Tag Archives: American

Where do you go shopping?

Divided by a common language – Part 2

Dawn, from the Brighton Plot Bunnies writers’ group, took to Twitter to express her annoyance about the transition in British English that has led to “shops” becoming “stores”.  This would seem to be an American influence, since store tends to be the US preference for describing retail emporia, so I responded by blaming Kristina, who is an American member of Brighton Plot Bunnies.  The topic had actually come up in a discussion with Kristina a day or so previously when she mentioned that her sister-in-law’s car was “in the shop”.  In British English, a car would only be in a shop as the result of a serious collision with a plate glass window.

Americans use “shop” for a place where work is carried out – a workshop – whilst the English use it to mean a place where you can buy goods.  In the USA, you buy things in a store.  It is conceivable that Americans would shop in a store but store things in a shop.  In both countries, the act of going out with the intention of purchasing goods is called shopping.

I suspect that shops came first.  Think of it this way: in the days of local production, the tailor’s workshop was where he made clothes and sold them to you.  The baker made bread and cakes in his shop.  For artisans, the workshop was also the retail outlet.

Marple Bridge Co-op
My local Co-op in 1978 (long past its heyday)

Now consider the grocer.  He doesn’t make any of his goods.  Instead, he stores them on his shelves ready for the customer to walk-in and buy.  The more you go towards a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ model, the more logical the name store becomes: a tailor’s shop, but a clothing store.  Indeed, though shop is the more common coin in England, store has been used for over a hundred years.  From the late nineteenth century, the Co-op group referred to its retail outlets as stores.  (In the common parlance of its Manchester heartland, my grandmother always referred to the Co-op as The Stores.)

Does that mean that shop is wrong for a grocer’s premises?  Certainly not.  Take a descriptivist view of language: if your peers use shop to describe a retail outlet, then that’s the meaning of shop in your culture, and personally, I’m with Dawn in wanting to hang on to that meaning; I would be uncomfortable saying “I’m going to the store”.

Storing-up trouble – the shopping glossary

This is another of my Californian glossaries…

Building Society [English], mutually owned financial institution, originally formed to support members building or buying houses by (in effect) borrowing money from savers. Now a more general financial institution.

Charity shop [E], a shop selling second-hand goods, usually in support of a charitable cause.

Credit Union [American], mutually owned not-for-profit financial institution (see the more general meaning of Building Society)

Corner shop [E], small retail outlet, usually family owned, usually selling a wide variety of goods to a small local market.

Garage [A, E], private room built to house a car, but actually containing a freezer, three bicycles, a spare bicycle wheel, a surfboard, a Workmate bench, a collection of broken power tools, several folding chairs, a half-built rocking horse, a set of exercise weights, two tents (each with a broken pole), an unstable pile of wood and a deflated basketball.

Garage [E], a car repair workshop.

Mom and Pop Store [A], (rarely, but more sonorously, Mom and Pop Shop) a family-owned small retail business see Corner Shop

Repair Shop see garage [E].

Savings & Loan (S&L) [A], see Building Society (very much aligned to the original purpose).

Shop [A], place where goods are made or repaired.

Shop [E], place where goods may be purchased (or at least looked at avariciously).

Shopping [A,E], visiting retailers for the purpose of acquiring goods.  Performed by English people in shops, but by Americans in stores.

Shopping cart [A], wire basket mounted on independent-minded wheels.  This is used to clear space in supermarkets by crushing the ankles of the shoppers ahead of you.

Shopping trolley [E], see shopping cart.

Store [A], see shop [E].

Store [E], stock room at the back of a shop, not accessible to customers.

Take-out [A] a meal, generally hot, eaten away from the premises where it was purchased.

Take-away [E] see take-out

Thrift shop [A], see charity shop

Workshop [E] see shop [A]

Formal or informal dress?

Divided by a common language – Part 1

Is this a vest or an undershirt?David SedarisIs this a vest or a waistcoat? 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 shoesAbbreviation 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.