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As Brits in the States quickly find out, we are indeed two nations separated by a common language, and when it comes to numbers, there’s plenty of room for confusion too.
I was reminded of this during my recent visit home in June, when I struggled to process the phone numbers rattled off on radio stations and TV ads. “Give us a ring on treble three double four double three two double eight,” or something like that.
In the States, the same number would go something like “Thirty three, thirty four, forty three, thirty two, eighty eight.” (Yes, I know it’s not a real U.S. telephone number, just play along.) I’m sure Americans would understand the “double” number if they heard it, but the confused look in their eyes made me abandon it long ago.
When my mother first started visiting me in the U.S. she hated answering the phone if I was unavailable as it inevitably meant taking down a phone number. (These were the days before caller ID and all that.) A phone number as simple as 555-7200 would be read out to her as “five fifty five, seventy two hundred” and would end up on paper as 5 50 5 70 200. Where to begin in figuring out what the number really was?
Door numbers are also treated quite differently on either side of the pond. Although house numbers in the U.K. never reach the multi-digit situation we see in the States, they wouldn’t be pronounced the same anyway. Because of the grid system in many U.S. areas, your door number can be up in the thousands even if there are only fifteen houses on your block. I don’t think I know anyone who lives in a house with a number smaller than 100, although downtown Chicago has single digit buildings.
As with phone numbers, large house numbers are split into sing-song couplets, so 2120 becomes “twenty one twenty” instead of “two thousand, one hundred and twenty” as a Brit would say. (Perhaps this is the reason why the grid system never took off there — it’d be verbally exhausting.)
And of course, pronouncing said numbers is a whole ‘nother world of problems. I have found that it’s far easier to say “zero” than “oh,” and of course “nought” is out of the question as they think I’m saying “not.” The number four doesn’t fare much better since Americans around me tend to think I’m saying “oh,” as in the number zero.
That reminds me of a party I went to when I first came to the States. It was someone’s 40th birthday and the guests were to chant “Lordy, lordy, Tim is forty” when the surprised birthday boy walked through the door. Doesn’t have quite the same rhyming power with a British accent!
For more on British and American numbers, have a look at this great YouTube video:
Do you feel like dealing with numbers is like another language?
View all posts by Toni Hargis.