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New York

February 19, 2017

I’ve just come back from a short holiday in New York; and naturally my ear was open for interesting distinctions between British and US English. I’m afraid I got caught out on the very first night, when I ordered lobster roll and chips in a restaurant, and was given lobster roll and crisps. I knew this one, but it slipped my mind in the excitement of ordering. If I’d wanted chips I should have ordered fries, of course.

I also note that New Yorkers say Make a left (or right) when giving directions, whereas we would say Take a left.

On one occasion I was walking up Broadway en famille, and my daughter was walking right in front of me, too slowly, and impeding my progress. So I said, very loudly and in what came out as intensely English accent, “Rosalind, you’re blocking the whole pavement!” This drew a few smiles from passersby. Obviously I know it’s sidewalk in America, but it wouldn’t have felt natural to say that.

I also discovered that the American term for a onesie is a union suit, which sounds much more dignified and important.

But my main impression was simply that New Yorkers are just incredibly good at talking. They speak quickly and precisely, use a varied vocabulary and vivid idioms, and seem to have absorbed and combined all the speech rhythms of black, Irish and Jewish English. I think they might be the best talkers in the world.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    There is a meat and cheese sandwich called a Hero in New York which is known as a Grinder in Boston. Hero sounds delicious in a way that Grinder just doesn’t.
    Many years ago a friend completely baffled the staff in a hardware store by asking for batteries for his torch. They eventually worked out he meant a flashlight but why substituting “baddery” for battery made such a difference remains a mystery.

  2. Yes – but it does make a huge difference! The last time I went to New York I tried to buy a bottle of water from a street kiosk – and could not make myself understood until I asked for a boddle o’ wahder.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Maybe a broader London accent helps! If you don’t pronounce the Ts anyway there’s nothing to change.

  4. Tim Crannigan permalink

    Hello Brandon, forgive me for hijacking the comments to one of your posts, but I came upon your blog whilst idly browsing links related to you after enjoying the tv show you and your family appear on.

    Having acquired the reputation – not entirely undeserved – of being the office pedant, and for replying to emails and correcting grammar almost daily, I am glad to see there are more of us out there!

    Anyway, I would like to throw out a few points for general consideration.

    1. I was taught that the the only acceptable portmanteau word for general use was ‘already’, whereas ‘all right’ was the correct form for its use. However, not only do I see ‘alright’ increasingly written, I have recently seen ‘anymore’ as one word. This can’t be right – can it?

    2. What makes your blood boil (not literally, although possibly in the new meaning of ‘literally’ – ie, not at all literally, but ‘somewhat’)? Mine is the (American?) confusion of ‘loose’ with ‘lose’ eg. I loose my temper

    3. Brackets . I work in technology, so have found over the years that I tend to use brackets (easier to type than parentheses) a lot in mails when expanding on a subject. Somehow I feel this is a lazy construct and sometimes substitute a phrase surrounded by dashes instead – like this – in a vain attempt to break the habit. But is it a bad habit?
    I am also a programmer of many years, and in programming languages, brackets are often required to confirm the order of computation, and can therefore be nested. However, kudos to you (sorry!) when I found you used them in standard text!

    (Parenthetically, I might note that I was a member of the Labour Party in Camberwell in the late 80s/early 90s, and I recall one meeting where a woman who had been consistently interrupted, ignored or contradicted throughout threatened to bring a motion of censure for sexism; the threat was met by a loud, ironical groan from nearly all the male members (not me, of course).)

    Brackets within brackets – now that’s a bold step!

    4. Finally, I think we need a word for the casual web browsing, following links and acquiring interesting sites. I have as yet been unable to come up with something!

    Apologies for the lengthy post, but keep up the good work!

    • Hi Tim – nice to hear from you. I do agree with you about ‘all right’ in principle but I think the battle is already lost. I wrote a post on it some time ago; click here to read it:

      I’d never use ‘anymore’.

      Misuse of ‘literally’ makes my blood figuratively boil!

      I have always been a fan of brackets and am quite prepared to nest them. As you may know, what we call ‘brackets’ were always called ‘parentheses’ in the printing industry. The brackets were the square ones. But I am not a printer so I’m happy to use the word ‘brackets’ loosely (not ‘losely’).

      I can’t think of a single word for acquiring interesting sites; you will have to come up with one!

      Best wishes

  5. Jay permalink

    A union suit originally was a name given to the all-in-one underwear more commonly called “combinations” in the UK.

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    As is well known portmanteau was first used by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass but isn’t itself a portmanteau word. A nighmanteau? Some words are unnoticed portmanteaus e.g. electrocute (from electric and execute) or breathalyzer (breath and analyser) but unfortunately Nylon doesn’t come from New York and London.

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