Different Words for Common Items

This entry is part 4 of the series International English



Writing for the international market is a tremendous opportunity to educate people about your own country—or the country you’ve chosen to write about. If you’re writing about your own country, remember that others don’t have your inside knowledge. Your English-speaking reader may use different words to yours to refer to a common item.

I'd never heard of the Twin Towers before 9/11. Click To Tweet

I’d never heard of the Twin Towers before 9/11.

Dare I admit this? On the original 9/11, I heard of the Twin Towers of America for the first time. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Yes, I’m well educated. Yes, I knew quite a bit about America, especially through my many cyber friends. I knew of the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, the White House, and many more buildings. But I’d never heard of the Twin Towers. Why would I have? Today the whole world knows of them, but only as a result of that tragedy.

I once enjoyed a book by a well-known author. Half way through the story, his main characters visited an extinct volcano in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I immediately lost interest in the book. Although to that point I had enjoyed the story, I found I could no longer follow it. Why? I grew up in Rhodesia. There is no such thing as a volcano, extinct or otherwise. Even though this was a novel, the writer lost my respect. He hadn’t done his homework, and the story was spoiled for me.

Learn different words by chatting with folk who live in another country

One good way to learn what “the world” knows or believes about your own country is to strike up conversations with those from other lands. If we can’t go in person, the World Wide Web presents us with a tremendous learning opportunity.

During my first visit to America, I was amazed at how often I was asked if I was afraid to live in South Africa with all the wild animals roaming around. (The only wild animals of the dangerous variety who roam around South Africa are in game reserves or private game parks.)

A number of folk made comments like, “Perhaps you know the Barrett family. They live in Africa.” (So do millions of other people.) Or “Do you live near the Nile?” (Umm. No. We’re in South Africa, hundreds of miles or kilometers away.)

Over and over again I was asked how I could be South African and yet have a white skin. Many people thought the only white-skinned people here are missionaries or tourists. When I said I was born in Scotland, that made them happy. But when I said my husband was a 2nd generation South African (and yes, he’s white) and my children are 3rd generation, they were amazed.

What about the way we speak?

I was also told on a number of occasions that I “don’t have a South African accent”. And what would that accent be? Those listening to me had probably heard Nelson Mandela speak on television, and yes, he has a very different accent to me. He was a Xhosa-speaking South African who also spoke excellent English. But he had a Xhosa accent.

Or perhaps my critics had heard some of our white-skinned Afrikaans actors. Their native language is Afrikaans, although they speak excellent English with an Afrikaans accent. I am of British descent, and English is my first language. Although I’ve lived in Southern Africa since I was four-years-old, I have an English / South African accent.

Like many countries, America included, South Africa has many accents and dialects. (We have eleven official languages!)

We think we know a country from the things we’ve seen on TV, watched in films, read in books, or heard from others. If we’re going to write about it, we need to make sure of our facts.

Other cultures may not understand ours

International writer, LeAnne Hardy, recently ran a writing course for a group in Awasi, Kenya. A woman in the group was amazed that LeAnne had two daughters and no sons, yet her husband hadn’t taken another wife. That’s how it would be in Kenya. (For some more amusing insights from this writing adventure, visit her post on the International Christian Fiction Writers blog.)

When my two sons were growing up in our home, one day they caused an abrupt halt in a family discussion. We were all talking about something that clearly didn’t interest them, and all of a sudden one announce, “Talking about bicycles . . .” We weren’t talking about bicycles. We all stopped talking and looked at them as if they’d said something really strange. (They had of course!) We got to know this expression meant, “Moving on . . .” because whoever said it wanted us to change the subject. It has become a family joke. When we want to get everyone’s attention, there is no better way to get it than to say, “Talking about bicycles . . .”


Talking about toilets . . . frog-1037252_640

Just recently, my international critique group held a discussion on . . . toilets. Some years ago, my little grandson, who had been on the mission field in South America, came home on furlough. He was in tears as he couldn’t “find the bathroom”. He asked his granny (that would be me) and “she sent me to the wrong room.”

I had sent him to the bathroom, which was what he’d asked for. He wanted the toilet, which was in another room. That incident sparked off an interesting discussion in our crit group on what the different countries called the little room that only has a toilet and no bath or shower.

Because people don’t know a word or have wrong ideas about our culture does not make them ignorant or uneducated. It simply means they don’t know . . . and writing is a great place to tell them all about how your country lives.

Do you have an example of confused words from another form of English that you can share with us? What do you call the little room in your home? Please put it in a comment box below.
What do you call the little room if it's only a toilet with no bath? Click To Tweet

8 comments on “Different Words for Common Items

  1. We simply say “toilet” or if we’ve been anglicized “water closet”. For conversing with children “potty” works well.

    Of course, we’ve almost outgrown the age where people ask Kansans like me about Indians, buffalo, and Dorothy Gale. Almost being the operative word.

    • I had to chuckle Judith, about your anglicized “water closet”! I’ve never heard that term! We don’t usually use the word closet at all ,except to refer to a small cupboard.

  2. I laughed about the wild animals in Africa – it’s like everyone expecting there to be kangaroos and koalas in our streets in Australia. Btw I think we call it the “loo” when we refer to the toilet down under.

  3. Great post , Shirley ! I am so often confused about the many different words for the same things, and as we look at american english or british english it gets even more confusing. And then we get the different ‘slangs’ in every language , LOL . It is not only confusing , it is quite funny at times also!

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