Long-time readers know that I’m fascinated by the differences between American and British English, two languages that are so close and yet so far away.
In some cases, each language has a very different meaning for the same word — joint, rubber, trolley. In others, the two words for the same thing are very different — stove and cooker; pacifier and dummy; trunk and boot.
One dead giveaway to origin is the word that comes after “different” in making a comparison. In American English, we’d say that “X is different than Y.” In British English, it’s “X is different to Y,” and that sounds so wrong to me that I can’t even explain it.
Perhaps it’s because the preposition “than” indicates removing from something, which is what we’re doing in making a distinction, while the preposition “to” indicates motion toward, which is the exact opposite of what we’re saying.
Interestingly, exactly the same difference exists in Spanish in Latin American and Spain. Here, the pattern is the same as American English — “X es diferente que Y,” although the preposition is closer to that than “than.”
Meanwhile, in Spain, the phrase is “X es deferente a Y,” which is a word-for-word translation of the British version.
It gets really fascinating in the case of brand names, or even stores. For example, the British Equivalent of America’s Dollar Tree is called Poundland, which makes total sense given the currency in the UK. Still, I’m sure many an American tourist has seen the name and giggled at the thought that it’s actually some kind of brothel or budget motel.
More mysterious is the name change of the brand TJ Maxx. In the UK, it’s the same company, but known as TK Maxx for very vague reasons.
At least that one would probably also be obvious. But when it comes to other brands, you might be lost in the woods when trying to figure out the American equivalent without a primer.
Say you’re cleaning up that vacation rental in London and need some Lysol to do the job. You’re not going to find that anywhere. What you want instead is Dettol, which is really just the same thing under a different name.
You might even sometimes hear it used as a comedy punchline when a character runs across something or someone really disgusting. “Ewwww. Ma, fetch the Dettol!”
Say you want to write a note to someone and you’re in the stationers in Hull. You’re looking for a Bic, because it’s your favorite brand, but if you ask a Brit to loan you a Bic, you’re probably going to get a blank stare. Instead, if you want a ballpoint pen, you’d need to ask for a Biro.
Named for its Hungarian inventor Lazlo Biro, it debuted in 1938 and, ironically, was produced by BIC Manufacturing anyway. So, to be honest, Biro is the real name and Bic was how they chose to market it in the U.S.
But oh no! While you’re writing that letter, you make a mistake, and you can’t erase ink. What do you do? Why, you grab the Wite-Out, of course! And, surprise — it’s also a Bic product! But of course, what a perfect pair.
This is probably a pretty well-known story by now, but Liquid Paper, the major competitor to Wite-Out, was invented by one Bette Nesmith Graham, whose son went on to be a musician with the made-for-TV band The Monkees.
But you’re not going to find this in the UK, either. Instead, you need to look for the Tipp-Ex, which was originally a German invention but took Europe by storm in the late 1950s.
Well, that was a lot of work, so how about some snacks? You’d grab a bag of Lay’s potato chips, but they don’t seem to be anywhere. What you’re looking for as you stroll High Street in Chesterton, Cambridge would be a bag of Walkers. Same brand, different name and flavors.
If you’re not into salty, there’s always sweet, but there’s a bit of a trap here. If you want an American Three Musketeers bar, you’re not going to find it. Instead, what you want is a British Milky Way, which is different than (to?) an American Milky Way. If you want an American Milky Way, then ask for a Mars Bar.
If Dove ice cream isn’t your thing, then go for a Good Humor bar, although anywhere in the UK, you’d have to ask for a Wall’s. (Note: if you’re in the U.S., that link may just redirect right back to Good Humor, proving that it is, indeed, the same brand.)
Finally, if ice cream is too cold, pop open a pack of Starburst. In the UK, you’ll have to ask for Opal Fruits, which was the original name before the product was rebranded in the U.S. Of course, it was rebranded for a while in the UK, too, before being relaunched under its original name.
Now, you may have learned some different brand names in this article, as did I — but the thing I really learned was that, damn, the Mars company seems to control just about every sweet snack on the planet, and that’s just a bit disconcerting.