OK, this is the ubiquitous words-have-different-meanings-in-different-countries post that every tourist with a blog probably has written. Run if you must … I won’t blame you, but I promise to only look at the interesting words.
If you’re still here, look at the picture. Did you think “toilet”? I’ve been in Europe a half-dozen times in the past decade or so, and this one throws me every time. It looks like the “i” went missing. And it’s doubly confusing, because the “bathroom” or “restroom” is called the “toilet” over here.
I thought it was just me, but my Rhodes Scholar wife says it throws here, too, which means either (a. My mind isn’t as far in the gutter as I feared; or (b. I’ve dragged my wife down to my level. That one’s likely a tossup.
We actually read by quickly deciphering the shape of words rather than the individual letters. Here’s a Scientific American article that explains what I’m talking about, and why it’s perfectly natural to interpret “to let” as “toilet.” Aside from the fact it’s really, really funny, that is.
The way our brains interpret words is also the reason it’s harder to read CAPITAL LETTER WORDS and, perhaps, the reason why capital letters piss so many of us off.
For me, I’ll take a for rent sign over a to let sign every single day.
What’s in a name?
From my experience, I will say that Brits and the Irish do better than we Americans at describing things. It makes sense … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years longer.
I’m not going to write about the obvious word differences (chips for fries, crisps for potato chips), but I will never understand why cookies and crackers are both called biscuits. I was looking for crackers in the local Tesco the other day, and Declan had to direct me. “Crackers are biscuits for cheese,” Marilynn says. In other words, no support from the missus on this issue.
But, as I’ve said, they’ve got a lot of the terminology spot on. Where do you park in front of Wal-Mart (OK, here, Marks & Spencer)? Why, the car park, of course. And that big road you drive on to get from city to city? The motorway.
Lift does describe what an elevator does better than, say, elevator.
I will have to quibble over clothing terms, however. For his uniform, Declan needed specific type/color of trousers, blazer and jumper, according to the handbook. We’d say pants, jacket and sweater. Although please don’t say “pants” here when you mean long trousers. Pants here mean underwear.
A few years ago while visiting friends near Oxford, I mentioned that I had forgotten my comfy pants at home and wanted to buy some when we went shopping. I was referring to the nighttime/morning pants I sometimes wear with the elastic waistband and drawstrings. They thought I meant something very different.
It was so embarrassing, I sought refuge in the bathroom. Or was it the to let?