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Where Boots and Bonnets Don't Go in the Closet

Do you mind if I put my backpack in your boot?" she asked.


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"May I put my backpack in your boot?"

After hearing the question a second time, I had no doubt that I'd heard my British colleague correctly. Either she wanted to stuff her backpack into one of my rain boots - a difficult task since my feet were already in them - or there was something I didn't understand.

"You mean you want to put your backpack in my trunk?" I said as I took the car keys out of my purse. We were on our way to go running, and I was driving.

"Trunk? No. I mean boot," she replied. "A trunk is the fat part of a tree, the part that grows out from the ground. A boot is where you can store luggage and things in an automobile. That is, of course, if one is speaking proper English."

Born and raised in Midwest America, I'd always thought I spoke English. But it wasn't until I moved to Denmark and met my British friend, Hilary, that I learned the subtle differences between American English and British English.

I met Hilary working at a Danish company. We shared an office where we wrote instruction manuals for technical equipment. Our desks faced each other, and it wasn't long before we discovered that we shared more than an office - we had other things in common, too. We both lived in a foreign land. We both had Danish husbands. We both had young children. We both spoke English.

Or so I thought.

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"My mother-in-law made a jumper for my daughter," Hilary said from behind her computer screen. I listened carefully. I had just started my new job as a technical writer and I was not used to her British accent.

"It's a little big for her now, but she'll grow into it," she said, tapping away on her keyboard.

Did she say "jumper"? I wasn't sure. Did she mean a sleeveless dress or one of those baby swings that hang from a doorway?

"What does your mother-in-law do?" I asked politely.

"She plays the organ on Sundays at her church in southern Jutland."

"Does she sew?" I continued. It was either that, or she was good with a hammer and nails.

"No," Hilary said, "she knits."

SUDDENLY, I understood what she meant. In British English, a jumper is not an infant swing or a dress. It's a sweater. Just as "nappies" are diapers, "having tea" can mean eating supper, and a "bonnet" is the hood of your car, not something you wear on your head.

In our office, food was a frequent topic of conversation and also a source of confusion. We exchanged recipes, discussed dinner menus, and often debated the fat content of Danish pastries and breads. One day while rating the few fast-food restaurants in Denmark, Hilary mentioned the hamburger chain she thought had the best chips.

"Chips?" I asked. "You mean potato chips?"

"No, not potato chips," she said. "I think you Americans call them French fries. The British call them chips - as in fish-and-chips. Potato chips are called 'crisps,' " she explained.

Next to children and food, husbands ranked high on our list of conversational subjects. We compared notes on our spouses' attitudes toward housework and found that while my husband vacuumed, Hilary's "hoovered." My husband washed the dishes; Hilary's "did the washing up." And when Hilary's "cooker" went on the blink she wasn't referring to her husband or a live-in cook; she needed a new stove.

I learned a lot of things sitting across from Hilary. "Mince" is ground beef, "biscuits" are cookies, and little babies wear "vests," not undershirts.

I learned, too, that a "dummy" (pacifier) is not a stupid thing to give your baby, especially when your arms are full of groceries, the baby is crying, and your three-year-old's ice cream has just plopped on the kitchen floor.

I don't work with Hilary anymore. I've changed jobs and now have my own office. It's a quiet place, plenty of silence for concentration and contemplation. I miss the friendly banter across our keyboards and the daily discussions about motherhood, husbands, and life in Denmark.

But most of all, I miss Hilary and her proper English.

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