England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
George Bernard Shaw, Irish-born dramatist (1856 – 1950)
This quote in various manifestations has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill; whoever the source, the outcome is the same. While we can communicate quite well, there is a danger, somewhat insidious, of thinking that the British and American “languages” are identical. Well, Australian and Canadian too for that matter…in fact, as an American I can be completely flummoxed by someone from Down Under in the land of Oz.
Vacation or holiday, sidewalk or pavement, diaper or nappy, pacifier or dummy, bangs or fringe, suspenders or braces, stove top or hob – the Internet is replete with list after list of examples of our various terms for the same thing. Some terms however can leave even native speakers bewildered, but the consequences are rarely serious — usually merely humorous. We often have a good laugh here at Tansa about our differences when, for example, my British colleague begins whingeing (what?) about an invigilator (who?)
For the most part, it doesn’t matter; Brits understand Brits and Americans understand Americans (I repeat, for the most part). With the small-world phenomena being expanded by the Internet, more and more miscommunication is inevitable.
For Tansa, this situation becomes apparent to our users who have both American and British staff, where they must apply one consistent form of the language. It’s very easy to think that English is just English…we understand each other. Well, it can range from semi-communication to a total breakdown when someone from the streets of the East End of London encounters someone from the hills of West Virginia. But in formal writing, we generally agree on a common overlap that stands us in good stead.
This year there was an incidence of trans-Atlantic miscommunication. During the summer holidays/vacation of 2011, the world watched as a tragedy unfolded here on the streets of idyllic Oslo. Confusion reigned to say the least for many hours as the story evolved and facts emerged. While channel-hopping between local Oslo news, British and American coverage, I was struck by a comment of a female reporter on one of the largest international news networks who stated, and I don’t remember her exact words, that the government building bombed had few people because it was a “holiday” in Norway. Now, since I was sitting here in Oslo, at work, at my desk, I knew it was not a holiday. Undoubtedly the reporter picked up on the word “holiday” from Norwegian or British sources and repeated it, misconstruing the American context of the word. In US English holiday most often appears in relation to public, federal or national holidays or the holiday season or simply holidays (from “holy day” usually reserved for the Christmas season).
In fact the month of July is the most common time for Norwegians to go “on vacation” (US English) or “on holiday” (UK English). The building was essentially empty because it was after 3 P.M. on a Friday during the vacation or holiday month of July, not because it was a (national or public) holiday in Norway.
Was this a critical error? No, not really. But the reporter appeared somewhat uninformed and unprofessional, although confusion was surely the culprit. But this is definitely a case of cross-cultural linguistic miscommunication.
How can Tansa help with this type of issue? For publications with multinational staff, Tansa administrators can employ search-replace strings or warnings to help prevent this type of occurrence appearing in print for posterity. It may appear to be minor now, but with globalization, we will surely see more of this type of miscommunication.