You Can Take the Boy out of Britain, but You Can’t Take Britain Out of His Vocabulary

The first time I told the Complimentary Spouse I felt “a bit peckish,” he looked at me quizzically and asked what he had done wrong. His response confused me. Why would he think that I was accusing him of something when all I wanted was a snack?

It turns out that he had never heard the word “peckish,” and assumed it meant I was mad or annoyed. But it just meant I was hungry. 

Here’s why we weren’t on the same (dictionary) page: I spent part of my childhood in the U.K., where some British words seeped into my vocabulary. Most times, I can remember which words are correct in which countries, but in the case of “peckish” I had no idea it was an obscure word in America. 

I’ve lived in the U.S. now for many years, but there are still a few British remnants in my vocabulary. Sometimes I don’t even recognize when I’m using a non-American word. Here are some examples that pop up from time to time:

  • When I ask Britt for the dogs’ leads, he brings me their leashes.
  • If I tell Britt his windscreen is dirty, he washes his windshield.
  • When I tell Britt I’m going to get a trolley at Publix, he knows I’m coming back with a shopping cart.

Beyond these examples and a few others, you usually won’t hear me mixing British and American words.1 I think that’s because my vocabulary is on autopilot: 99.9% of the time, I will use the words and expressions appropriate for the country I’m in. For example, when we’re in Britain (or Ireland or Australia or New Zealand), without thinking I will:

  • Ask where the lifts or toilets are.
  • Order chips or crisps with my beef burgers.
  • Put luggage in the boot of the car (and petrol in the tank).
  • Write whilst and colour and end my sentences with a full stop.

As soon as the plane touches down in the States, I automatically revert to elevatorsbathrooms, French fries, potato chips, hamburgers, trunk, gas, while, color, and period.2

I suspect I’m not the only former expat with such an elastic vocabulary. This is simply an ability you pick up when you have lived abroad. I’ll chalk it up as another one of my awesome yet unmarketable skills. 

1 I can also switch between punctuation styles. For example, in the U.S., the period goes inside the closing quote, while in the UK, the full stop goes outside.3

2 My Spanish vocabulary is also on autopilot: When referring to a car in Spain, I say coche, while everywhere else I use carro

3 Note that I used “U.S.” with periods while discussing American punctuation, and “UK” without full points when discussing British punctuation. That’s because initialisms are treated differently in each country. I know this stuff inside and out. Just wait till I get started on collective nouns.