Divided by a common language – Part 1
David Sedaris was on the radio, reading some of his brilliant short essays. These included a story in which an airport security operative asked him to remove his vest. He’s American, and American audiences would not have batted an eyelid at this, but the event was in England, so some of his audience may have been a little puzzled: was he wearing just a vest? If not, how many layers had he taken off before he was asked to remove that one?
The problem is that he was talking about a different garment from the one his audience was hearing. What Sedaris called a vest is the garment on the right, which English people would generally refer to as a waistcoat. The English vest on the left would, in the United States, be described as an undershirt. American and English vests are worn on the same part of the body; the difference is merely the relative position with respect to skin and to other pieces of clothing. We have the same problem with pants, because English people generally use this as an abbreviation of underpants. Kindergarten children sometimes do physical exercise in vest and pants. In England they are being informal, in the US they would be over-dressed.
Where did you get that hat? The fashion glossary
When I lived in California, I compiled the following comparative glossary. This should be treated with caution: language is fluid, so this is a tendency for preferences on either side of the Atlantic, rather than an exclusive rule. It also changes over time; I have no recollection of hearing “pinkie” used in England before 2000; I have heard it relatively frequently since then (and Partridge’s slang dictionary suggests that it is of nineteenth century Scottish origin).
Bangs [more common in America], hair forming a straight fringe over the forehead. (Why?) It was quite a surprise for me to read (in a serious piece about American First Ladies) that Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for her bangs.
Diapers [American], garment for babies who have yet to develop bladder control.
Dungarees [more common in England], trousers, usually denim, supported by a bib front and shoulder straps. Originally worn as a loose-fitting working garment, but now more frequent as a fashion statement. (Usually a statement along the lines of “my waistline is too big for a belt and I need something to stop my trousers from accumulating around my ankles.”)
Intimate apparel [A], department description in stores which think that underwear is too vulgar for their corporate image, but don’t think their customers are educated enough to understand lingerie.
Jumper [E], woollen outer garment, covering the torso and (usually) arms, put on by pulling it over the wearer’s head.
Knickers [E], ladies’ underwear. An abbreviated form of knickerbockers (both linguistically and materially).
Little finger [E], smallest finger, on which an English gentleman would not wear a pinkie ring.
Nappies [E], see diapers.
Overalls [A], see dungarees.
Overalls [E], an single outer garment covering legs, body and arms, worn to protect other layers of clothing from dirty work.
Pants [A], bifurcated garment, traditionally male, covering the lower abdomen and legs. Abbreviation of pantaloons.
Pants [E], underwear (generally male) worn beneath trousers. Abbreviation of underpants.
Pinkie [A], the smallest finger.
Pinkie ring [A], a fashion accessory for the wearer’s pinkie. For example, in the report of theft from a car (a major crime report, where I lived in Sunnyvale, California) “stolen articles included … a gentleman’s pinkie ring.” No English gentleman would wear one.
Sweater [A], see jumper [E].
Tennis shoes [A], lightweight, soft-soled informal shoes, traditionally with canvas uppers, (though leather and plastic are now more common). Worn mainly for purposes other than playing tennis.
Trainers [A], garment for very young children in the process of developing bladder control – one step on from diapers. Abbreviation of training pants.
Trainers [E], see tennis shoes . Abbreviation of training shoes (in the sense of athletic training). Telling Americans that you need to go out to by a pair of trainers tends to draw funny looks.
Trousers [E], see pants [A].
Undershirt [A], undergarment for the upper torso, worn, appropriately, under a shirt.
Vest [A], sleeveless, front-buttoned garment, frequently the third part of a three-piece suit, worn over a shirt and underneath a jacket.
Vest [E], see undershirt.
Waistcoat [E], see vest [A].
Footnote: Does this matter?
This language of time and place matters to me as a publisher of plays because the language should match the setting. We occasionally call-out writers for using a word or phrase that should not form part of the lexicon in the time or place in which the play is set.