Americanisms what ‘ave puzzled me.

I honestly, truly only realised today for the very first time, that “to kill (it)”, in American slang, means something like “to do better than anyone else could hope or expect to do”. That’s probably not exactly it, but it’s close enough, when you consider that until today I thought it was overwhelmingly negative, not positive. I may actually have misunderstood quite an alarming number of pop culture stories/headlines scrolling past on my newsfeed!

I usually do quite well with Americanisms. Growing up in the UK, we’re exposed to fairly equal doses of American and British media, and when you hear words and phrases repeated in certain contexts it’s really not very difficult to work out that “bathroom” means “toilet” even if there’s not a bath in the room, and “garbage can” means “bin”, and “drugs” can mean innocent painkillers for your headache as well as a line of coke.

I have, I confess, struggled with the odd one here and there. “Herb/herbal” with a silent ‘h’ puzzled me for years, as I’d never heard it pronounced like that before and wasn’t entirely sure, from the context, what it referred to – particularly as I often heard it in repeated episodes of Friends, when they would mention herbal tea. As a teenager, I probably had a vague idea of what herbal tea was, but it wasn’t exactly a part of my everyday vocabulary – and I was thrown still further off track by the different pronunciation, with emphasis on the first syllable (“hERbal tea”) rather than on the third, as it would naturally be said by a British English speaker (“herbal TEA“). As a result, I heard “ERbaltee” and it would annoy me every time I heard it, as I was no closer to knowing what this “erbaltee” stuff was. The penny only dropped after many years, when an American friend was right next to me, holding a packet of the stuff in her hands and asking me if I wanted some. One of those dazzling “ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh right!” moments of blinding clarity!

Likewise, I will never forget my bemused horror when Marge Simpson casually started talking about Lisa’s fanny. I was probably about 12 years old, and couldn’t believe she’d said that word on early evening TV, on a show that children watched. It was only after a few years of noticing it cropping up on other child-friendly shows and films, and only American ones, that I gradually worked out that it meant “bum”, as opposed to what it means in the UK. (I still can’t hear “sit on your fanny!” or “smack on the fanny” without cringing though. I suppose the nearest equivalent would be me casually asking an American for a “rubber”.)

Other differences annoyed me at first because I didn’t actually realise that they were differences. I honestly thought that they were frequently-repeated mistakes, and the writer/speaker had accidentally missed out a word! Examples:

I’ll write her. To me, that means I – as a writer – will create a character. Like Charles Dickens wrote Scrooge. If I’m going to send a letter/email, I’ll write to her.

I’m going to the shops. Do you want to come with? My brain hangs on expectantly, waiting for completion, waiting for closure, and eventually silently adding “(me)”.

A couple things. A pair of, a duo of, a couple…

Could care less. This is the worst one, for me, because it means exactly the opposite of what the speaker intends it to mean. If you could care less, that means you care, and would have to be less affected by it to not care at all – but what you mean, as you say it with a shrug of indifference, is that it doesn’t matter to you in the slightest, and you couldn’t care less than you currently do.

Still, although these differences jumped out at me (and always will) simply because they sound incorrect to my British English-thinking brain, you can’t seriously misunderstand their meanings in context. Unlike “a million and a half”. I mean… what… I don’t… why?! There’s no way my first thought on hearing this would be 1,500,000. If someone is reading out a figure for me to write down, and says “one and a half”, I’ll write down 1.5. “Ten and a half”, 10.5. A half means ‘point five’, not “half of the last number mentioned” (which would make “ten and a half” = 15!). Once you start getting into higher figures, it seems a bit weird to be mentioning the half instead of rounding up or down, but I would still instinctively follow the pattern. So “a million and a half” is 1,000,000.5, but that’s apparently not the intended meaning  – which is actually 1,500,000, or, as I would say it, ‘one and a half million’, or ‘one point five million’.

Resign is another one that has caused actual misunderstandings for me. When talking about jobs, all my American friends in Korea would talk about resigning, which, to me, has always meant handing in one’s notice. Turns out they were talking about signing again, as in re-signing their contracts – which in my experience had always been “renewing”. Ah-ha! Another “the penny has dropped” moment when I worked that one out. I couldn’t understand why they kept saying they were going to quit and then signed new contracts!

However, there are three similar Americanisms that I’ll probably never get straight in my head – which takes me back to the beginning of this post. They are: killing/killed it, sick, and the shit. 

All of these are positive, and yet to me are extremely negative. When I hear something described as “the shit!”, that is never going to scream “this is amazing!” at me. The word “shit” used to describe anything in UK English means it couldn’t be much worse. The subtle addition of “the” turns it into a glowing compliment from across the pond, but it makes me flinch! Likewise, sick. Usually a one-word comment on a link to a story or picture online: Sick! In my mind, it’s going to be something perverse, gory, or offensive, and then I see the headline or title and it’s about the start of a new series of a popular TV show, or a photo of flying robot-car or something.

And as for my most recent realisation, I am amazed and a little embarrassed at how many posts on my newsfeed I must have totally misunderstood. To kill something, in British slang (at least, when I was growing up!) meant almost the same as its literal meaning. You could kill a party or an atmosphere/mood by saying or doing something to bring everybody down: end of party. You could kill a drink by knocking back the last mouthful so someone could take the empty glass up to the bar or throw away the bottle. I have always been especially good at killing (or indeed, murdering) classic songs at karaoke nights, and we’ll often say “well, that killed that conversation…” when there’s a long and/or awkward silence after someone has spoken.

So, when I’ve seen links to stories about celebrities wearing something or other and “killing it”, I’ve glanced at the photo and thought they must be terribly out of fashion or something. If the link refers to a song (usually yet another video of someone singing the USA’s national anthem and “killing it”), I assume it must be a particularly screechy, tone-deaf, cringeworthy performance and don’t click on the link. It was only when I was scrolling down my newsfeed in an idle moment today, and read a shocking headline, that I clicked on it and finally had my “ohhhhhhhhh right!” moment of understanding for “killing it”. The headline was [NAME I DON’T KNOW] KILLED ON [SOME AMERICAN TV SHOW] LAST NIGHT. I hadn’t seen this variant before, and had it said “killed it” or “killing it” I would have continued in my ignorance, thinking they’d been especially terrible. The fact that I read it with the literal meaning and thought someone had actually been murdered on live television was the only reason I was startled enough to click and read the story – whereby I made the discovery that the person in question had actually done something wonderful and was being praised for it.

Ohhhhhhhhhhh right!

As one of my favourite Americans would say: d’oh.

 

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3 thoughts on “Americanisms what ‘ave puzzled me.

  1. If it makes you feel any better, ‘sick’, ‘killed it’ and ‘the shit’ all confused the hell out of me, too. But I’m much older than you, so I have an excuse. Several of the the others are actually incorrect and would be noted as such by most (educated) speakers of Standard English. “I could care less” should, of course, be “I couldn’t care less” and drives most of us language-types crazy. It’s not an Americanism, it’s an ignorantism (not intending that meanly, just using ‘ignorant’ here as in ‘someone who does not know.’) There are many Americans who are entirely unaware that they’re using the phrase incorrectly. ‘Do you want to come with?” is also nonstandard English. As I understand it, it found its way into common usage in areas with a larger Germanic immigrant population (Wisconsin, for example) and results from a bad word-for-word translation of the German ‘Kommst du mit?” which is entirely correct. “A couple things” is technically incorrect – I would always write it as ‘a couple of’- but the ‘of’ is, sadly, a victim of modern impatience, not unlike the adverbial form ‘-ly’ (eat healthily, come quickly, clap loudly) which is dying a slow death in American English. Take heart, my friend – you’re probably doing much better understanding us than most people!

  2. In the words of Eddie Izzard, “You say ‘erbs, we say herbs… because there’s a f-ing H in it!”.

    I know “killer” as something positive (as in “that party was killer”), but not to kill something. Like you, I would have thought “killing” a song means you sang it badly.

  3. The one that ‘kills’ me is ‘momentarily’ – it means FOR a moment, not IN a moment. And it’s starting to be used in the UK, which makes me very sad. Just plain wrong.

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