Have I GOTTEN all American now?

Have I GOTTEN all American now?

One of my readers (I hope that there may be more than one) chastised me recently for using the American word “gotten” in my latest blog. It is not in common usage in my native England, although some do refer to “ill-gotten gains”. Maybe “forgotten” and even “woe-begotten” are also somehow connected? Who said “two countries divided by a common language”?

I hastened to research the situation and found that “Gotten was in use in England at the time America was colonized. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century. It has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope, and is found in the King James version of the Bible”. Just saying.

That diversion led me to exploring other distinctions between US and UK parlance and practice which can confuse. For instance, why color and harbor, not colour and harbour? I read that “The American preference for color took hold in the middle 19th century thanks in large part to the simplification of English spellings by people such as the lexicographer Noah Webster”. So, Webster could not spell?

Potentially more troubling for the domestic neophyte is the simple light switch.

In USA this position is OFF, but ON in UK. Why? Just part of discarding the English yoke? No, actually it was a good idea, since the UK arrangement makes it is too easy to switch on inadvertently.

Much more pertinent and potentially hazardous is the fact that we drive on different sides of the road. How did that happen? A logical explanation for riding on the left is that, when encountering someone on horseback, it allows one to hold the reins in the left hand, whilst brandishing a sword or lance (or handshake, depending on the approaching person) in the right hand.

These early jousters seem not to have gotten the memo

So why the general change to the right side? Some say that it was the French, who always wanted (and want) to avoid English habits, or perhaps because Napoleon was left-handed? Driving on the right is now far more popular worldwide, as shown in the figure. Left-sided driving is dominant in ex-empire countries which play cricket (which does not explain Japan). From personal experience I know that trucks (“lorries”) and buses drive in the middle of the road in India.

I am aware of only one country that changed from left to right sided driving.

Sweden did so at 5am on September 3rd 1967. The Högertrafikomläggningen event appears slightly confusing in the photo, but it apparently went smoothly in typical Swedish style.

Mention of a date above brings me to another important difference between US and UK. Over here we write month/day/year, but in UK it is usually day/month/year. That fact caused me some difficulty on a rural SC road soon after I arrived in USA. My international driver’s license had 03/10/1986 as the expiry date, ie October 3rd. The traffic cop gave me a ticket for the license because he could clearly see that it had expired in March and was not convinced by my increasingly frenzied explanation (in a funny accent).

There are of course many other ways of writing the date. The three elements can be separated by / or – or . or a gap or no gap, and the month can be spelt out completely or usually just the first 3 letters. The International Organization for Standardization apparently recommends YYYY-MM-DD, like 2020-12-23, but I have increasingly used 23-Dec-2020 as the least easily misunderstood.

I mentioned “Two countries separated by a common language”. You will of course remember that it was said by Winston Churchill (who I met briefly in 1960). He said and wrote many memorable things, but it turns out that the quote goes back at least as far as Oscar Wilde, and was used later by George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and even Dylan Thomas.

One other anecdote. After giving a lecture in US I received a letter saying that my talk was “quite good”. I was rather miffed, for in English that means not much good. I later learnt that in USA it means very good. Just to confuse further, in English “quite excellent” is the tops. How dat?

Note that I have not gotten into discussing differences in pronunciation. I have adapted to American toMAYto instead of English toMARto. So why don’t Brits say potARto? La vie d’artiste c’est difficile.

All part of life’s rich tapestry.

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