Thought Leadership

A bit “off color”

By Colin Walls

I am interested in communication. This is a very important part of my work: writing and speaking in order to clearly explain ideas. People tell me that I do a reasonable job, which is pleasing, as I do my best. However, I am limited by really speaking just one language – actually, I often joke that I am bilingual, as I speak English and gibberish. 🙂 I always use the excuse that, whilst I would love to have a crack at another language, I have no idea which one would be most useful. This is a matter that I might well work on when I retire.

In reality, I am almost bilingual, as I natively speak British English [whatever that is, as there is not really a place called “Britain”] and do my best with American English …

As I work in an international environment [and have mostly worked for an American company], my default language in a business context is American English. The differences from my native tongue are small, but sometimes quite important. [There is an example: the word “quite” has very different nuances.]

Spellings are the obvious thing to attend to. There are the “our” words: colour, honour, labour etc. that become color, honor, labor. Then there are some double letter issues: travelling becomes traveling. There are some surplus endings: catalogue becomes catalog. Also old dipthongs: encyclopaedia [or encyclopædia] becomes encyclopedia. The oddest one is words ending in “-ize” and “-ise”. I [and most people] think of the “z” version as American and the “s” one as British; my dictionaries say it is the other way around. Most of the time, I am relaxed about which spelling I use, as there are more important things in life to stress about!

Of course the two languages have many words that differ. You might go to a film or a movie; you might do that in a cinema or a movie theater [or theatre – another subtle spelling change]. You might draw water from a tap or a faucet [but either way you have a glass of tap water – odd]. I wear trousers and Americans wear pants [I wear pants too, but that is just an abbreviation for underpants]. My wife has a hand-bag, whereas her American cousin would carry a purse; in the UK, a purse is what a woman keeps her money in, whereas a man has a wallet.

Whilst the differing words may be challenging, the subtle changes of meanings can be harder. For example, if I say that I am “out of pocket”, it means that I am owed some money; an American might mean that they hard to contact [we might say we are “incommunicado”]. Just lately, I have been unwell; not seriously ill, just a cold that has persisted for weeks. I might say to an American that I have been sick, but, to a Brit, “sick” usually means vomiting specifically. My grandmother would use a different term a few decades ago; she would say she was “off colour”. In British English, that meant “slightly unwell”, but is less widely used nowadays. In American English the term is used to denote a joke, say, that is inappropriate – racist or politically incorrect in some way.

As a wise man [possibly George Bernard Shaw] once said: “Two great nations divided by a common language.”

Another area of difference between our two countries is healthcare. I have to be careful, as this could get political. I mentioned that I had been suffering from a protracted cold. After 4 weeks, I decided that enough was enough and wanted to see my doctor. If I were in the US, this would be no problem – they would be quite happy to take my money and see me. It was different here, as we have social healthcare. I could not get a doctor’s appointment, as I just have a cold and there is nothing they can offer to combat a virus. I was told that, if I had a chest infection, it would be another matter and I would be seen. To find out about this, I was advised to go to a pharmacist [there is a pharmacy just over the street from my house – very convenient] and they could check me. I did this and it seems that I have no chest problem. He advised me on how I might hit the symptoms and that was helpful. I am now on the road to recovery. It is interesting how different the approach in the two countries is. When there is no money on the table, less resources were deployed, as they were not needed. Maybe I have discovered a reason why healthcare is so much more expensive in the US than in European countries.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at