Tag Archives: language

Watch your language: Baseball English

It wasn’t until Dash had been playing baseball for a while that I realised just how many expressions in common use – on both sides of the Atlantic, these days – come straight out of the game. If you ever wondered why we say some of these things, here’s your answer:

Step up to the plate

Metaphorically: We use it to mean that it’s time to take action, put your money where your mouth is.
In baseball: The plate is the home plate, where the batter stands (and where he returns to when he’s made a run). So when it’s your turn to bat, you step up to the plate.

Out of the ballpark

Metaphorically: Way out, far away, unrealistically far.
In baseball: If you hit the ball out of the ballpark, you’re guaranteed a home run, because nobody can catch it.

In the ballpark ( or a ballpark figure, for instance)

Metaphorically: Something likely, reasonable; an estimate that’s realistic.
In baseball: Obviously, a ball that’s hit within the bounds of the field. It can be caught, or it might not be, but everyone has a chance to make something of it.

Three strikes and you’re out

Metaphorically: If you do the wrong thing three times, you don’t get any more chances.
In baseball: A strike is when the batter swings at a ball but misses. It also happens when the pitch was good (within reach, as judged by the umpire) but the batter didn’t swing at all. If you get three strikes, your turn to bat is over and you don’t get to run.

A good inning

Metaphorically: A decent length of time; often, a good life.
In baseball (and cricket too): The game is divided into innings. One team bats until they’re out, while the other team fields. The this is top of the inning. Then the teams switch for the second half – the bottom of the inning. When the first team bats again, this is the next inning. A little league game usually has at least six innings. If you scored some points, or stopped the other team from scoring, you had a good inning.

Heads up

Metaphorically: We talk about giving someone a “heads-up” if we want to warn them about something in advance.
In baseball: Shouted when the ball accidentally goes flying towards the spectators, or anywhere outside the bounds of the field, so that everyone pays attention and doesn’t get conked on the head. It’s the “Fore!” of baseball.

Cover all your bases

Metaphorically: You might talk about covering all your bases if you want to be sure you’ve planned for all eventualities.
In baseball: The fielding team has to have a player protecting each base to make it harder for the batting team to get their players around and back to home.

Baseball diamond

Pro baseball, minor league

Sure you’re grand

The world outside my door is an impressionist painting – pointillist, even – made up of little dots of colour everywhere. The wind blows and all the little dots shiver and dance and a few drift away from their moorings in the sky and flutter and swoop to the ground.

Autumn leaves ———

When I’m in Ireland I relax my mode of speech by a few notches. I delight in employing the vernacular in the supermarket, to the bus driver, to the person at the till. I say “Sure” (for “you’re welcome”) and “Thanks a million”, and “Sorry” (for “excuse me”) and “Ah no, sure, you’re grand,” (as often as possible) and am practically a caricature of myself. I’ll ask for ham with the flattest possible a sound, and get tomatoes and oregano and basil on everything I can think of. I’ll talk about yer man and yer one and the yoke that does the thing. And I’ll start swearing more, just for fun and effect.

This day next week I’ll be in airports, all alone, being Miss Organized and Miss Efficient and Miss This is so Easy With No Kids and also Miss Missing Them Quite a Lot. I’m flying home for five days to check in with the parentals, since we’re not going home for Christmas and it’s been a year since I’ve seen them and they’re not really so hot at things like Skype or Facetime. We spent time with most of B’s family members during the summer, but not mine. And it’s finally – finally – the time where I can do this. The kids will be fine. Their father will be fine. Everyone will survive perfectly well without me, and me without them. But I’ll miss them, all the same.

And a lot more little dots of colour will have fluttered down when I get back.

More autumn leaves


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: 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.

Transatlantic subtleties: garden vs. yard

First in what I think will be an occasional series, to help those having translation problems they don’t even know are problems.

What I mean is, when I worked in Ireland editing content written for the US market, I felt like I had a decent understanding of American English – a working knowledge, perhaps. Everyone in the British isles has enough familiarity with American TV and movies to know that sidewalk means footpath and vacation means holiday – but there are subtleties that you don’t learn for years (like not to tell an American to walk on the pavement), and misconceptions that go uncorrected, and little things that it takes time to pick up on. I thought I’d help a nation – or two – out with a few notes on such things. (And if I’ve got it wrong, I’m sure someone will help me out in the comments.)

Today: Garden and Yard.

In the UK and Ireland, the space of your property around your house that’s not in your house is called your garden. Even if it’s paved or covered in gravel, it’s pretty much still your garden, but definitely if it’s got anything green in it. Not everyone can aspire to a perfectly manicured lawn, but most people have a garden of some sort, unless they live in an apartment. When you do things in this area – cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, picking up dog poo – it’s called gardening.

In the US, this space is your yard. If you’re doing things there, you’re doing yard work. You can have a front yard and a back yard, and maybe a deck, which would be a patio in Ireland because mostly people don’t have decks. I don’t know why they have raised decks in the US but only paved patios at home. (Anyone?)

If you call your yard your garden in the US, you’re liable to make people think you’re getting ideas above your station. A garden, over here, is something carefully tended and maintained – a vegetable garden or a rose garden, perhaps. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can’t just think they have a garden by opening the front door and stepping onto the grass.

Conversely, if you described your garden as a yard in Ireland, people would envisage a dusty, perhaps slightly industrial, space devoid of any vegetation at all. “Yardwork” does not bring to mind pruning the roses or evicting dandelions, but something more burly and somehow metallic.

One scrubby rhodedendron does not qualify our yard to be called a garden.