Embarrassing minefields for Asian speakers of English
THOSE of you who follow important items of international news will have heard that branches of Starbucks in Asia are now selling a new snack from the west.
I am aware that the serving of Western food makes many people in Asia get extremely excited and exclaim with joyfully pounding hearts, "Please can we go somewhere else."
Anyway, the new snack is labeled "a scone." The British woman in front of me explained to staff that it was from Scotland and was pronounced skon, to rhyme with John. But no. The American behind me said he thought it was an American snack pronounced scone, to rhyme with cone.
But he didn't put up much of a fight. "You can pronounce it scone or skon as far as I am concerned," he added. "The proper name, anyway, is biscuit."
The British woman's eyebrows rose. "Nonsense," she said, pointing to a round, flat snack. "That is a biscuit."
The American shook his head. "No, ma'am. That's a cookie," he said.
I phoned a chef to adjudicate. "The American biscuit and British scone are the same thing," he said. "The only difference is shape. If it is circular, it is British, and if it is rectangular, it is American."
The things in Starbucks were triangular.
There are hundreds of words with British English meanings, which differ from those in American English. But there are five in particular which can cause huge embarrassment. To help people in Asia who are trying to communicate in English, here they are:
One: A la mode means "in fashionable style" in Europe, but means "adorned with vanilla ice cream" in America. Potentially problematic sentence: "Want to see my wife, a la mode?"
Two: A boob tube is a garment in the UK, but means "television set" in the US. Potentially problematic sentence: "The youthful Duchess entered the office clothed in elegant but striking fashion, her breasts hidden by a boob tube."
Three: On a related topic, hooters in British English are whistles, but are parts of the body in America. Potentially problematic sentence: "He smiled at Sarah and turned to look at the elegant ship: there was a loud blast from her hooters."
Four: A jock is a hunky athlete in American English, but is a somewhat derogatory term for a Scotsman in British English. Potentially problematic sentence: "The debutantes cheered to hear they'd be spending Saturday partying with a group of merry jocks."
Five: Suspenders in British English are sexy, elastic-and-lace items that connect a woman's garter belt to her stocking-tops. But in American English, they are thick straps overweight bankers use to keep their trousers up. Potentially problematic sentence: "In an attempt at male bonding, the London banker told his New York colleagues that what really turned him on was glimpses of suspenders."
Incidentally, the Cannes Film Festival opens this week, and the star attraction is a movie called The Stone of Scone. This news inspired me to phone a linguist at a university to settle the issue for good. She explained that scone comes from an old Dutch word pronounced "schoon," so both Americans and Brits say it wrong.
I then made the mistake of buying one of the things and leaving it in the fridge for too long. It fossilised. Anyone fancy making a film called The Scone of Stone?
For more old, fossilised material, check out our columnist's website: www.vittachi.com