Not long ago, an American friend was driving rather too vigorously in the west of Ireland when he was pulled over by a Gard (police officer). 'What would happen if you were to run into Mr. Fog?' the Gard inquired gruffly in his thick Irish brogue. Stung by this patronizing query, my friend replied with heavy sarcasm, 'Well, I guess I'd put Mr. Foot on Mr. Brake.' Whereupon the officer stared at him rather strangely and growled, 'I said mist or fog.'
My friend, as it happens, is an anthropologist. For one enthralling moment he thought he had stumbled upon a tribe in the west of Ireland which personified aspects of the weather, speaking of Mrs. Hailstorm, Master Sunshine and so on. But it was just another case of international miscommunication.
Most people know that when a British schoolteacher asks his pupils to take out their rubbers, he is inviting them to produce their erasers, not about to give them a lesson in contraception. British people who live in flats do not set up home in burst tires. The word 'bum' in British English means buttocks as well as vagrant.
People in Britain do not usually say 'I appreciate it,' have a hard time, zero in, reach out to other people, stay focused, ask to be given a break, refer to the bottom line or get blown away. The word 'scary,' as opposed to 'frightening' or 'alarming,' sounds childish to British ears, rather like talking about your buttocks as your bottie. Brits tend not to use the word 'awesome,' a term which, if it were banned in the States, would cause airplanes to fall from the sky and cars to lurch off freeways.
Using the word 'aggressive' positively also sounds strange across the pond. In Britain, it sounds almost as bizarre as complimenting someone on being as ugly as sin. The habit of using the word 'like' every four seconds, widespread among American youth, has now caught on in Britain as well. Perhaps it has to do with an attempt not to sound dogmatic. 'It's 9 o'clock' sounds unpleasantly authoritarian, whereas 'It's, like, 9 o'clock' sounds suitably tentative and nondoctrinaire. It is rumored in Europe that you can now find tombstones in the U.S. reading 'To Our Beloved Son, Brother and, Like, Husband.'
The phrase 'to feel comfortable with' is quintessentially American. The British would not usually say 'we feel comfortable with using this taxi firm,' any more than they would feel comfortable with being scourged until the blood ran down their thighs.
Americans tend to say 'Excuse me' when they accidentally get in your way, while the British say 'Sorry.' Americans say 'Excuse me' even when they are 10 paces away from you, since they are accustomed to a lot more space than we are in Europe. One knows one is back in the U.K. when everyone is constantly saying sorry for no reason whatsoever.
What you say in Britain when you mishear what someone says depends on your social class. The working class say 'Aye?'; the lower middle class, 'Pardon?'; the middle class, 'Sorry?'; and the upper class, 'What?'
Americans tend to lapse into the present tense when speaking of the past much more commonly than Brits do. 'I'm in the kitchen and there's this terrific bang and I dive under the table' is distinctively American. Perhaps the British rate the past more highly than their trans-Atlantic cousins. People in Britain might call children kids, but not in newspaper headlines or on television news. Americans tend to prefer the ugly monosyllable 'kids' to the rather beautiful word 'children,' seemingly content to regard their offspring as small, smelly goats.
American road signs tend to be more colloquial than British ones. 'Wrong Way─Go Back' or 'Ped Xing' are too idiomatic for the British. The road sign 'Way Out' in the U.K. is not a relic of the hippie era but means 'Exit.' There used to be signs on garbage cans in Britain which read 'Refuse to Be Put in This Basket,' which are puzzling only until you realize that 'refuse' can mean 'trash.'
Brits and Americans, in short, are more alien to each other than they usually imagine. Every now and then, an American will reveal that he or she does not understand the word 'fortnight,' has never used a teapot or does not know how to boil an egg. At such times one can feel the NATO alliance straining and buckling.
(─Mr. Eagleton is distinguished visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame. His 'Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America' will be published Monday by W.W. Norton.)
不久前，一位美国朋友在爱尔兰西部开车时有些过猛，结果被警察拦到了路边。“万一你撞上了‘雾先生’(Mr. Fog)该怎么办？“那名警察粗暴地问道，说话带有浓重的爱尔兰土腔。朋友对这种高高在上的质问感到不悦，语带强烈讽刺地回答道：“嗯，我想我会把‘脚先生’搭在‘刹车先生’上面吧。“结果，那名警察以非常异样的眼神盯着我的朋友，大吼道：“我说的是‘mist or fog’。“
英国人表达感谢通常不会说“I appreciate it“，也没有have a hard time（很辛苦）、zero in（把注意力集中于）、reach out to other people（联系他人）和stay focused（专心致志）这样的说法。他们在想休息时不会要求“given a break“，也不会使用“bottom line“（底线）或“get blown away“（惊叹不已）这些词。在英国人听来，与“frightening“或“alarming“相比，“scary“一词听起来极其幼稚，就像把“屁股“说成“小屁屁“一样。此外，他们一般也不会用“awesome“这个词，而若是在美国禁用这个词，飞机恐怕都要从天空坠落，汽车也要从高速公路冲出去了。
在大西洋彼岸，使用“aggressive“一词来表达正面意义听上去非常奇怪，英国人觉得这几乎就像赞美别人奇丑无比一样怪异。在美国年轻人当中盛行的、说话时每四秒钟就加上 “like“一词的习惯如今在英国也流行开来了。这或许与试着让自己的话听上去不那么傲慢专断有关。例如，“It's 9 o'clock“听上去比较独断，让人不悦，而“It's, like, 9 o'clock“听起来则是适宜的商榷口吻，不显得像是说教。欧洲有传闻称，如今在美国甚至能发现有墓碑上写着“To Our Beloved Son, Brother and, Like, Husband“这样的碑文。
“To feel comfortable with“（觉得……很舒适）这个词组是典型的美式说法。英国人通常不会说“"we feel comfortable with using this taxi firm“（我们觉得坐这家出租车公司的车很舒服），就如同他们绝不会觉得遭到鞭打直到鲜血从大腿上流下来会很舒服。
美国人在借道时一般会说“Excuse me“，而英国人则说“Sorry“。即便距离别人还有10步的距离，美国人也会说“Excuse me“，因为他们习惯的间隔空间要比欧洲人大很多。当你听到别人总是无缘无故地不断说“Sorry“时，你就知道你到了英国。
在讲述过去的事情时，美国人比英国人更常使用现在时态。“I'm in the kitchen and there's this terrific bang and I dive under the table“是美国人特有的风格。这或许是因为，英国人比他们在大西洋彼岸的堂亲更重视过去。英国人可能也会叫小孩子“kid“，但他们在报刊标题或电视新闻中不会使用这个词。美国人对不甚优美的单音节词“kids“的喜爱多过对优美的“children“的喜爱，似乎很乐意把他们的后代视为散发着膻味的小山羊（译者注：“kid“也有小山羊的意思）。
美国的路标也往往比英国的路标更口语化。“Wrong Way─Go Back“（走错路--请返回）或“Ped Xing“（斑马线）在英国人看来都过于俗语化了。在英国，“Way Out“并非嬉皮士时代的遗留物（该词有“反传统、非主流“之意），它的意思是“出口“。英国的垃圾箱上过去常常写着“Refuse to Be Put in This Basket“这样的话，着实让人摸不着头脑，直到你意识到“refuse“也有“垃圾“的意思时才恍然大悟。
简而言之，英国人与美国人之间的差异比他们通常想象的要大。时不时会有美国人说他们不知道“fortnight“（两星期）的意思，从来没用过teapot（茶壶)，也不知道如何boil an egg（煮鸡蛋）。在这时候，你就会感觉到北约(NATO)的这两个盟友似乎是被生拉硬拽在了一起的。
（本文作者为美国圣母大学(University of Notre Dame)特聘客座教授。其著作《大洋彼岸：一名英国人眼中的美国》(Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America)已由W.W. Norton出版公司出版。）