Screw language; it's about the dialect, baby!

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/11/19 03:01 -05:00, original URI:

I figured I knew English pretty well. At least once I was no longer under the anal-retentive authority of the prescriptive linguists, I mean.

Every time I spend some time in Ireland (or Australia, or the UK, etc.), I remember that it is not about knowing the English language; it is about the dialect of English. You know, the slang.

I bought that cellular phone and it was now almost out of minutes. I needed to get some more minutes added, or I was in trouble.

So I innocently ask Magda, the young girl at the front desk, where I could buy some more minutes for my cell.

She looked at me, confused.

"You want to top off your mobile?" she asked, clearly having trouble divining the meaning of my words.

Now as I said before, I do love the accent, but there are times that it confuses what is said, at least to my ears! And "top off" is a common slang term in the USA for what you do when you are filling up the tank of a car with gasoline. And some people will call a car a mobile, like as in [auto]mobile. So when she said "top up" I thought she was saying "top off" and I figured she was asking me if I meant I wanted to fill up as car's gas tank.

We both starred at each other for a moment, the realization we each had was that whatever the other was saying was lost on the other.

Anyway, we finally figured it out and I now knew I had to ask where to top up my mobile. I got there and took care of it, so all was now goodness.

Now if only I could remember the number of my mobile? :-)

# CornedBee on 19 Nov 2005 5:57 AM:

On a funny sidenote, the German word for a mobile/cell is "Handy", which is of course not German at all, but English, derived both from "hand" (where you hold it in) and "handy".
Confuses some of us quite thoroughly when we learn that English speakers have no idea what a Handy is.

# Blake Handler on 20 Nov 2005 12:06 AM:

Hmmm...I had the same problem with "English" in Jamaca -- Maybe the French government is right in trying to rid their language of all borrowed phrases and slang! :-)

# Jonathan on 20 Nov 2005 5:16 AM:

In Hebrew, a cellular phone is commonly called פלאפון(Pelephone), which literally means "wonder-phone". It's named after the first company that offered that service in Israel, but many people call that even to other companies phones ("I just bought a Pelephone from Orange"). It's like the Americans that say "Xerox machine" for any photocopier, whether made by Xerox or not (also Kleenex, Frigidaire, etc).

But, some people just say נייד(Nayad), which literlly means "mobile".

# Laura E. Hunter on 20 Nov 2005 2:33 PM:

Having met a Londoner at the MVP Summit who is fast becoming one of my favourite people in the world, I have also recently determined that Americans and Britons speak the same language in only the broadest of terms. :-)

# Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Nov 2005 3:49 PM:

Darn Laura, I thought I (as the only person in the universe who could convince you to stay and break bread after the MVP Summit!) was your favourite person in the world....

But I agree with the rest of what you have said. :-)

# Richard Gadsden on 21 Nov 2005 5:51 AM:

You might have noticed that she said "mobile" rather than "cell" for the phone too.

The en-gb and en-ie localisations - even though they are two very large markets for Microsoft, and you employ lots and lots of people in those locations - are very much under-developed in Microsoft products generally.

Any chance of IE7 having "Favourites" in en-gb and en-ie localisations - maybe even only on Vista?

Any chance of C:\Programme Files? and Start/Programmes?

And there's en-au, en-nz and en-ca to look at too!

# Oliver Lippold on 21 Nov 2005 9:31 AM:

Are you sure she said "top off" and not "top up"? The latter is what we say in the UK. Though if topping off with gas is a genuine phrase, you're probably right, as we would top up with petrol.

I may be biased, but I think "mobile phone" is a much more understandable name than "cell phone". A phone is mobile because you can take it with you, whereas I had no idea what "cell" actually meant, until I looked it up on Wikipedia 5 minutes ago. (And interestingly, I searched for "cell phone" and got redirected to "mobile phone")

# Michael S. Kaplan on 21 Nov 2005 9:55 AM:

She *did* say "top up" -- I just thought it must have been "top off" since I had no idea what she meant....

Any time we think our own slang is more understandable we are showing our bias. :-)

# Eric Lippert on 21 Nov 2005 11:43 AM:

Could have been worse.

I was visiting a fellow Canadian in Northern Ireland once and she made the mistake of telling her Irish roommate that I "gave her a ride all the way home from Portrush". Apparently that means something _naughty_ in Ireland.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 21 Nov 2005 12:50 PM:

Hi Eric,

You are correct, that would have been worse. I embarrass fairly easily and that would have been more than enough to do the trick.

I will definitely not talk about having someone give me a ride to the airport when I leave!

# Nick Lamb on 21 Nov 2005 4:16 PM:

Everything means "something naughty" in English. That's the whole point of things like the Fast Show's "Suits you!" tailors, seaside postcards or the Carry On films. There's no clear point where their lines change from apparently unfortunate choices of phrase into outright filth. You can have a perfectly normal conversation, every single sentence of which might reasonably be construed as obscene, illegal or offensive.

How many children have smirked at the name "Microsoft", do you think Michael? I've often wondered, being at best passable in foreign languges and certainly a long way from fluent, how often this "mock confusion" is also the case with alleged foreign marketing problems. Are the Chinese stupid enough to think the product is "Bite the wax tadpole"? No, Coca-Cola's reasons for wanting better Chinese branding were sound, but there was never any /confusion/ everyone already knew what was in the cans.

I guess my message is, context is everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 21 Nov 2005 5:02 PM:

Nick, it is entirely obtuse to equate marketing campaigns with casual conversations where it is quite easy to say something that is heard as being a lot more "naughty" than was intended.

I am talking about every day conversations here, as was Eric.

# An Englishman in Denver on 12 Oct 2007 10:24 AM:

Yes, you have to be careful with English and American language confusion. I'm a British software developer, and a few years ago I had cause to be in the States working on a project. It was the first time I'd been there and I had not figured out the differences completely. I was in the office with a group of other (American) developers, and someone came up to us and asked where another of our co-workers was. Without thinking, as the phrase is perfectly innocent in the UK, I said "he's smoking a fag outside". Cue astonished looks and laughter. I didn't realise what I'd said for about 20 seconds, upon realisation I buried my face in my hands and wished the ground to open up and swallow me.

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referenced by

2007/10/12 It isn't really PenIsland/PenisLand all over again

2006/08/21 I missed a 'case' pun....

2005/11/21 What does 'accessible' mean? Is U2 accessible?

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