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The best way to understand this post is by examining the following statements:
1: Britain and America have lots and lots in common.
2: That said, Britain and America are very different cultures, with their own customs and language.
3: Some things are essentially the same on both sides of the Atlantic, but for some confusing local variations.
4: Here are five examples:
If you think about it objectively, there should be nothing about the way in which someone pronounces words that suggests greater or lesser intelligence to the not-from-around-here listener. New Yorkers or Londoners should not feel any degree of superiority over their rural neighbors simply because they’ve got a more flinty accent, or because they can navigate around a city without using a map. And yet, over there and over here, some people only have to hear a Somerset burr or Georgia twang to make a damning snap judgment about the person doing the speaking. T’was ever thus.
Mind you, Birmingham (UK) is a huge city, and their accent also falls into this category. So it’s not a foolproof theory.
Old People and Peninsulas
See this picture? That’s the southern half of Great Britain, the biggest of the British Isles. And you see the pointy bits to the west and east? That’s where most of the older people are. Wales, Devon and Cornwall to the west, Sussex and Kent to the east: every seaside town rammed full of the elderly, enjoying their retirement near the fresh air. Bexhill is in Sussex; it’s where Eddie Izzard grew up. And his quote on his hometown is as follows: “People move to Eastbourne when they retire, and then they die, and then they move to Bexhill.”
A phenomenon I am told exists in much the same way for parts of Florida. Conclusion: Everyone loves a peninsula.
Excuse me for taking a turn into unsavory, uh, waters for a moment. Here are the bare facts; one of the things that is very different between America and Britain is the plumbing in gentlemen’s public toilets. I’ve not tested all of them to see if this theory is watertight, but as a generalization, American urinals have a manual flush handle, British urinals do not, they flush automatically. Clearly the needs are the same, and the hygiene issues are similar, but for some reason it’s more important for men to actively participate in the flush procedure in America than it is in Britain. It’s baffling.
One little word: so much confusion. As you probably know, the British call the item of outerwear which goes from your belt to your shoes “trousers” and the item of underwear that goes underneath your trousers “pants.” The Americans call trousers “pants” and pants “underwear.” So when a British person asks why Superman wears his pants on the outside, an American person would answer that he doesn’t. Then there’s the British slang term “pants,” an adjective used to describe a situation that has gone wrong, or the American thing about men wanting to get into women’s pants, which is a lot more explicit when said in Britain (we would never say “he’s trying to get into her trousers,” in any case).
In summary: we’ve all made a mess of our pants.
There is no clearer illustration of the way our respective national stereotypes differ (in terms of arrogance at least) than the script to Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life. The moment where Death (an English Death, speaking lines written by Englishmen) says to a recently deceased American houseguest: “Shut up! You always talk, you Americans, you talk and you talk and say ‘Let me tell you something’ and ‘I just wanna say this.’ Well, you’re dead now, so shut up.”
Somehow it’s considered to be just fine to take puffed-up windbags down a peg or two using withering scorn. Alan Rickman is astonishing at it. But let’s be clear, to do so is itself an act of pomposity and, yes, arrogance. It’s hardly living and letting live, is it?
What else is the same but different? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic