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Useage of English words

Posted by James Briggs on May 18, 2000

It struck me that it could be interesting, provided that it hasn't been done before, to try to find examples of different meanings to common English words around the English speaking world. I'm not thinking of words used in special circumstances, rather everyday ones used differently, sometimes with awkward outcomes! Here are three examples.

1. Pavement. In British English this is the name given to those areas on the side of city roads where the pedestrians walk - ie the US sidewalk. In the US the word is used for the covering of the actual road. "He was standing on the pavement" has very different meanings in the two countries. Incidentally, in Britain we don't seem to have a special name for the road surface, it's generally called just that, although, sometimes, "tarmac" might be used.

2. Momentarily. In Britain this word gives a sense of something happening and ceasing over a short period of time - eg "The TV picture momentarily broke down". In the US, I believe, the sense is that something will happen in a short time - "I'll be with you momentarily". Thus, in Britain, the word has a sense of FOR a short time and, in the US, IN a short time. In Britain, the US sense is replaced by "shortly" or "in a moment".

3.Inside and outside motorway lanes. In Britain, when we enter a motorway we regard it as the start of a journey - we enter a place and then move outwards away from the entry. Thus, the lane nearest the central barrier is, for us, the Outside lane. In the US the road is viewed very differently - like a race track. The central barrier is the equivalent of the rails on a race track. If you're up against them you're on the Inside lane. Hence, "Inside" and "Outside" are completely reversed in the two countries with, as I personally know, potentially hazardous consequences - when I was driving in the US last year my US friend suggested that I moved to the outside lane. I did, but went the wrong way to his intention and moved into, and not out of, danger!

By the way, accept my apologies in advance if I have US useage wrong!

If this idea is worth pursuing, then I look forward to lots more contributions. I bet a book, or books have been written on the subject. If so ESC will know.