The Barrier of a Common Language: SHOPPING

As I previously wrote, I thought it might be appropriate to comment on the language of shopping. The idea to even write about the language divide came from speaking to my work colleague, who I refer to as CK. Or at least, trying to speak to her. After most things I say, she tends to stare at me with a blank face and an open mouth. The degree to which her mouth remains open is a reliable indication as to of the level of her understanding of our conversation.

In British English, CK and I work in the same shop. In American English we work in the same store. From now on, I will prefix each dialect with [BR] or [AM], as appropriate. As all the jokes say, Canada likes to fall somewhere between what is culturally British and what is culturally American.

Why did the Canadian cross the road?

To get in the middle

If an occasion arises where I need to draw attention to Canadian usage, I will prefix the word with [CA].

CK and I work in the same [BR] shop [AM] store. When we began working together, she had a difficult time understanding me and communication would only become possible if I were to slow my speech. My amusing but ultimately childish response was to make a small display upon which CK was allowed to affix gold stars whenever she understood a sentence without repetition or alteration.

I’m not sure why CK struggles with my speech more than my other colleagues or my Canadian wife, but it might be a simple lack of exposure to British English. For example, another colleague, Penny, is partial to a bit of Craig Ferguson and his diluted Scots accent. Coronation Street [BR] is on [AM] airs in Canada, and a third colleague, JB, loves the [BR] programme [AM] show, but CK says she can’t understand what they are saying. Or, as they might say on Coronation Street, [BR:Colloquial] “What they’re on about”.

A quick digression, following on from how I described Craig Ferguson as having a Scots accent. The more correct term is Scots. To describe a Scottish person, aspect of a Scottish person or place as Scotch is deemed as derogatory and it should only really be used for food or drink. For example, Scotch Egg or Scotch Whiskey. Ironically, the use of ‘Scotch’ originated in England in the 16th Century, but it has fallen out of favour and is now considered to be pejorative. In my experience, it is still used occasionally in North America, and I remember hearing Al Gore describe the Scottish people as Scotch in a BBC radio interview (amidst stifled laughter from the studio).

Back to shopping. Shopping in Britain has become a little more Americanised in recent years. We are regularly told that the death of the [BR]High Street [AM] Main Street is upon us because of the rise of [BR] Shopping Centres [AM] Shopping Malls and [BR] Retail Parks [AM]Shopping Plazas. Brits may complain that they promote homogeneity, but they surely agree that they are convenient.

The Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham, England is the strange pimply building which glows purple at night.

Although ‘Shopping Centre’ is the usual term, the word ‘mall’ is occasionally heard in Britain. Older generations of British people will tend to pronounce the word ‘mall’ as ‘mæl’ (to rhyme with ‘shall’, ‘canal’ or ‘pal’). My father recently did this, which made my Canadian wife and I giggle a little because ‘mall’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘ball’ in North America and amongst most younger Brits.

In defence of my Dad and his fellow older Brits, the word Mall originates in England from the name for a croquet like game called Paille-maille, played in the 16th Century. The game was played in long alleys, and once the game lost popularity, the alleys often became streets (such as Pall Mall in London and The Mall, also in London leading to Buckingham Palace) and in some cases, became shopping areas – hence the transition to shopping malls in North America.

The Toronto Eaton Centre is a large shopping mall and office complex.

When you go to the [BR] till [AM] register to pay for your shopping, you usually know how much you are going to pay before you get there if you are in The UK, but not usually if you are in North America. This is because the [BR] Value Added Tax [AM] Sales Tax [CA]Harmonized Sales Tax (in most provinces) is included [BR] on the price tag [AM:sometimes] in the ticket price. Buying $20 credit in Ontario to [BR] top-up [AM] refill your [BR] mobile [AM] cell in Ontario will cost you $22.60.

Most food is exempt from tax. If it wasn’t, a full shopping [BR] trolley [AM] cart would make your trip to the [BR] supermarket [AM] grocery store a lot more expensive and the shock might mean you would need help carrying your bags through the [BR] carpark [AM] parking lot.

Of course there are loads of vocabulary differences I could continue to squeeze into this article under the heading of shopping, so I’ll finish with a couple of personal tales.

I’ve always gone through phases, even as a kid, where I suffer with headaches. The first time I asked for some painkiller in The USA was in Florida, nearly 24 years ago when the world was a bigger place and probably had a bigger common language divide. Of course, when I asked for [BR] Paracetamol, the man in the [BR] Chemists [AM] Drugstore had no idea what I was talking about. Through my squinting eyes, I begged for painkiller for a headache and I was handed something called [AM] Acetaminophen. In Canada, most people refer to [BR]Paracetamol [AM] Acetaminophen by the popular brand name [CA] Tylenol (which is also available in The USA, but I don’t know if they use the brand name as prolifically).

Boots, the chemist.

I was recently in the chain of Canadian [BR] Chemists [AM] Drugstores known as Shopper’s Drugmart and someone was asking for ‘Paracetamol’. The Chemist was clued up enough to know that in most of the world acetaminophen/Tylenol is known as paracetamol, and he explained this to the suspicious customer. Thankfully, over-hearing this conversation meant that I could now start buying generic acetaminophen, instead of paying a premium for Tylenol!

The active compound in the painkilling drug is Para-acetylaminophenol, and if you look carefully, you can see that Paracetamol, Acetaminophen and Tylenol are all contained within the tongue-twister:

Para-acetylaminophenol

Para-acetylaminophenol

Para-acetylaminophenol

Shoppers Drugmart.

My most amusing Englishman abroad story comes, not from North America, but while I was on [BR] holiday [AM] vacation in Berlin, Germany. I had a [BR: colloquial] stinking [AM] killer headache and had no idea where to buy painkiller in the evening, when most pharmacies (as they are commonly called in most of Europe) had closed for the evening. Instead, I made my way to a [BR] corner shop [AM]convenience store. I didn’t see any painkiller on the shelves, so made my way to the [BR] counter[AM] checkout.

“Do you speak English?”, I asked.

“Small”, the woman replied with concern

“Painkiller? Headache?” I suggested. She looked at me, clearly not understanding. I decided to do what most Englishmen do when faced with someone who doesn’t speak English. First repeat it several times, then start miming. When my patronising slow repetition didn’t work, I placed my hands on either side of my head and rhythmically withdrew them again to mimic the sensation of a throbbing pain. I added the words “Boom! Boom!”, for dramatic effect.

Part of me wonders if the lady was being mischievous, but she clearly misunderstood my request. She seemed to think that I needed a haircut, because she pulled open a drawer and offered me a pair of scissors. Much to my wife’s amusement.

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