Australian versus US English

Pardon me while I geek out about the diversity of the English language.

One of the cool things about writing a trilogy populated by Australian and US characters, and attempting to use both vernaculars, has been coming across differences between Australian and US English. Yesterday, while defining "bitumen" for the glossary of Magic Lessons, I learned that not only do USians not know what "bitumen" is, they don’t call a road made from bitumen a "sealed" road. I don’t know why but it had never occurred to me that a sealed road could be called anything but a sealed road. Apparently they call them paved roads. Huh.

This is weird to an Australian because "paving" is something you do to garden paths, or around swimming pools, not to roads or streets. Unless they’re made of cobble stones and frankly, I’ve not come across many cobblestoned streets in Australia.

Here’s the Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s premier dictionary—I adore it) definition of "sealed road": a bituminised road. (That’ll explain everything to a bewildered USian.) And of "pavement": 1. a walk or footway, especially a paved one, at the side of a street or road. 2. a surface, ground covering, or floor made by paving.

Naturally enough, Webster’s and the American Heritage Dictionary don’t have a definition of "sealed road". But here’s how the American Heritage defines "pavement": 1.a A hard smooth surface, especially of a public area or thoroughfare, that will bear travel.

Not the same are they? To "pave" something in the US can include laying out asphalt on a road. The Maquarie Dictionary definition of "to pave" is you have to be laying out tiles, stones, bricks, the stuff that we refer to as "paving". It took many minutes of incomprehension between me and Scott before we sorted it.

I also had a US character say, "He wants in to the house". My editor queried it. I didn’t understand what the problem was, so I asked Scott, who changed it to "Looks like he wants to get into the house." To my ears that sounds too formal, but apparently in US English "to want in" can only mean that you want to be included, as in "Jo wants in on that bank robbery". In Aussie English "wanting in" can mean both wanting to be included and wanting to be (literally) inside.

At one point another of my US characters said that they were "made to go" there. Once again my editors cranked out the red pen, and once again I was confused. Turns out that to a USian if you say that you were "made to" do something, it means that you were created for the purpose of doing that thing, not that you were forced to do it. In Australian English we have both meanings, so that "I was made to write the first great Australian, feminist, monkey knife-fighting, cricket & Elvis novel" can mean either that you were created for the purpose of writing such a novel (which I was) or that that you were forced to write it (which I could be if someone would pony up the dosh).

I also learned that US English doesn’t include "a dog’s breakfast", "demountables", or "unco". Which made me sad for US English, until I remembered some of their great words and expressions, such as "write me", "geek out", "sketchy" and my all-time favourite: "discombobulate". Best word ever!

New York City, 2 May 2005