Two nations divided by a common language

One measure of the difference between a good and a great relationship – whether between people or nations – is what you might call the phone test. In a good relationship, you answer each others phone calls. In a great relationship, you actually enjoy the conversation.

This exchange between the President and Prime Minister from the June 5th press conference is between people who clearly enjoy their conversations and it’s indicative of the relationship as a whole.


But it also got me thinking about the subject itself: we share a common language but with an asterisk.

This is not new ground but fertile ground just the same.

The British cringe over Americanisms encroaching into their language like “elevator,” “rookie” and “hospitalize.” And when Americans hear their fellow citizens talk about “pitch,” “kit” and “sides” – accepted “football” terms across the English-speaking world – they sometimes hear people taking on airs.

It’s a good reminder for diplomats – not to mention husbands and wives – that sharing the same set of words does not guarantee congruence between what gets said and what gets heard. Translation involves more than just words.

In my work it sometimes causes difficulties, like when I told a British staff member his work was “quite good,” causing a confused expression. He processed it as, “not quite good enough.”

But mostly, I find it pretty funny.

“Scheme” is one of my favorites. My British friends use it as a synonym for plan. They’ll say, “our financial scheme” or “retirement scheme.” For Americans, the word has connotations of scam. “Retirement scheme” sounds like thinking you’d read out in an indictment against fraudsters.

The modifier “ponzi-” is inferred by Americans but implied by the Brits.

If you find these moments of a common language that’s lost in translation amusing too, please share. We’ll post the best here and on Twitter.