Janus words are the worst. Named after the two-faced Roman god, these words look in two directions, meaning opposite things: temper, meaning ‘to harden’ (metal) and ‘to soften’ (a criticism); or dust, meaning ‘remove dust from’ or ‘apply dust to.’
Those Janus words give little trouble because we know both meanings and the context tells us which meaning to go for. But what if you had no clue that a word had an opposite meaning?
That’s the problem of transatlantic Janus words. People in the US might have no idea that the word means the opposite thing in the UK and vice versa.
I read with interest an article for which a British reporter tried to guess which shoppers were British in a New York department store. The British, he figured, would be men with sideburns wearing too much Diesel-brand clothing and “slightly scruﬀy” women with “the rabid Buy Now look in their eyes.” The first couple the reporter approached were indeed British. The second were Danish. Then, he writes:
The third attempt gets another strike.
I thought I understood that—until I read that the third couple were the MacFarlanes from Edinburgh. My American mind understood strike as in baseball: a failure. The strike in the British reporter’s mind was like striking oil. A success.
Not too diﬀerent is bomb. If an American performance is a bomb, it has failed spectacularly. If a British performance goes down a bomb, it is a wild success.
My transition from American to British academia involved a period of complete baﬄement in meetings. In Britain, if something is moot it is up for debate. In American, moot means ‘not worth debating’ because the issue has already been deemed irrelevant. Winston Churchill relates a story in which leaders of the British and American armed forces misunderstood each other’s use of table:
The British Staﬀ prepared a paper which they wished to raise as a matter of urgency, and informed their American colleagues that they wished to “table it.” To the American Staﬀ “tabling” a paper meant putting it away in a drawer and forgetting it. A long and even acrimonious argument ensued before both parties realized that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.
The British metaphorical meeting table is in front of the committee—on the table is where a matter can be seen. In American meetings, the table is a metaphorical storage unit—it’s where the matter sits when no one’s doing anything to it. To table a motion in that case is to suspend the discussion of it, to shelve it. When it’s time to discuss the matter again, Americans take it oﬀ the table and put it on the floor, where the speakers are.
And then there are the transatlantic Janus words that can accidentally insult. The first time someone told me that I’d made my abode very homely, I very nearly slapped him. He Britishly meant ‘cozy and comfortable’ (Americans would say homey), but I Americanly heard ‘plain and ugly.’ A homely face, in the American way of meaning, is one that is best suited to staying at home. If someone calls you nervy in American English, they’re saying you’ve got a lot of nerve—you’re overconfident. In British English, you’d be a bundle of nerves—timid and apprehensive.
And, to add an example that is not exactly about opposite meanings, my American friends once got a shock from my English spouse. While walking to our car after dinner in New York, it was pointed out that their fifteen-year-old had a fair amount of her dinner on her clothes. My husband teasingly shouted, “We don’t want that slutty teenager in our car!” I don’t think he’d finished the sentence before I rushed to inform everyone in earshot: “That means ‘slovenly’ in British English!” (Though, it must be said, the ‘slovenly’ meaning is now nearly dead in the UK. Call a woman who doesn’t dust a slut and you can expect to be clobbered.)
There are many more ways for us to embarrass ourselves with contrary meanings, but I’ll end this with one of the trickiest transatlantic Janus words: the intensifier quite, as in quite happy or quite tall or quite boring. The Economist Style Guide takes the standard line:
In America, quite is usually an intensifying adverb, similar to altogether, entirely or very; in Britain, depending on the emphasis, the tone of voice and the adjective that follows, it usually means fairly, moderately or reasonably, and often damns with faint praise.
The diﬀerence is illustrated in a survey posted through my English letterbox by a local politician:
How concerned are you about the proposed NHS [National Health Service] changes and their eﬀects on the Royal Sussex County Hospital?
☐ Very ☐ Quite ☐ Not at all
Reading that, I could see no choice; very concerned and quite concerned signal much the same thing to me. The English people I showed the survey to were more comfortable with the quite as a middle-ground choice—though they thought it cheeky of the politician to oﬀer these choices; since the interpretation of quite is context-dependent, the choices are diﬃcult to interpret.
The good news is: if you interpret someone else’s quite good to have a stronger or weaker meaning than the speaker intended, they’ll probably never notice. Quite useful. The bad news is: people might be misunderstanding you. Quite frustrating.
This excerpt is adapted from The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English by Lynne Murphy, published on April 10, 2018 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © M. Lynne Murphy, 2018.