You say sidewalk, I say pavement

My fingers find it impossible to ignore the “U” key when I want to describe a colour, or a neighbour, the Labour Party or a sense of humour

George Bernard Shaw (photo credit: FLICKR)
George Bernard Shaw
(photo credit: FLICKR)
 “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” So George Bernard Shaw observed with one of his many aphorisms encapsulating more than a grain of truth. It applies both to the meaning of words and the way in which they are spelled. My laptop, which I purchased in Texas, thinks I cannot spell, and The Jerusalem Report agrees with my laptop. But my fingers find it impossible to ignore the “U” key when I want to describe a colour, or a neighbour, the Labour Party or a sense of humour
I once worked with an American colleague with whom I conducted a running etymological battle. He would put forward the perfectly reasonable argument that everything, including language has to move forward, and one way of doing it is to spell words as they sound, I would counter by pointing out that in this process of development, language sacrifices its history. By cutting the tail off programme, or by reversing the final letters of theatre or centre, the words are losing their European origins. Surely, I would point out, the meaning of the phrase, “a rich language” is one which pays homage to its origins.
However, at the end of the day, in whatever way a word is spelled, its meaning is generally clear. 
Whether I read the theatre programme or the theater program, nobody can be in any doubt about what I am doing. The same cannot be said about vocabulary. Here, the opportunities for misunderstanding or even total non-comprehension are legion. For instance, a recent headline in Haaretz informed its readers that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sitting in the catbird seat. A careful reading of the article which followed, only partially helped me to an understanding of what Netanyahu was sitting on. So, it was Google as usual, which came to the rescue. That the prime minister was in what I would have called a commanding position [too many letters, I must admit, for a newspaper headline] still left me having to return to Google for a definition of catbird. For readers coming from my side of the Atlantic, it is an American songbird related to the mockingbird.
Some, what I dare call Americanisms, are actually very useful. Take “nix” for example. There is no need to rush to Google for this one. Hardly a day goes by without something or other in the news being “nixed,” usually the recently announced arrangements for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the assistance of television and the internet, words which at one time would have puzzled the Brits, have become part of the Queen’s English. Boot camp, for instance, is no longer assumed to be basic military training. Still, misunderstandings can sometimes occur. I once gave an American cousin a recipe for English trifle which essentially includes jelly [jello] for which she understood jam, with inedible results.
So, let us return to a gentleman sitting in a catbird seat [GB commanding position] who descends from the station wagon [estate car] because he has had a blowout [puncture]. He looks around for the nearest filling station [petrol station] before looking in the trunk [boot] with his flashlight [torch] for some tools. He fails to find anything useful but is delighted to see his young son’s forgotten lunch box. He realizes he is hungry, so takes out a biscuit [scone], a brownie [young girl guide], some candy [sweets], potato chips [crisps] and a lox [smoked salmon] sandwich. He then walks to the nearby traffic circle [roundabout] looking as he goes for a comfort station [public toilet] or any kind of bathroom [where the bath is] where he can wash up [do the dishes]. He searches his pockets for some car fare [money for the bus] but finds only a cloakroom [toilet] ticket. As he passes some row homes [terraces], he spots a realtor’s [estate agent’s] office and a druggist [chemist] where he may be able to get cash from his checking account [current account]. The owners turn out to be mean [stingy]. The realtor asks him if he was looking for a roomer [lodger] or an apartment [flat] with a yard [garden] and the druggist informs him that he stocks everything from diapers [nappies] to bobby pins [clips], but neither offers cash.
Thus, the gentleman’s day has bombed [been a great success]. He has even missed a game of checkers [draughts] with his friend and a later football [real football/soccer] match. 
“Oy vey,” is what he says, and everybody understands what he means.
The writer is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation