Category Archives: Transatlantic subtleties

Transatlantic Subtleties: Funky and the Purse

I could tell you about Christmas, but you know all about that, it’s happening where you are too. Instead, I’ll tell you about words.

First a quickie: Funky is a positive in Ireland and the UK. It means trendy, cool, groovy. As in, “Your eyeshadow is really funky.”

Don’t say this to Americans, on the other hand, because they will take it badly. While the musical meaning of funky still stands, so you can talk about a funky beat (or Uptown Funk), in general, “funky” means nasty, as if smelling of old socks or cheese, perhaps. Or wonky, askew, off kilter.

And then, purses. It occurred to me recently, when I left my handbag behind at a PTA meeting and had to run back in to get it, that I still didn’t comfortably know what to call it when telling the board member I was walking with where I was off to so hastily. So I polled my Facebook friends and the results were … complex.

In Ireland, the bag a woman keeps her stuff in is her handbag. This is a generic term used no matter what shape or size the bag is, though we might also refer to a clutch (if it’s very small, without handles).

To me, a purse is what you keep your money in if you don’t use a wallet. It’s what in America would be called a coin purse.

(coin) purse

THIS is a purse

In the US, several terms are used for the bag a woman keeps her stuff in. The country seems to be split between those who say purse for this and those who say bag, with a few still saying pocketbook (though this was generally held to be a somewhat dated term).

Many felt that a handbag would be specifically a large bag with handles, the sort of thing the Queen would carry, or Margaret Thatcher. (Or Lady Bracknell, of course. Bonus points for Wilde fans.)

Big red bag with handles

I think everyone would agree that this is a handbag

Even more interestingly, a pocketbook is either a man’s wallet (or billfold) or a woman’s handbag. Properly, it is a specific type of handbag, the small sort that folds over, with a clasp.

Like this, maybe:

Pocketbook style bag


While finding the pictures I learned that Zappos uses “handbag” for all styles of smaller bag (within the overall “Bag” category that would include luggage, briefcases, and lunch bags, to name a few). But my definitions are based on extensive research (ahem) of real people in different parts of the US.

Go on, what do you say?

Transatlantic Subtleties: Valentines for beginners

It’s that time of year again. The time when the worth of your parenting is measured in how long you are willing to spend coaxing your preschooler, or kindergartener, or however-many-classes-they-hope-to-keep-up-this-charade-for-er into coloring, cutting, sticking, folding, or just writing their name over and over. Not to mention how much time and/or effort you’ve put into it yourself, because if you’re no good at crafting your child is going to be branded forever as a bad person: a non-Valentine-giver.

I don’t think this happens in Ireland. It certainly didn’t when I was small. Valentines were for teenagers with crushes, parents boringly sending each other the required tokens of affection, couples holding hands in restaurants, people who get engaged without recourse to imagination. Valentine’s Day was mostly for hunkering down and hoping your Dad didn’t send you one because he felts sorry for you when you didn’t have a boyfriend.

In America, Valentines are not for lovers. Not under the age of 10, at any rate. (And I hope not for several years after that; but I’m not clear on whether there’s actually a sweet spot when the average American tween can blissfully ignore the whole Hallmark production of Feb 14th.) In America, Valentines are things your small child brings to school and hands out to everyone in the class, whether they like it or not, whether they like them or not. Valentines are mandatory signs of friendship, and therefore utterly worthless except for, as I have mentioned, allowing all the other parents, and the teachers, to judge your parenting/crafting/shopping skills and find them sadly lacking.

If you don’t want to spend the weeks after Christmas knee-deep in Pinterest ideas and up to your armpits in craft supplies, you can buy Valentines in handy packs of 25 at Target, or the supermarket. They just take a bit of folding and maybe a sticker and it’s all done. If you take that option you can choose to feel like a cop-out parent, or you can slap yourself on the back for a tedious job well done with minimal effort, it’s totally up to you. You can even choose to ignore the whole thing, but on your own head be it. And then your child will quite possibly come home from school with a bag full of candy, because the other name for this holiday is Pink Halloween. (Sometimes they give/get pencils, or erasers, but it’s never called Pink School Supplies Day.)

So in this house this year, the kindergartener is expected to show up on Thursday with 25 Valentines signed with her name but not personally designated per classmate, because then it takes too long to hand them out individually. Not for the first time, I have made use of Secret Agent Josephine’s lovely printables, and since we don’t have a colour printer she had the extra fun of getting to colour them in herself as well as cutting them out and writing her name on the back, which basically makes me crafting mother of the decade around here.

The third grader so far has not mentioned any requirement for Valentines. I hope he doesn’t discover one on Thursday night, because he doesn’t enjoy colouring as much as his sister does.

(I may have written pretty much this exact same post in past years. I haven’t gone back to check. You don’t need to either.)

Coloured-in cut-out printed Valentines

Mabel’s Valentines



Transatlantic Subtleties: Counties

It’s been a while since I’ve done an installment of my thrilling series entitled Transatlantic Subtleties; but I thought of a new one today. (If you’re interested in the others, click the tag at the bottom of the page and they should all appear in a puff of ether.)

The USA is divided into states, everyone knows that. But it was a surprise to me when I first moved here to discover that the states are divided into counties. The reason it’s a surprise to people who are not from America is that the county is never a part of anyone’s postal address. However, when you live in the USA the county you’re in is suddenly quite important – school districts, for instance, are administered at the county level, so if you’re using the public school system, or thinking of doing so, the county you’re in is very salient to your choices. This in turn has an effect on house prices, and from there on the general economics (and demographics – though this is somewhat chicken-and-egg) of the whole place you live in.

When we were first moving to this area people kept explaining what county certain things were in. I thought it didn’t matter. I was wrong. The District of Columbia (or Washington, DC, to you) is bordered by one county of Virginia and two counties of Maryland, and those as well as some a little further out all function as the suburbs of the city. The Metro system, for example, extends into all of them. Some of these counties are pretty well off. I live in Prince George’s County, which is not; and it makes a difference. If, for instance, we find out that the services the school can offer Dash for his reading disability are quite limited, it’s not impossible that we could consider moving to Montgomery County, where the schools are much better funded and they have amazingly wonderful – by all accounts – special services. (I don’t want to do this because I love our town; I think we’d investigate private coaching or other avenues before taking such a drastic step. Also, where we live now is extremely handy for B’s work, and a short commute is a thing of beauty.)

The counties of Ireland might not be of such general interest but I’m going to tell you about them anyway, for the sake of parity of esteem and such like. Ireland is divided into four provinces, but like the US county names, these do not make it into Irish postal addresses. They’re mostly used for GAA (Gaelic Games) championships. The most interesting thing is that in Ireland we put the word County before the name, not after. This sounds perfectly normal to Irish ears but very strange to Americans: “County Dublin,” “County Cork”, “County Kerry” etc. Ireland is about to get postal codes for the first time ever, but up to now only Dublin had them, and they were only two digits at most. If you lived outside the postal code area (where your address would say something like Dublin 4 or Dublin 26) your address would simply say “Co. Dublin” after your street and town name. For the other cities that had names the same as their counties – correct me if I’m wrong – you would end the address with Cork City or Galway City rather than Co. Cork or Co. Galway.

So “city” implies city and “county” implies “down the country”. Or at least well into the suburbs.

A quick note on UK county names. I don’t really understand them. A lot of them end in “-shire” and they mostly have abbreviations, so for instance, my Dad lived in Hertfordshire and it’s abbreviated to Herts. (Pronounced Harts.) Do they have bigger divisions, like provinces or regions? I don’t know. Someone tell me. It’s so much more fun getting a comment than looking up Wikipedia…

Transatlantic subtleties: Homes from home

Before I go any further I realise that there are some terms that need clarification when discussing one’s holidays (that is, vacation) with a transatlantic audience. This is (almost exactly) what we stayed in last week.

Caravan/trailer thing

The campsite calls it an RV, but it’s not. I wanted to call it a caravan, but it’s not. It might be a mobile home if you were in Ireland, but here a mobile home would probably be bigger. So here are some parameters for your terms if you should be called upon to explain your temporary dwellings to someone from across the pond.

Tent: Fine, a tent’s a tent. I’m not a camper, so that’s all I have to say about that.

Caravan: I believe that if you say “caravan” to an American, they will envisage an old-timey Romany (gypsy) caravan. Or maybe a bunch of camels following each other over the dessert. To an Irish person, a caravan is a tin can with bunks in it that you can pull behind your car. This, obviously, is a lovely vintage one. Newer ones aren’t quite so petite or bijou.

Adorable; but I wouldn’t want to live in it

Trailer: To an American, a trailer is something large and inhabitable that you can pull behind your car – an Irish caravan, in fact. To an Irish person, it’s a base with a tow-hitch and wheels that you would put something like a boat on to transport it.

An Irish sort of trailer

Mobile home: To an Irish person, a mobile home is a large caravan, possibly with the wheels taken off. What we stayed in last week was an Irish-style mobile home. To an American, a mobile home is can have actual rooms and a deck built on it and be mobile only in the vaguest of meanings. That it can be easily moved by a tornado, for instance.

Mobile home (US style)
This home is “mobile”, if you’re American

RV: This stands for a Recreational Vehicle. It’s one of those huge caravans with a built-in driver’s seat so you don’t trail it behind your car but might trail your car behind it. Some Americans sell up the family house when they retire, buy an RV, and travel the length and breadth of the continent for some or all of their remaining days. Others just have one to go on vacation with. I cannot imagine trying to drive one on European roads, but I think they’re called motorhomes there.

RV (recreational vehicle)

I have no idea where a camper van fits in all this, or what you’d consider one to be. Is it the orange VW Beetle “bus” my cousins had in 1976?

Vintage VW camper van
Just add (Little Miss) Sunshine

One other thing occurs to me. If you get rained out of your campsite, you might want to check in to a more permanent establishment. Hotels and motels and guesthouses are fine, but B&Bs might cause a hiccup of misunderstanding.

In the US a Bed & Breakfast is a particularly nice guesthouse. It’s usually quite fancy and some of them don’t take children. We will probably never stay in one en famille. An Irish B&B, on the other hand, is usually a private house that rents out a bedroom or two to tourists. Generally speaking, Irish B&B’s are a good budget option and very family-friendly. The one thing both types of B&B have in common is that with any luck the breakfast will be good.

Transatlantic subtleties is an occassional series of posts, to which I add whenever the mood moves me. You can find the others by clicking on the link in my tag cloud on the right.

Transatlantic subtleties: dessert v. pudding

This came up in my comments one day, but it deserves a disambiguation post of its own, so here you go.

Dessert is dessert wherever you are: something sweet that you eat after your main course. Breakfast does not get dessert, but my children still ask for it. Lunch should not get dessert but sometimes it does. Dinner, conversely, doesn’t always get dessert around here. Sometimes your chewy vitamin is dessert. You takes what you gets. If I was a good French mother, dessert would always be fruit. I’m neither good nor French.

I digress; dessert is easy, is my point – so long as you’re talking semantics rather than parenting.

Pudding is another matter entirely.

In Ireland (and the UK, I daresay), pudding mostly is a synonym for dessert. Thus: “What’s for pudding?”, “Where’s my pudding?”, and “I want pudding!”

However, it does have a couple of other specific uses:

steamed pudding – a dessert traditionally made with suet (animal shortening, like Crisco) that comes out cake-like but is eaten hot. It’s a more old-fashioned thing, and most people these days only encounter one at Christmas – Christmas pudding is a dense, dark, alcohol-soused mixture of raisins, sultanas, currants, mixed peel (and glace cherries if you’re into that sort of thing), just about held together by some fluffy stuff. It’s basically just another form of Christmas cake, but to be eaten warm with whipped cream and brandy butter. Variants might have amusing names like “spotted dick” or “pig’s bum“, as well as the more palatable-sounding treacle pudding.

blood pudding – in Ireland this is black or white pudding – definitely a savoury, not a dessert. It’s a sausage made with pigs’ blood that you might fry up a few coins of for breakfast with your rashers and egg. You either love it or hate it.

In the US, pudding is a specific type of dessert – a thick, viscous, sweet slurpy stuff that’s often vanilla or chocolate flavoured. The closest thing to it I might have encountered in Ireland is Angel Delight. Something between the texture of thick custard and slightly runny blancmange, maybe. You can mix it up from powder or buy it ready made in little individual pots, or probably even make it from scratch.

So we have learned that pudding is always dessert (except when it’s not) and dessert is not always pudding. Did I clear everything right up? Oh good.

Transatlantic subtleties: pavement, dirt, and those pesky islands

A couple of quick ones to add to this occasional series of disambiguators (that’s a word):

Everybody knows that Americans say sidewalk. What UK/Irishers say is either footpath or pavement. The former is simple, and that’s what we say to the kids because it’s pretty unambiguous on either side of the Atlantic. The word “footpath” in this country might make people think of a trail through the woods rather than a paved area beside the road for walking on, but it’ll do. Because pavement is tricky.

In the UK you walk on the pavement, but in the US you definitely don’t – it’s the road surface, for driving on. If you see a sign warning that the pavement is under repair, you’ll want to be careful in the car, not on your feet. Don’t mix them up.

As an addendum, the black stuff they put on the road is called tarmac (short for tarmacadam) in the Isles*, but asphalt (or blacktop) in the US.


And then, there’s dirt. To me, dirt is dirty stuff, anything that makes you unclean. But to an American, dirt is the stuff plants grow in. They say soil as well, but that’s the fancy word for it. Earth, here, is only the planet, not so much the stuff the planet is made of. 

So when Americans tell their children not to play in the dirt, they don’t mean to stop cavorting in the rubbish tip, they just mean not to get mucky.


*And, for people from elsewhere, it occurs to me that this quick run-down might be handy:

The British Isles consist of the two islands of Great Britain and Ireland. (Geographical)
The UK consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (Political)
(Great) Britain consists of England, Scotland, and Wales.
The island of Ireland (geographical) is composed of the six counties of Northern Ireland (or simply the North) and the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland (the South) – (political).

Does that clear everything up? Wikipedia can tell you more, of course.

Transatlantic subtleties: Bold and smart

This looks simple enough. Bold is bold and smart is smart, right? Sure, but that’s the problem. You think the person you’re talking to understands what you mean, but their definition is a little different, if you’re each from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Let’s take smart first. In the US, smart means clever; intelligent with a side of good sense. In the UK and Ireland we understand this, but we also use it to mean cheeky, liable to answer back with a snarky retort. A smart comment in the States is always a good thing, but if you make a smart comment to your teacher in Ireland, you’re liable to be in trouble. Thus, Irish children may be admonished not to be smart – not something you’d ever hear from an American parent.

The word smart is one that’s close to my heart. My employer in Ireland was a software firm which began its life with a nice acronym for a name. Let’s call it ABC Stuff. It was an Irish company but it had offices in Silicon Valley, because this was during the dot-com-boom years and most of our clients were in the US anyway. After a while, somebody decided that we needed a catchier name than ABC if the people in Marketing were to do any good for the people in Sales. (Virtually nobody in Marketing or Sales was in Ireland.) They looked around and noted that the big word in California for the new millennium seemed to be Smart – everyone was introducing smart cards with smart chips for your smart money to make smart transactions. Our company was rebranded as SmartCrowd (let’s say).

This sounded fine to the American ears, but when the poor Irish employees were told about the new name, there was more than one snicker in the audience – until we realised that now we’d have to tell people we worked at SmartCrowd, and suffer the inevitable smart comments. (That’s the bad sort of smart.)

A few years later we were bought out by another company and the Smart name disappeared, much to everyone’s secret relief.


And then there’s bold. In Ireland, it’s unequivocally a bad thing to have a bold child. In the US, not so much. It took me a while to notice this.

To the UK/Irish reader, bold means naughty. If your children are giving you smart answers, they’re being bold and you’d better send them to bed with no supper. (Bold is also a brand of laundry detergent in Ireland. I have no idea why. It is exempt from this discussion.)

Americans use bold in what I would erstwhile have considered the antiquated meaning of brave, adventuresome – it might come with a slight side of foolhardiness, but mostly it’s a good thing, in child or adult.

So be bold, and act smart. Or don’t. The choice is yours. The location is all-important.

Transatlantic subtleties: The trouble with Cary

In some parts of America, it is well known that the words Mary, marry and merry are homophones. Say them to yourself. Go on. Did they all sound the same? Did you use the same vowel sound for the a’s and the e’s? Yup. See? There’s the problem.

Okay, so maybe that’s not really so much of a problem. I mean how often do you really need to employ the sentence “I feel merry because I wish to marry Mary”, and wouldn’t the context be enough for your listeners anyway? Or maybe just you have no idea what gibberish I’m spouting now, and don’t much give a hoot.

But bear with me. Remember Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City? Okay. Now, does anyone remember Doctor Kerry Weaver from ER? The gruff lesbian with the limp and the adopted baby? One Sunday evening, out of the blue, my Mum brought up the possibility that Kerry’s name was actually Carrie. I was horrified. How could Americans, with their lazy pronounciation, not make this clear for us? What if I’d been thinking she was a Kerry all along, and she turned out to be a Carrie? I’d have to reorganize my whole viewing attitude.

(My mother was given to dropping epiphanies on me during the 9.30 to 10.30 slot on Sunday evenings. One day she remarked that Dr Doug Ross was really very good looking, wasn’t he; and my life has never been the same since I realised that she was right – and that she’d noticed first. She rose in my estimation that evening. As did a certain Mr Clooney. (To be fair, this was when he still had the bad haircut.))

Since this was before the days of the IMDB, I had to kneel in front of the TV as the credits went up, trying to catch the character’s name in the scrolling text. I’m not sure if I got it that week, but eventually I was lucky, and I was able to relax, safe in the knowledge that she really was a Kerry, not a Carrie. She didn’t look like a Carrie.

A little later, it occurred to me to wonder if there was any possibility that Carrie Bradshaw was, in fact, Kerry Bradshaw. I decided not to go down that rabbit hole.

Now, if you’re American (and I have to face it, most of you are), you may have found all of that totally intelligible. As far as you’re concerned, probably, Kerry and Carrie are just two spellings of the same name. THEY’RE NOT. Sorry, but YOU’RE WRONG.

Kerry has a flat eh vowel sound. Carrie has a long aaa vowel sound. Totally different. But it’s hard to tell that to people who say wadder for water.

And then, we come to Cary Grant.

I always had a problem with his name. As far as I was concerned, it was Cary, to rhyme with dairy. But my mother (my mother again… I’m beginning to see a trend) told me that she’d heard the Americans pronounced it Cary to rhyme with Larry. AS IF IT HAD A SECOND ‘R’. IT DOES NOT HAVE A SECOND ‘R’. SEE THAT? ONE ‘R’.

One day, many years later, it turned out one of the parents in my daughter’s class had the same name, leaving me with a massive dilemma any time I spoke to, or of, him. How should I say it? Should I rhyme with dairy or Larry? Would I mortally offend him if I picked the wrong one? As I voiced my dilemma to a friend, I saw her eyes glaze over slightly. “Well, how do you say Cary Grant?” I asked her. And then I realised. As far as she was concerned, it’s all the same. She could barely discern the difference between the noises I was making when I said the two options. It was like a Chinese person telling me about the differences in intonation in Mandarin that make what would otherwise be homonyms into different words. “To be honest,” she said, “he probably won’t notice either way.”

It’s a great load off my mind. Even if it does mean my son has been known to speak of the great hero Hairy Potter, to my undying shame.

Transatlantic subtleties: Holiday v. Vacation

This is an easy one, right? Americans say vacation where UK/Irish people say holiday.

Almost. But then.

In Ireland you go on holidays (or on your holidays), when you go away from home and stay somewhere else for a while. You are on holidays when you don’t have to go to school or work for a while. That much translates directly to “vacation”, except for the plural.

Holiday, in the singular, is where one might get confused, because Americans use that too.

A holiday in the US is a public day off, such as July 4th or Labor Day. A holiday weekend is the weekend one of these days is attached to. A typical conversation at work when I first moved to America might go like this:

– How was your holiday?
– What holiday? I didn’t go anywhere.
– Monday. Was a holiday. Remember?
– Oh, you mean my bank holiday.
– What’s a bank holiday?

In the UK/Ireland, a bank holiday is what we generally call a public holiday, and that weekend (when it falls on a Friday or a Monday), is a bank-holiday weekend. Confusingly, there is actually a distinction between bank holidays and public holidays, and sometimes the bank is closed when everyone else has to go to work, but mostly they’re all just called bank holidays. Because if the bank is closed, it’s time to party. Apparently. (I bet it’s Angela Merkel’s fault.)

“The holidays”, in America, means the Christmas season, which you aren’t allowed call Christmas for fear of offending people who celebrate Kwanzaa or Hannukah or Solstice or whatever else it might be. Hence “Happy holidays”, which to an Irish person would evoke images of sun-drenched beaches, and fruity libations, possibly in Spain. To an American it means snowflakes and ice-skating and gingerbread cookies and other secular wintery goodnesses.

If in doubt, just call it a break.

Transatlantic subtleties: The Jumper

We all know that Americans become figures of fun across the Atlantic when they start innocently mentioning pants, vests, and suspenders; but the opportunites for sartorial confusion don’t stop there.

Just in case, though, here’s a quick run down of the basics:

US pants = UK trousers
US vest = UK waistcoat
US suspenders = UK braces

If you want to talk about your underpinnings in the US, you can say underpants, underwear, or possibly “skivvies” for slang. Knickers, confusingly, are a knee-length trouser-type item more like knickerbockers. Panties are panties, but nobody wants to have to say that.

A (UK) vest in the US is an undershirt, and suspenders are a suspender belt.

In the UK/Ireland, a shirt is only a long- or short-sleeved article of clothing that has buttons all the way down the front – made of material which generally calls for you to bust out the iron. A t-shirt is a short-sleeved, collarless top of softer jersey material. Anything else (in womenswear, at least) that is a first-layer item (not counting a camisole, or a thermal vest, depending on the season) falls under the general heading of “top”, with qualifiers like “long-sleeved top” or “going-out top” or “sleeveless top”.

In the US, the word “shirt” can be applied to almost anything you wear on your top half, short of a sweater. And sweater covers everything else, whether it’s a giant, slouchy thing with a sporting logo on it or a cosy cashmere turtleneck, or even a cardigan. (Though those other words are applicable too.)

Which brings us to jumper.

I was bemused, one day in Ireland while watching The Simpsons, to hear Bart being teased by his sister, who said something about his needing to wear a jumper. This didn’t sound like such an awful fate, because as far as I was concerned, a jumper is a knitted sweater – but with a leap of great mental acuity, I surmised that there was more to it in the USA. Many moons later (this was before the advent of the Internet to my house, or anywhere handy, I suppose) I figured it out: a jumper in the US is what I would call a pinafore – a dress that goes over a shirt (or top), the sort of thing that’s often part of a girl’s school uniform.

Have I forgotten anything?

I leave you with this gem of Irish pop. If you don’t know a boy who left his jumper in some dark corner of the disco and now can’t find it, well, you probably haven’t been to an Irish disco yet.