoted in inches. Remember how cm is only used to measure ‘short’ things.


The Guv'ner said...

I was JUST trying to explain this the other day to someone. About the metric thing. At school we learned only metric. Everything was metres and centimetres and grammes and kilograms and kilometres but in the REAL world everything was in lbs and ozs and stone and miles. We knew the technical stuff about metric measurements but had no physical knowledge of them. But you knew what a pound of cheese was. Insane. It's more metric now but they still use pints and miles and stones and feet. Pick one and stick to it, people! Thank God I'm not old enough to remember imperial money because all my life my grandparents would translate into "old money". "That's two and six!" they'd nod knowingly. WTF does that mean? Two what? Six what? It's baffling.

I once stole a sign off a shopping cart in our local supermarket purely so I could mail it to my sister in the UK. It said "Spend $9.99 and get a free fanny pack". Hee. American fannies are not quite the same thing as UK fannies as you pointed out.

I also took a photo in a store that had a rack with a big sign over it that said "PANTS" in huge letters. Hee again.

Also one word: Aluminium.

Broadsheet said...

Let's talk about biscuits, shall we? Or is it crisps? Or Chips? I'm so confused......

It's all crackers to me.