Wrestling with the Unknown Unknowns

My favourite comment left in the margins during the editing of my upcoming novel, Desolation Point, was a slightly exasperated: “I know we’re in Sarah’s POV and she thinks British, but don’t you people ever wear pants?” To which there could only be one answer: “Yes, all the time. Right under our trousers.”

Ah, the joys of writing a novel with a bilingual point of view…

Sarah, as you might have guessed, is the Brit in the story. She has a “rucksack” not a “backpack”, craves Cadbury’s chocolate, pulls up her trousers, and says “bloody hell” a lot. Alex – representing the USA – “draws a bath,” pulls up her pants, and has no idea what a “pillock” is. And writing them really was a joy, despite the bloody headache they gave me at times.

My first novel, Snowbound, was never written with publication in mind and is so unapologetically northern English that when Bold Strokes Books (an American publishing house) signed it up I was worried a lot of changes would be necessary to make it accessible to an American readership. Instead, I got a note from my editor confirming that they were happy to go with English spelling and terminology and that was that. Mixing things up a little in Desolation Point, then, was quite a daunting prospect. Much of the feedback I received for Snowbound commented favourably upon those very aspects I had been so nervous about: the novelty of its English setting, its English terminology, and such an unashamed use of colloquialism that some readers resorted to Google Translate. The more comments I read, the more I wondered whether I was shooting myself in the foot by moving DP across the pond, but the story was well underway by then, I loved the characters, and I was having a hell of time with them.

By keeping my course and setting DP in the North Cascades, I found a location wild and expansive enough to allow the story to work. With Alex, I had a lead character who was familiar with the area and the use of firearms, both qualities essential to the story. With Sarah, I had another opportunity to write in my own voice, to use those daft local phrases and sayings, and gently take the piss out of the fact that Brits and Americans speak the same language but occasionally have no idea what the other is saying.

I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that the saturation of British culture with American TV shows, novels, and films means that writing in American-English is probably easier for a Brit than vice versa. Even so, it remains an endeavour fraught with unknown-unknowns. Who would have thought that Americans don’t say “packet”? That they tend not to “clamber”, and they look “out the window” rather than “out of the window”? Little phrases I would never have blinked at – “the fire lit at the third time of asking” or “the guys at work had a whip round” – needed rewriting after being highlighted as blatant Britishisms. Those unknown-unknowns bite you on the arse, ass, butt, bum when you least expect it.

So, to help prospective readers out and to facilitate the warm relationship we Brits have with our American friends, here is a brief UK/US Desolation Point guide. Inevitably, quite a few of these relate either to food or to swearing…

Bloody hell – A much loved, widely used English curse. Quite tame in tone. Variations include “Bloody Nora” and “Bloody hellfire”.

Bollocks – Can be used in its literal sense. More likely to be used as an expression of exasperation as in “Oh bollocks, I dropped it!”

cadburyCadbury chocolate – For years, the main choc of choice over here, before we got infiltrated by artsy fartsy bars with decent amounts of cocoa rather than lashings of delicious milk.

Draw a bath – Nothing to do with sketching or drawing at all, but American for “running a bath”.

Drapes – Curtains

Faucet – Tap

Granola bar – A term that is creeping in over here, but we’re more likely to say “cereal bar” instead. Those chewy, oaty things that usually taste like bird feed.

grits2Grits – Ground corn, US breakfast-type dish. Often served with cheese, butter, sausage or red-eye gravy. Once tasted, never forgotten.

Gurney – Nothing to do with face-pulling. American for “stretcher”.

Had a whip round “Passed the hat”

Kendal Mint Cake – A favourite for local walkers. A delicious concoction of sugar, glucose, water and peppermint essence. Eat more than a couple of pieces and you’re unlikely to sleep for the next week.

Loo – Toilet

Nicked – Borrowed without obtaining permission. Okay then, stole. Or pinched, filched, five-finger discounted…

Passed the hat – “Had a whip round” 😉

Pillock – Derogatory term that apparently originated in Norway and meant “penis”. I did not know that! Commonly used in northern England as a mildly pejorative insult, as in “you daft pillock!” Variations include “silly sod”, “numpty”, and “useless git”.

smoreS’Mores – American campfire classic combining two graham crackers, chocolate, and a toasted marshmallow. Genuinely delicious.

tootsie_popTootsie Pop – A hard candy lolly containing a surprise centre of Tootsie roll (chocolate-flavoured, chewy stuff). I had a slight addiction to the cherry ones in the late 1990s…

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About Cari Hunter

Cari Hunter is the author of "Snowbound", "Desolation Point" and "Tumbledown", and the Dark Peak series of crime thrillers - "No Good Reason", "Cold to the Touch", and "A Quiet Death" - all published by Bold Strokes Books.
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8 Responses to Wrestling with the Unknown Unknowns

  1. Pingback: News Roundup: Cari Hunter, Barbara Davies and Lesley Davis « UK Lesbian Fiction

  2. Pingback: Cari Hunter Gives a Lesson in International Communication | Bold Strokes Book Festival, UK

  3. bookgeek says:

    wonderful blog!

  4. Hannah says:

    Nice post! As a teacher of English who has spent a lot of time in the UK, I love British books to have a definite British flavour.
    Talking about ‘loo’, I was amazed yesterday that one of my (French) pupils knew the word.

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Thanks, Hannah. I think Desolation Point retains a definite British flavour even though it’s set largely on t’other side of the pond! It was a lot of fun playing around with the language differences in this one, especially with Sarah’s northern colloquialisms.

      I just looked up the origins of the word, “loo” and one site said this: “A second theory is that the word derives from a polite use of the French term le lieu (‘the place’) as a euphemism. Unfortunately, documentary evidence to support this idea is lacking.” Maybe that’s how your pupil knew the word.

      • Hannah says:

        How interesting! In this particular case, I couldn’t help asking the girl where she knew the term from. She explained she had a teacher last year who taught them a lot of vocabulary. Obviously he was successful!

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