I’ve been dipping into Michael Erard’s book, Um. Yes, that’s the title. The subtitle is Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Chances are you won’t be surprised to know that in American English, um and uh are the most common blunders, or fillers, accounting for 40 percent of what Erard calls “speech disturbances.” Those are words that interrupt the smooth flow of sentences.
In other places, people have their own fillers: in Britain, they say uh but spell it er (think of a Brit saying water or butter—you won’t hear an R at the end of those words). French speakers say something close to euh. Germans say äh and ähm, Hebrew speakers use ehhh, and Swedes say eh, ah, aaah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a, and oh. Very versatile.
The point is that around the world, linguistic blunders exist, no matter the language. However, if you want to be a citizen of the world, um is pretty much universal.
“England and America are two countries that are divided by a common language.”
This astute observation has been attributed to Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill, but the consensus credits the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. Is it still as true today as it was when Shaw made the observation? The March 2015 Atlantic ran an article, “Mind the Gap,” in which British and American linguistic differences were explored.
Here are a few; I’ll list the American words and phrases first, then the British.
Trunk (of a vehicle)/Boot
Shag (Southern dance, haircut, type of carpet)/Sexual intercourse
Knock up (make pregnant)/Knock up (call you or knock on your door)
Make a mess of things/Cock up
Baby’s pacifier/Comforter or dummy
Period (punctuation)/Full stop
Thousands more undoubtedly exist, but you get the idea. In addition we have the spelling variances, the most common being the difference between, for instance, center and centre and authorize and authorise, not to mention labor and labour. It’s a wonder we understand each other at all.
By the way, in the same issue of The Atlantic is a wonderful article comparing the British and American versions of “House of Cards,” both available on Netflix. The author and I are in complete agreement about the superiority of the British version (with the brilliantly evil, canny, sly Ian Richardson playing Francis Urquhart (F.U., just as in the American version)), the man who does what he must to become prime minister. I think Kevin Spacey is an excellent actor, but in the two versions of “House of Cards” it’s no contest.