As an American, using the proper British term is a huge step in becoming a local. Sure, you can tell the story about how you fell on your fanny and dirtied your pants*, but expect a giggle or sideways glance. If you want to fit in and avoid embarrassment, one should refer to the sidewalk, car trunk and line of people as the pavement, boot and queue.
I had studied up on word differences before moving to the UK, and was disappointed when I made mistakes. I discovered it takes time to get the lingo down, and that's because many words and their meanings are not obviously intuitive. And as the originators of the English language, they are, understandably, particular about these things.
For example, England boasts a large number of historical and architecturally significant homes. To the typical American, these places look like castles. That's because they are always referred to as castles in the movies. So when visiting England, you come upon a massive stone behemoth and say, 'Wow, look at that castle!'
But, no, hold on a minute. You are informed in clipped British tones, 'THAT, my dear, is a house.’
This actually happened to me. I turned to the gentleman who corrected me and gently protested. 'But… but, it's so BIG! And isn't that a turret? And don't royals stay here sometimes?'
‘Madam, I don’t make the rules,' was his flat reply. Whoa. There are RULES?
Palace, Hall, House, Manor, Abbey, Castle?! Blimey, what’s an American gal to do? When I got home that night, I called upon Wikipedia to set the record straight. Indeed, for a structure to be considered a proper ‘castle', it must have been built for defense and fortified against attack. Thus, it must have defensive walls or a moat. Sometimes, but not always, a drawbridge.
So, no matter how elaborate the structure, without those elements, it's just a house (or hall or manor). A man’s home is apparently NOT his castle in the UK.
Speaking of houses, here are a few great ones if you get a chance to pay them a visit. Just remember, don't call them a castle.
- Sandringham House (Norfolk)
- Chatsworth House (Derbyshire)
- Burghley House (Cambridgeshire)
- Hatfield House (Hertfordshire)
Similarly, established criteria apply to whether or not you can call a human settlement a town or a city. It used to be a designation that only towns with cathedrals could claim, but nowadays, only a monarch can confer a town a ‘city’.
The holding of city status provides no special rights but is a prestigious and highly sought-after title. There are currently 69 cities in the UK, with the most recent being recognized during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Over 40 cities competed, including Reading, Berkshire.
Reading’s urban area has a population of 350,000 and is still considered a town. After failing to gain city status in 2012, they recently put up street signs referencing their ‘city centre’, a metaphorical finger gesture towards the powers-that-be.
You can't make this stuff up.
After becoming educated on such idiosyncracies, I remember thinking that Americans don’t have such hang ups. The English language is fluid and changing all the time. Words are added or become obsolete every day. City/Town or Castle/House- who cares what you call it?
I was firm in my beliefs until the Super Bowl came around.
We were excited, albeit a bit tired, as it was one o’clock in the morning. We bellied up to television with our snacks and listened to the British announcers (not you, Neil Reynolds!) as they welcomed viewers and stated how 'the pitch was in great shape for this evening’s match.'
I turned toward Perry. We both had faces contorted in mock horror. My own words came back to haunt me:
Who cares what you call it?
*In Britain, you might want to say, ‘I fell on my bum and dirtied my trousers.’
**BONUS! While the attached article is not strictly about the rules that govern British English, it does point out some of the most humorous differences in the words we both use.