The language is English, but meaning is different

January 21, 1996|By Harry Shattuck | Harry Shattuck,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

How do you respond when the attendant at a petrol station in Scotland inquires, "Shall I check the bonnet and dust the windscreen? And are you aware you've been nicked in your wing and your boot?"

What do you tell the bloke in an Australian clothing store who smiles, asks, "Is everything apples today?" then helps you coordinate your jumpers, strides and jandles?

As I travel about the world, I keep promising to learn at least one foreign language. Thus, a resolution for the new year: I'm going to study English.

Take solace if, like me, you didn't know that a bonnet is the hood, a wing the fender and a boot the trunk of an automobile. Or that jumpers, strides and jandles are, respectively, sweaters, trousers and sneakers.

And a bloke is a male boss.

Fifty-five varieties of English are spoken globally, according to Roger Axtell, whose book "Do's and Taboos of Using English Around the World" (John Wiley & Sons, $12.95) may be the funniest and also the most useful in a fascinating series.

New Zealanders enjoy an entree, not an appetizer, as the first course of a meal. Britishers snack on biscuits, not cookies.

Ever-evolving slang renders each version of English even more confounding.

If everything's apples in Sydney, it's under control. But in London's cockney slang, we climb apples and pears (stairs) on bacon and eggs (legs) to find the nearest dog and bone (telephone).

Imagine, too, what others must think of American English. As Mr. Axtell quotes Richard Lederer, who wrote "Crazy English" for Pocket Books in 1991: "We park on driveways and drive on parkways. Our hamburger is not made out of ham. There is no grape in grapefruit and no pine or apple in pineapple. In what other language do you think your feet can smell and your nose can run?"

Australian-based Lonely Planet, which publishes scores of thorough guidebooks, has released the new 240-page "USA Phrasebook" ($5.95) to help international travelers distinguish, for instance, among the Bible Belt, Corn Belt, Sun Belt, Borscht Belt and Cotton Belt and to understand why all 22 players remain standing when it's "first down" on the football field.

No wonder that although English is the official language of 1.7 billion people, others experience difficulty translating our various interpretations.

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