Close, But No Cigar: British vs. American Nursery Rhymes and Childhood Games

An innocent child's game can end in utter embarrassment if  ... (PHOTO)

An innocent child’s game can end in utter embarrassment … for the adults. (Barron)

If you’re a British parent in the U.S., you’ll find it’s a veritable minefield out there. While most of us know the vocabulary differences – stroller/pushchair, diaper/nappy, etc., we’re still caught off guard at the most unexpected moments.

For example, before you attend a sing-along, you should know that “Half a Pound of Tuppeny Rice” contains completely,  and I mean completely, different lyrics? Oh yes. Something about a cobbler’s bench, a monkey and a weasel. Here they are if you don’t believe me; they make about as much sense as the British version too.

When it comes to maximum embarrassment, we have the seemingly innocent “Ring a ring a roses,” which begins “Ring around the rosies” but then continues the same. It all goes swimmingly until the bit where us Brits shout out “Atishoo, atishoo,” with all the drama of a Downton cast member, only to realize we’re the only one in the room doing it. (Oh the memories!) Americans end this song with “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” and they sing it rather than shout it, so you really draw attention to yourself doing the British version.

In other songs, the “Incy Wincy Spider” becomes “Itsy Bitsy” in the U.S. and in stories, “Chicken Licken” goes by the name of “Chicken Little,” although he still insists that the sky is falling.

Meanwhile, in the world of children’s games, we’re almost speaking a different language. The phrase “Would you like to play Noughts and Crosses?” will probably receive blank looks as it’s generally called Tic Tac Toe or X and O here. The fact that we pronounce “nought” so differently will be half the reason for the confusion, by the way. Similarly, “draughts” is known as “checkers.” Incidentally, did you know that there are many different types of draughts games? There’s International (or Polish) draughts, Brazilian draughts, Ghanaian, Canadian, Malaysian, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Argentinian, German, Thai, Myanmar and Slovak drafts, and Russian as well as American checkers.

Moving on, “Snakes and Ladders” become “Chutes and Ladders,” and the players slide down chutes (slides) rather than snakes. Cluedo, that mainstay of British family fun, is called simply “Clue” in the States. Although Americans would probably know what you were talking about, sticking a “do” (pronounced “doo”) on the end of the word “clue” often strikes my kids as rather funny. You can further impress friends and acquaintances with the fact that Cluedo is a combination of the words “clue” and “ludo,” which in Latin for “I play”. Although it was simultaneously launched in both the U.K. and the U.S. in 1949, the game was immediately marketed as Clue on this side of the Pond.

I grew up playing solitaire in the U.K., but it involved a board and pegs rather than playing cards. The card game for one person, that I called “Patience,” is “solitaire” in the U.S.

Oh, and don’t forget that the Alphabet song ends with a Zee, not a Zed!