The quote is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that England and America are two countries separated by a common language–but that’s not quite right.
It’s Oscar Wilde who first brings this up and one of his quips in The Canterville Ghost:
“…we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
Which is, of course, a delight to me. Most writers I know get drunk on words–it’s our vice of choice, and the differences in English and English are fun. It’s a way of looking at words. Some of my favorites include:
Braces (suspenders to us Yanks)
Cot (not crib)
Crisps (instead of chips)
Dustbin (not garbage can)
Garden (instead of lawn)
Ground floor (what we in the states call the first floor)
Jelly babies (Jelly beans)
Trolley (otherwise known as a shopping cart)
Vest (an undershirt–what we Yanks call a vest is a waistcoat)
The list is just about endless, and can get an American in trouble (do not be asking to borrow anyone’s pants–they are trousers). Or a Brit in trouble in the States (yeah, you just try to ask to borrow a fag here–better make that a cig or a smoke).
I find you almost have to get into another mindset to cross the pond mentally. It’s a softer approach to the language in England, but it’s also a rapier instead of an ax if you want to insult someone (I do love watching British Parliament–it always starts with Right Honorable or Learned Colleague and heads downhill from there in a scathing words, but said with such polite phrasing).
And, if you’re writing anything set in another place, it’s something to keep in mind. Words influence how we think. They influence how we do certain things, too. I do think if you’re writing anything set in England and you live in the States you have to immerse yourself in tons of BBC American or loads of videos. Or better still lots and lots of period books. It helps if you can spend time with the Brits, of course. You pick up the cadence that way. And the opposite is true–except America is more than happy to unload its culture via a thousand movies, so I must believe it’s easier to pick up on American habits.
But the subtleties are often hard to catch–when do you use the right phrase with the right person, and what about local habits (those are always hard to come by unless you’ve lived in a place).
And now I’m going to toddle off to take a cuppa.