Which Side of the Atlantic Is This “Room” On?

I just read Emma Donoghue’s excellent novel Room–the film version of which is up for a slew of Academy Awards Sunday night. The book’s about a five-year-old named Jack, whose entire life has taken place in an 11-by-11 foot room, where he is confined with his mother. (That situation becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book, so this is not a spoiler.)

Before starting the book and even as I was reading the early pages, I had the feeling that it took place in a completely unspecified location — or, if anywhere, somewhere in Britain, where I had the sense Donoghue lives. It turned out I was wrong on that last point — she is a native of Ireland now based in Canada. And as I read on in Room, I found I was wrong on the first point, too: We eventually learn that Jack and Ma and Room are in the United States.

I was gobsmacked to learn it, because Jack and Ma both talk like they’ve spent their whole lives hard by the North Sea. I’m reasonably certain that wasn’t intentional on Donoghue’s part. She and/or her editors have scrubbed away most of the obvious Britishisms. Jack says elevator instead of lift, trash instead of rubbish, sweater instead of jumper. Spelling-wise, it’s favorite instead of favourite and program instead of programme

But when it comes to the subtle things that separate the two varieties of English, Jack and Ma almost always come down on the British side. Consider:

  1. At one point, Jack says, “Now I’m 5, I have to choose.” An American kid (or adult) would say “Now that I’m 5.”
  2. He writes, “Ma’s washing up real slow.” American English: “washing the dishes” or “doing the dishes.” (Numbers 2 and 1 are so uncommon in the U.S. that they’ve never been written about in this blog.)
  3. Ma tells Jack, “And I also had — I have — a big brother called Paul.” An American would say “named Paul.”
  4. Jack says poo instead of poop. Enough said on that subject.
  5. He uses the very British proper, as in “if I put on my proper shoes” and “I’m not doing proper pictures, just splotches and stripes and spirals.”
  6. Probably the most common Britishism is bits, used to mean “pieces” or “parts.” The word appears 62 times in Room (having a book on Kindle is great for this kind of investigation), and most are pure British, including: “She doesn’t have many soft bits but they’re super soft”; “she’s putting the hem back up on her brown dress with pink bits”; and “For dessert we have a tub of mandarins between us, I get the big bits because she prefers the little ones.”

An important moment in the book, referred to frequently later on, happens when Ma points to Jack’s reflection in Mirror and says,

“The dead spit of me.”

“Why I’m your dead spit?”…

“It just means you look like me. I guess because you’re made of me, like my spit is.”

When I encountered it, I thought “dead spit” was a bit of poetic invention. But I looked it up and it turns out it’s a common British expression for what Americans call “spit and image” or “spitting image.”

I don’t blame Donoghue for all of this. Only someone as neurotically obsessed with the differences between American and British English as I am would be expected to be aware of the trans-Atlantic register of every word or phrase. But the personnel who see a manuscript to publication are expected to attend to such matters. And Donoghue’s editors let her down.

[Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.]

29 responses to “Which Side of the Atlantic Is This “Room” On?

  1. I’m absolutely sure that Ben is right, here–partly because I’ve sometimes puzzled British friends by locutions such as “I’m just doing up the dinner dishes.” This, of course, raises a vastly different problem: why do I do “up” the dishes and make “up” the bed?

    • Interesting, Deb–I’ve never heard of doing ‘up’ the dishes. As for bed-making, for me ‘making the bed’ is a daily chore, whereas ‘making up the bed’ is to make a fresh bed when a guest arrives.

  2. My best guess: they out-sourced the copy editing to India. I knew this had started to happen with academic presses; possibly it’s extending to the literary edge of fiction as well.

  3. Depends on publisher. Many US publishers seem to think we’re all idiots and ‘translate’ BrE into AmE. For example, Scholastic, the US publishers of the Harry Potter books translated ‘holiday’ into ‘vacation’, ‘jumper’ into ‘sweater’ and so on, including dropping the ‘u’ in words where Americans don’t use it. And don’t even get me started about the *title* of the first book! I believe the publishers see this as a feature and not a bug. I disagree, especially now that I do most of my reading on a tablet: I can’t buy or borrow anything other than American versions. When the Potter books were originally published, I bought them from Amazon UK. Now, because of licensing issues with ebooks, I don’t have that option. Ditto mp3 versions. In the US, I can only legally get the Potter books read by Jim Dale, not by Stephen Fry. I know all this technology is new to the publishing field, but it absolutely is costing them sales. I absolutely would have bought the BrE printed and mp3versions of the Potters, and absolutely will not buy the AmE ones. The ‘translations’ seem to mostly happen with less experienced authors. Blame the publishers (and/or agents), not the editors. (JK Rowling was VERY new when her first books were published, and she has said she regrets having allowed the title change of the first book.)

  4. Don’t agree with number 1. ‘Now that I’m five’ would be normal in the UK.

    • I feel like I’ve encountered “Now [no ‘that’] subject-verb, …” a lot in U.K. I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on this.

      • I agree with Ben, particularly where I now live in the South West of England.
        Also, in 2010, a friend of mine who owned a medium sized publishing company, lost a major client to a publisher in India bringing him to the verge of bankruptcy. He did a lot of work intended for sale in the U.S. which involved an extraordinary amount of work changing spellings and grammar including phonetic guidelines… I could easily imagine a non English speaker being completely confused by the many regional variations let alone those peculiar to AmE.

      • I agree with Pete. Now that I’m…(x) would be normal in the UK. You might hear the other one because of lazy speakers rather than because it’s British English.

      • Pete and Steve–There is a book whose UK edition is called “Things To Do Now You’re a Dad” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Things-Do-Now-Youre-Dad/dp/1846015146 The American title: “Things to Do Now That You’re a Dad.”

      • I’m not surprised Ben has come across this. It’s very common to drop the “that” in the UK. It’s considered permissible in contemporary English. I feel uneasy as if it’s wrong or sloppy to leave it out but then I also feel slightly awkward about putting it in, in case it is too formal. We tend to go for informality these days, in many cases where Americans retain formal construction.

    • This is getting to be a bit convoluted. All I am saying is that in the UK a 5 year old would be as likely to say ‘Now that I am 5’ as ‘Now I’m five’. It is not a case of using one to the exclusion of the other.

  5. In BrE we use both programme and program; the first for TV or political programmes and so on, the second for computer software.

  6. Not sure about Arthur Jack’s comment on usage in SW England. Also, it might be worth considering the lyrics of Secret Love (Doris Day and others) written in the US c 1950: “Now I shout it from the highest hills” not “Now that I shout it …” and it is being used as a clause if you read the rest of the verse.

    • The lyric in question is:
      Now I shout it from the highest hills
      Even told the golden daffodils
      At last my heart’s an open door
      And my secret love’s no secret anymore

      I’m not sure what you mean by “clause” but the song is not an example of the usage I’m talking about. I suppose a “that” could be inserted after the “Now” but the line works better without it. The usage I’m talking about is a dependent clause: cannot stand by itself as a sentence, as in the first part of “Now [that] your entire party has arrived, you can be seated.”

  7. On point 2, is Jack really talking about doing the washing up, or is Ma spending too long ‘washing up’, i.e. getting washed / washing her hands before eating or going out? As a British English speaker, it always throws me when American children are told to “Go wash up before dinner”, etc.

  8. When the author Diana Wynne Jones dies about five years ago, I re-read Archer’s Goon, the first of her books I’d read. Although the Jones was English, and the book is obviously set in an English town, on re-reading I noticed several Americanisms. Can’t find my copy at the moment, but it was things like referring to “gasoline” instead of petrol. This was the English mass paperback edition, bought in a bookshop in London, but it looked as if someone had made a half-hearted attempt at Americanising the book. I met Jones a few times. She was very English. I can’t imagine why these Americanisms were in the book.

    • I’ve seen occasions on the Discovery Channel where they’ve “Britishised” things. For example, There was a program(me) where they were talking about “petrol turbines”. This confused me until I realised they meant “gas turbines”!

      BTW, why is the spelling checker complaining about “realised”?

      • Indeed, Mythbusters used to have metric units in the English voiceover, although they seem to have stopped doing that in recent series. I’ve been using Celsius/centigrade for fifty years now and I can do the conversion in my head but I’d rather not.

        They did get unstuck in one episode where they tried to convert pounds per square inch and failed to realise the correct metric unit is the pascal and ended up in some hybrid like kilograms per square inch.

        As to “realise”, the spell checking is probably done within your browser and mine (Chrome) has a language setting.

  9. Being an Aussie just relocated to Denver, I am loving this blog. Sure there are differences between the Britishisms and Australianisms, but many of them are similar.

    • I like your comment! And in the main I agree with you. My father was Australian and my mother Canadian. I was educated in Scotland and got very used to expressions I didn’t realize we’re unusual in the UK. My observations here are completely anecdotal but for some complete extremes, most of the time people understand what you mean. Living in the S W England, my wife’s first confusion was discovering the difference between “stay” and “live” when asking for a postal address..

      • Not “we’re” but “were”….. Stupid auto correct! I can’t be arsed with it!

  10. In Changing Places by David Lodge – a book that is self-consciously about American and British cultural differences – an American at an American university refers to “set[ting] quizzes.” These things slip by even the best of us.

    • I’ve written about “sitting” for exams–https://britishisms.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/sit-for-an-exam/–but have not heard of setting quizzes. What does it mean?

      • In reply to Ben, to set an exam or test or the questions or content of an exam, quiz or test: “to impose or assign as an exercise or duty • set a test • Which text has been set for the exam? ” Chambers

  11. kamchatkaspur

    “Setting a quiz” in BrE would be taken to mean compiling questions and acceptable answers to be asked of competing individuals or teams. That’s my understanding, for what it’s worth.

  12. Also, an American child would say “Mom.”

  13. Sorry, late to the discussion here, but I’m not sure that everyone who commented actually got the point of the original post, which was completely correct. The issue is not whether a British novel set in the UK should be “translated” into US spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary–an interesting topic, but not at issue here. The point is that Donoghue, an Irish writer (now living in Canada), chose to set her novel in the US but didn’t bother to ensure that what she wrote is, in fact, US English. I, too, kept wondering where the events in the novel were supposed to be occurring, as there were so many Britishisms (or Irishisms) that it soon became irritating to read (one character says, “just a tick,” for pete’s sake). This could easily have been taken care of by a decent editor! I don’t think you have to be “neurotically obsessed” to have noticed this, because the book is so littered with these inconsistencies that it’s impossible not to notice them.

    As the poster above says, even the use of “Ma” is incorrect (and, to me, off-putting), since that hasn’t been used in the US since the 1930s (more or less) in Appalachia. It’s even sillier in view of the fact that the woman refers to her own mother as “Mom.” Really sloppy editing.

    I’m not sure why Donoghue chose to set the book in the US, but at the very least, she could have given the transcript to a few locals to ensure that the characters actually sound American.

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