I have been playing among the variations in our common language.
Fall/ Autumn is fascinating. Wikipedia says Fall was, originally, the English word in England, and “Autumn” superseded it. It is the time the leaves fall from the trees. “Autumn” is clearly related to the French “automne”, so our linguistic nationalism may be misdirected: we have abandoned our Anglo-Saxon heritage. But The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) dates “Autumn” to late middle English, before 1500, and “fall” in this sense to the middle 16th century. So, perhaps, the US stuck with its linguistic nationalism, but the English reverted to our beautiful French word. Why should we not decorate our language with French? There is no shame in it, now, because we are no longer forced to.
Pavement/ Sidewalk. “Sidewalk”, the place where you walk down the side of the street, is etymologically more sensible. The “pavement” was that part of the street at the side paved with stone, or concrete, or tarmac, different from the middle of the street, which was bare mud for the carts. Now the whole road is “paved”. But our word preserves the link to the past, and no-one has difficulty understanding it.
Fortnight. 14 days, a useful word rarely used in the US. Like “Septante” in Français canadien rather than soixante-dix. We could learn from each other.
Elevator/ Lift. But, you know what a lift is- don’t you? More serious for failure of communication is the difference between the ground floor and the first floor, which may or may not be the same thing.
Butt, Ass/ Bum, Arse, the more embarrassing something is the more euphemisms and dysphemisms we create for it. Both butt and bum are late middle English- used here first; ass and arse are both Old English, before 1066. Being linguistically nationalist- oh, yes- I cling to “arse” and “bum” and would deride and object to someone here using the alternative. And “Fanny” is something else entirely, talking of a man’s fanny is just weird. But for this word, the Army Rumour Service might have a different name.
Durex- in the US, a roll of cellophane and adhesive, like Sellotape; in the UK, a brand of condom. Leave a comment if you knew that. Still, better to keep repeating it, to avoid embarrassment.
Bangs/ fringe. I heard the word “bangs” and had no idea what it meant. Fall/ Autumn everyone knows, “bangs” is a word which may fail to communicate meaning. That is a problem.
On the trains, I understand Americans go to “track 1” rather than “platform 1”. I would not want to wait for a train on the track, I might get run over.
Period/ full stop. This was one of the fifty most objectionable to the British, according to the BBC. Either might fail to communicate on the other side of the pond, but why “Objectionable”? Time magazine says Americans could not care less. Or could care less. Or something. Objectionable, because we feel weaker, and we wish to maintain our independence. Indeed. Some of the objectionable words seem to be neologisms rather than Americanisms- “the old is better”, people say. Er, why?
What is the best word? The word which communicates an idea most clearly and elegantly. It is probably better to avoid using an americanism if it will cause apoplexy in the hearer and divert the discussion to the proper manner of communicating rather than the idea expressed, or if it will be misunderstood- which is a shame, if it really is the most expressive word.
Second picture copyright Andrew Stevovich.