Apr 6, 2010
When I first moved to London from the States – childless at this stage – I thought the word loo was far better than the word bathroom. There aren’t always baths in bathrooms, so the misnomer didn’t sit well with me, especially when I was now being given the option of asking for the monosyllabic and more affable-sounding loo when my bladder needed relieving.
In those first few months after jumping the pond, I often thought of the late William Safire, wondering whether he wrote about lift versus elevator, rubbish bin versus trash can, or hob versus stove in his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. I considered writing to him to ask for some navigation techniques in this vernacular valley. Dear William, could a California girl really get away with saying words like knickers, wellies and telly without sounding like a complete nincompoop?
Three years later, feeling as though I was master of some American expat universe because I could use the words cuppa, touch wood, and fortnight in a sentence, I became pregnant. Announcing the pregnancy to my workmates (a much friendlier and less sociological-sounding word than co-workers), one woman asked, “How far gone?” It was the first time I heard the phrase in this context, and I immediately thought, “She can’t possibly be asking me if I’ve reached a certain stage of deterioration.” Of course, she wanted to know how many weeks I was. You see, in the U.S. of A., one usually asks how far along a woman is. Is it me or does the word gone seem a bit cup half empty and the word along cup half full?
Ladies and gents and fellow pond-jumpers, this was the first lesson in the Learning to Speak British English While Expecting a Baby course. The second involved choosing a midwife or a doctor to provide pregnancy and labour care. In my unenlightened mind, I thought midwives only existed in Shakespeare’s England, attesting to virginity or narrating the events of a birth. But, American compatriots, here in the 21st century, I’m here to tell you that midwives exist and they deliver babes.
In fact, my own midwives were responsible for teaching me Pregnant Expat in London jargon. For instance, I know a thing or two about prefixes, these little beauties which allow you to expand your vocabulary without much effort, but was always thrown off when one of my midwives would say antenatal instead of prenatal. I heard ante- and couldn’t help but think anti. Who knew homonyms could be so fun, and in this example, could mean the difference between a pre-dinner cocktail or teetotalism.
I was caught off guard when at one of my antenatal appointments, one of my midwives asked whether I was planning to buy a cot. For me, a cot represented one of these collapsible beds made of polyester stretched on an aluminum frame, and I was horrified imagining my teeny tiny baby sleeping like this. I went home, immediately Googled cot, and felt relief that she was in fact referring to a crib. My midwife also mentioned “a top and tail”. Oh my, was she was a bit racier than I thought, telling X-rated jokes?
When I decided to have a baby shower – apparently not as common in the UK as in the US – I was relieved to find out I could register at a local department store. I had my list of baby necessities, and I was on my way to finding out that not only is John Lewis a department store, but also a translator.
I learned that strollers are called buggies or prams, onesies are called bodysuits, tank tops are called vests, pacifiers are called dummies, and hooded towels are called cuddle robes. All seemingly minor differences, but not to a woman who is hormonal and in nesting mode. An excerpt of a phone conversation with my mom:
Me: Mom, you wouldn’t believe this, but there are no such things as burping cloths here.
Mom: Well then I guess you better have a baby that doesn’t burp.
Me: This is no time for jokes. You obviously don’t understand the severity of this problem. I’ve been checking the shoulders of women with babies to see if there are any spit-up spots or stains. There’s no evidence. They must be using something instead of burping cloths.
Mom: Go back to your department store John Louie and ask them what women use on their shoulders when they burp their babies.
Me: You mean John Lewis?
Mom: You know what I mean.
And so it was that I learned about muslin squares and how some things are named for their make-up and others for their function. I also discovered that in these parts, burping is referred to as winding. The latter sounds so much more poetic.
The award for lost in translation goes to a saleswoman who asked about teats. I looked her in the eye, wondering if she just said what I thought she said. You see, having grown up in California, I was around a lot of Spanish speakers, and when a Spanish speaker pronounces the synonym for breasts – you know the vulgar one that is often paired with the synonym for donkey – it sounds exactly like “teats”. I immediately thought that since she was speaking without any reservations, I’d speak her language. So, I asked if they sold the a** pillow in case I should need it after labour. She looked at me horrified, and said, “Do you mean the bum pillow?” I turned red, felt my baby kick as if to tell me how embarrassed I should be, and then said, “Can you please tell me what teats are. Teats are nipples for bottles.
Once my little prince was born, I was thrilled to know a health visitor would be coming around to visit us both and check on us during our first few days together. This is foreign to Americans. I asked my midwife what a health visitor was, and she said it was similar to what I might refer to as a paediatrician who makes house calls, although a health visitor is not a doctor. (That extra “a” in the British English spelling of paediatrician always throws me off.) She said the health visitor would also be checking on me to make sure all was wonderful in my world. Oh, this is so sweet. What a country, what a country!
I was soon taking walks down the kilos versus pounds lane, Celsius versus Fahrenheit boulevard, and dinner versus tea sidewalk (ahem, pavement). Taking a stroll down the diaper versus nappy avenue was amusing. When the ol’ consort would tell our little prince, “Let’s change your nappy,” it was often followed by a, “Please pa, I not tired.” You see, when I needed to change my son’s diaper, I of course referred to it as a diaper. When it was time to take a nap, I said it was time to…well, take a nap.
Subsequent language lessons are presenting themselves on what seems a daily basis. As my son progresses in months, we are both learning about undies versus pants, sweaters versus jumpers, and sneakers versus trainers. The whole public school versus private school versus state school is still confusing to me.
The lingo landscape continues to enthral, but there is another affair that is even more appealing – Mother’s Day, or Mothering Day in these parts. As a mama, I am celebrated twice a year as the holiday falls on two separate days in my native and adopted country. Oh, if life gets any better, I might bite my arm off. Is this the British saying or am I recalling Monty Python’s Lifeboat sketch?