Five Phrases, Five Tiny Differences

Mint, a Herb with a capital H.  (Photo by: Minden Pictures/AP Images)

Mint, a Herb with a capital H. (Photo by: Minden Pictures/AP Images)

Given that the idea of a uniform spelling for any word you’d care to name has only been in existence for a fraction of the time that written language has, you’d think people would make less fuss about tiny regional variations in spelling. Especially when those regions are separated by a huge ocean.

Nevertheless, some words and phrases are so close to being exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic that the tiniest of variations is enough to cause irritation. We already know about the dropped (or added) u in color and humor, but here are five other examples where one nation is always just slightly out of sync(h) with the other.

Persnickety
It’s a matter of supreme irony that there should be an international disagreement over the word that means “being unduly troubled by tiny details.” Only persnickety people would care that the British version of the word is actually spelled pernickety, without the s. Only pernickety people would want to gouge that rogue s out whenever they see it in plain text.

Math
Brits call anything that happens with numbers maths, short for mathematics. This includes arithmetic, algebra, statistics and all other forms of number crunching. As far as they are concerned there is no math singular, there is maths plural, and lots of it.

Herbal
This is a puzzler. For all that Americans are quick to assume that all British people drop their aitches and talk like exaggerated cockernee blokes all the time, the pronunciation of the word herb goes in entirely the opposite direction. Brits pronounce the aspirated h, referring to herbs as, well, herbs, as opposed to ‘erbs (or worse, dropping the plural s too, to become ‘erb’). In fact the loss of that particular h is considered to be an affectation taken from the French, an unpardonable linguistic crime in British eyes. Consequently, American shampoo commercials are often the source of some mockery, with Jennifer Aniston spouting forth about her ‘erbal essences as if she’s Eliza Doolittle en français.

Driver’s License
This is probably a case of international pernicketyness, but to British ears, the term driver’s license is poorly chosen, as it does not define who the driver may be. So if a police office were to pull you over and demand to see your driver’s license, it’s feasible (if not advisable) to offer the relevant documentation of your personal chauffeur, who may or may not have been driving the car at the time you were pulled over. In Britain, the same document is referred to as a driving licence (spelled with a second c) to avoid people trying to be clever.

New lease on life
Possibly due to international variances of contract law, the expression new lease on life in the UK is said as new lease of life. Once pulled apart, it’s hard to see why either version works, given that no one ever refers to a new lease of house OR a new lease on apartment. Language is hard sometimes.

See also:
10 Myths of the Supernatural, Taken From British Folklore
‘Wackadoodle’ Makes It To The Oxford English Dictionary
10 Irish Slang Terms Americans Should Adopt
10 British Words for Illness

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

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