Brits! Welcome to Canada!

(© 1999 Quentin Bristow)

[A guide to the culture of the American Speaking Peoples for newly arrived Brits.]

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that Britain and America are divided by a common language and how right he was. Having lived and worked in Canada for forty odd years, I thought that I would be well qualified to try and alert new arrivals from my native land to differences in modus operandi, modus vivendi, and especially modus speaki. In Canada the Queen's English is fast becoming the President's American. They are still similar in most respects, but now and then an American-English dictionary is something that could be pretty handy.

A few examples will set the tone; words which in English end in -ise translate in American to: -ize. One of the most infamous of these is: vietnamization invented by President Nixon in an effort to turn over the running of the war there to local management. Other hideous examples already in vogue, or practically certain to appear before long, are: categorize (what the hell is wrong with classify?); winterize (to make winter-proof); summerize (to make summer-proof); waterize (to make water-proof, or turn wine into water, not a popular pastime); priorize (to list in order of priority, or to turn someone into a monk); digitize (cut a piece of bread into fingers to dip into a boiled egg; also something to do with bits I understand); colorize (apply colour to old B&W films, as in: ‘this film has been colorized', why not: ‘has been coloured'?). Watch for new lengthy and pointless variants of perfectly good originals; how about debaterize, perpetuizerate, or accessorize (yes Madam, this outfit has been pre-accessorized with tasteful alligator skin lapels and Spotted Owl feathers).

Accepted meanings of words common to English and American are now diverging. One frequently hears on this side of the water statements like: ‘ aggressive marketing campaign is needed...', what is actually meant here is that a vigorous campaign is needed. The term aggressive should of course only be used in the context of unpleasant confrontational behaviour. Similarly there are references by the media here to obscene salaries for CEO's. The salaries are frequently outrageous, but they do not evoke revulsion, which is surely the meaning of obscene.

The next pearl was dropped at a seminar on tax planning. Actually that should probably read: ‘no-tax planning', tax evasion is of course a criminal offence (unless you are a multinational corporation with lots of lawyers), but tax-avoidance is O.K. The point of this story was that a question was raised about the status of gifts to charities, and the language-mangling reply from the serious young accountant was that: ‘...gifting can be a problem, but if you loan the institution the money at zero interest, its probably O.K...' Yup, two verberizated nouns (I am breaking new ground here), just gotta have that dictionary.

Now for some puzzling customs and designations. Brits should be careful to note that for all electrical switches, ‘OFF' is ‘ON' and ‘ON' is ‘OFF'. The only exception is those two-way switches that control lights from different ends of the room, they have exactly the same unpredictability of position as they do in the U.K. In public places like shopping malls, you will see signs saying ‘Bathrooms', ‘Washrooms' or ‘Rest-rooms'. Do not expect to bathe in the bathrooms, or rest in the rest-rooms. These signs are politically correct surrogates for ‘Lavatories', to protect the prurient. Just thought I'd mention it, nothing worse than seeing a Brit practically blue in the face frantically running round a shopping mall unable to find what he desperately needs (Do all these Canadians have stainless steel bladders?...). A road sign with a large letter ‘H' on it, used to mean ‘Hospital', but thanks to health-care cuts, is now more likely to mean ‘Home surgery training course centre'. If you feel nauseous, the correct description is that you feel sick-to-your-stummick. The syntax of this expression still escapes me, but it is almost universally used.

An interesting area where differences abound is the car industry. For a start it is the ‘auto' industry. About ninety percent of cars in North America have automatic transmissions, whereas in the U.K. (because of the price of fuel) about ninety percent have manual gear change, which incidentally is ‘standard shift' on this side. This term is a holdover from the time when automatic transmissions were the exception rather than the rule and it is always a source of innocent merriment to see specifications for new cars with an item: 'standard shift is optional' (surely it's either standard, or it's optional, n'est-ce-pas?). When buying petrol you ask for gas, but when you get a gas bill, it's probably not for the petrol you bought, but for the natural gas that heats your house. In the same vein, the accelerator is the gas-pedal, paraffin is kerosene, boot is trunk, bonnet is hood and windscreen is windshield. Also note that carburettor rhymes with alligator, not that many cars have them any more anyway.

The other thing about cars in Canada is that ‘imports' are any cars that are not American, but all American cars are discreetly labelled ‘domestic'. In the early sixties I had a small British car and was accused by some rather arrogant pro-American person of being unpatriotic. Why didn't I buy a Canadian car he demanded to know. My reply (that I would have if I could have found one), didn't go down too well. He was even more enraged (much to my gratification) by my suggestion that instead of cars being classified as imported or domestic, they should be grouped as foreign or commonwealth (game, set and match). At that time British cars had a significant share of the market, but thanks to the incompetence, and indifference of local dealerships and the total refusal by the British car makers to equip cars for the Canadian winters, the opportunity to make the sort of inroads which the Japanese subsequently did was frittered away.

The striving to obfuscate in car advertising (our mission is to befuddle and confuse) has been reduced to an exact science on this side of the water; item: This vehicle now comes with available air conditioning. Translation: This vehicle comes without air conditioning, but it is available as an outrageously expensive option. Watch out for new subtleties; how about: 'The sticker shows the floor price of this vehicle'. Translation: Wheels will be required to raise this vehicle off the floor, they are of course an available option. Oh by the way, be careful about those wheels, the price may not include the tyres.

If you are going to knock on the door of a female neighbour, to borrow some salt for example, do not announce that you are going to ‘knock her up', as this has a very different connotation on this side of the water. In the kitchen the cooker is the stove or range and the grill is the broiler . The water tap is ‘faucet' and my theory is that this is due to the crudity of early American plumbing, when the taps were probably so hard to turn that people always said ‘force-it'.

Ironmongers shops are hardware stores in Canada. They are mostly chains and I think that they carry a much more comprehensive range of supplies than in the U.K., where recently I could not find anywhere in my home town an item as simple as a stainless steel nut and bolt to mend a teapot. The oldest and biggest chain in Canada is Canadian Tire. Ah yes, another one for the dictionary; tyre is tire in American, but then again centre is center. This probably means that tire will eventually become tier and the conversion to a two-tier language will be complete.