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`Shooting the breeze' in England

On a recent cold and windy night, I was reading Listening to America, by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon & Schuster, 1982), a copy of which my husband and I had given as a Christmas present to our neighbor, John (``easily the most common name in the English-speaking world since the 11th century''). I was warmed by the electric heater and ``snug as a bug in a rug'' (an expression first recorded by Benjamin Franklin in a letter, 1772). One chapter, ``English vs. American,'' especially interested me, as I've had many confusing conversations with the British. I thought I had schooled myself well in their vocabulary before my trip to England several years ago. I practiced saying ``jumper'' for sweater, ``flat'' for apartment, and, very important, ``serviette'' for napkin (the latter meaning ``diaper'' in England). I certainly didn't want to embarrass myself at dinner. I knew the ``boot'' of a car was the trunk, the ``windscreen,'' the windshield, and ``bonnet'' was synonymous with hood.

I was on a three-week vacation in England, although the English knew I was on ``holiday.'' One evening at dinner with friends, we talked about work; my friend's wife informed me she had just been ``made redundant'' by her employer. That sounded like a fate worse than death to me, and I gave it thought as the conversation continued without me. She must have been ``laid off'' (an American term, 1889), I reasoned. She agreed that's what had happened and said she thought the term was ``so American.''

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I puzzled my host and hostess in Yorkshire when I searched through my ``pocketbook,'' which, in England, is synonymous with a billfold and is never used to mean a lady's handbag.

My hostess confused me, though, when she informed me one evening that she would ``turn my bed on.'' I had visions of reclining on a gyrating mattress, but I discovered that she meant she would turn on the electric mattress cover to warm up the bed.

Nothing -- but nothing -- had prepared me, however, for the communications gap which occurred one evening in London. I had had dinner with a delightful woman named Daphne in her beautiful flat in Knightsbridge, not far from Harrods. I told her I planned to do some shopping at Harrods soon and she cordially invited me ``to knock her up'' if I were in the area. That sounded to me far more serious than being made redundant, and I'm sure it registered on my face. Further conversation revealed that she meant I should knock on her door or stop by for a visit.

As much as I enjoyed the trip, I was quite content to return to America -- the home of baseball (a term first recorded as ``base ball'' in 1744, at the time a name used in south England for the game ``rounders'') and barbecues (from the Spanish ``barbacoa,'' which Spanish explorers of the 17th century got from Haiti, ``where it meant a framework of sticks on which to roast or smoke meat''). The good old United States -- a place where I could ``shoot the breeze'' (an American expression, 1941) and be easily understood.

A regular column in the Book Review.

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