Over my 15 years as a journalist and editor in the Cayman Islands, working with English speakers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve learned we all speak the same language, but our vocabularies have some noted differences.
I actually learned this first while working at a rental car agency in Ft. Lauderdale in my early 20s when an Englishman asked if he could rent a car with a large boot. I was pretty sure he wasn’t speaking of footwear, but I had no idea that he was asking for a vehicle with a large trunk. Another renter from England, upon returning his car, told me he was hearing a noise under the bonnet. It was only after some questioning that I realised he was talking about the hood of the car.
Over the years since I’ve learned many such delightful differences in word meanings from the two sides of the Atlantic. Some are rather benign, like lift for elevator, aubergine for eggplant, petrol for gasoline, flat for apartment and of course, football for soccer. Some of the differences, however, can raise some eyebrows from one side or the other if used in mixed company. Words like “pants” in North American English, mean “underwear” in England. A “rubber” is an eraser in British English, but a common term for “condom” in American English. And “bog,” a slang term for “toilet” in British English, is a marsh where cranberries grow in North America.
After so many years of learning and comparing these differences with colleagues (which we tend to call co-workers in the United States) I thought I had learned them all. Then something happened recently. I said to my British colleague, Jo Gammage, who sits next to me in the office: “I woke up in bed with a bad charley horse last night.” Jo looked at me with a surprised and somewhat worried look, as if I’d offered her way too much personal information, and I could tell she was carefully weighing her next words.
Finally, she said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
When I realised that the colloquial term “charley horse” didn’t extend to British English and thought of how a sentence about waking up in bed with a bad charley horse must have sounded to someone who didn’t know what a charley horse was, I burst out in laughter. (For those who don’t know, a charley horse is a type of muscle spasm that can occur almost anytime, mostly in a leg and often in calf muscles.) In the U.K., I learned, they’re just called cramps, which is a rather boring term for a phenomenon that can be quite painful.
After a quick survey of the office staff, I learned that while almost all of the Americans and Canadians —and many born Caymanians — knew the term, none of those from other countries did. There’s probably good reason why the term is limited to North America and the vicinity when looking at its origin. Although the exact origin is debated, there is general agreement that it was born around the sport of baseball. One theory suggests there was a player named Charley Radbourne, whose nickname was “Old Hoss.” After pulling up with a leg cramp while running the bases in a game in the 1880s, other players started calling similar leg cramps a “Charley Hoss,” which eventually morphed into “Charley Horse.
Baseball has led to many rich American colloquialisms, some of which I’ve heard my British colleagues use.
“Step up to the plate,” “swing for the fences,” “out in (or of) left field,” “throw a curve,” “hit a home run,” “knock it out of the park,” “touch base,” “go to bat for,” “right off the bat,” “it’s a whole new ballgame,” “heavy hitter,” “grandstanding,” “play hardball,” “on deck,” “off base,” “cover your bases,” “big league” and “ballpark figure” are all terms that derive from baseball. Then there’s the notion of “getting to first base” —or beyond — on a date, which also has its origin in baseball, as does “striking out,” which in this context, means not even getting to first base.
And if you don’t know what the phrase, “Who’s on first?” means, Google it and watch the video because it’s much better than my trying to explain it.