Once more with meaning: the great language divide

Americans say, I got Covid whereas, in the UK, the expression is I caught Covid. The same goes for colds. It seems like a little thing, but one theory I have as to why the language diverges on this point has to do with how each of these societies treats illness. In the UK, the NHS exists to treat everyone, regardless of their status, because it’s recognised that health is not something you get a lot of choice in. For Americans, illness – or crucially, health – has become something you acquire. If you can buy health, the logic seems to go, you can buy your way out of sickness.

Alternatively, that might be reading too much into it. There’s probably not much significance in the fact that Brits say tickly cough and chesty cough instead of the more sterile American dry and wet. Nor that toyboy becomes boytoy when you cross the Atlantic to the New World.

But I’d argue, for instance that, the American fondness for promising that something will happen momentarily is revealing; it’s a word that keeps you on tenterhooks while refusing to reveal a specific timeline is useful in customer-service situations where there’s a lot of the former (customers) and not much of the latter (service).

Likewise, the American word oatmeal for porridge looks like a rebranding exercise. Can’t you just see it: a mid-century Don Draper-esque Madison Avenue advertising executive explains that porridge has an unmistakably dreary, Dickensian quality. It’s something served in an orphanage when what we want to sell is wellness. Cue a slideshow of oats, horses, fresh air, sun … the client is won over, the pitch is successful and, after a concerted campaign, porridge is never again mentioned at American breakfast tables.

Australians often hover in the middle of these mini-debates, though there are some who would say the country is becoming more American every day. There are still differences of opinion. One such Australian-American difference I’ve discovered is that what Americans more often call working out, Australians often refer to as training. One hypothesis for this is that, thanks to the Protestant work ethic, Americans love industriousness, self-improvement, and especially the convergence of the two. By contrast, Australians are typically self-effacing, and the use of training downplays exercise as mere practice, rather than performance.

Another everyday divergence is in the American use of backyard for what we might call garden, which to them evokes a rambling Beatrix Potter wonderland. Perhaps garden, inherited from the old country, suggests more of a continuation with the natural environment. Backyard connotes clear lines – an appropriately legalistic term for a people not shy about using courts to resolve disputes.

American terminology is often more literal: think sidewalk for pavement – or shopping cart for trolley. Then, of course, some terms are more oblique, like restroom for toilet, or gas for the liquid we know as petrol. And then there are some differences for which there can be no reasonable explanation divined, such as trash and rubbish – or that quite good in Australia means something is only so-so, whereas in America, it means it’s a standout.

There are two things about Australian English which stump Americans, in my experience. The first is that most of us don’t walk around saying crikey all day. The second is that mate isn’t necessarily an expression of friendship. That it can sometimes mean the exact opposite makes mate even more confusing.

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