English vs Amer­i­can

Can Bri­tish and Amer­i­can boaters com­mu­ni­cate or are they di­vided by a com­mon lan­guage? Roger Hughes ex­plores the muddy waters

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

How sailors from ei­ther side of the At­lantic have rewrit­ten the nau­ti­cal phrase­book

Ial­ways thought it was Win­ston Churchill who orig­i­nated the phrase ‘Eng­land and Amer­ica are two na­tions di­vided by a com­mon lan­guage’ in his speech be­fore the Amer­i­can Congress at the height of World War II – but it wasn’t. He bor­rowed it from George Bernard Shaw, who in turn probably bor­rowed it from Os­car Wilde. But as with many epigrams, there is a grain of truth in it.

I’ve lived and sailed in Amer­ica for 30 years and won­der some­times how our two na­tions can ac­tu­ally com­mu­ni­cate on the wa­ter. Take for in­stance the word yacht. In Bri­tain this gen­er­ally means a sail­ing boat, as op­posed to a motor boat. But in Amer­ica all recre­ational ves­sels are ‘boats’, so it’s no good telling an Amer­i­can you own a yacht. At the very least he will ask, ‘What sort of boat?’ And isn’t the Amer­i­can term ‘sail­boat’ more de­scrip­tive than the Bri­tish us­age of yacht?

And from now on it gets com­pli­cated...

Boat words

Any Bri­tish sailor ar­riv­ing in Amer­ica from across the pond, or even char­ter­ing a 20ft run­about, will be ad­dressed as ‘Cap­tain’. The Bri­tish term ‘skip­per’ is too mod­est for Amer­i­can tastes: they of­ten like to dress the part with ‘Cap­tain’ em­bla­zoned on their hats.

Most Bri­tish yacht own­ers would be sur­prised to learn their ves­sel has a ‘bridge’. In Amer­ica it’s the term for the cock­pit sill in the com­pan­ion­way, on which the doors or wash­boards sit.

If you tell an Amer­i­can your boat is on ‘Pon­toon B’ in a ma­rina, he might go look­ing for a small mo­torised raft. He’ll likely find it eas­ier if you di­rect him to ‘Dock B’.

Tool talk

Some frus­tra­tion can de­velop be­tween Brits and Amer­i­cans work­ing to­gether on boats, re­gard­ing the ter­mi­nol­ogy of tools. I think some tools are of­ten – but not al­ways – more ac­cu­rately de­scribed in Amer­i­can than Bri­tish ver­nac­u­lar.

Vice grip

For ex­am­ple Bri­tish Mole grips are Amer­i­can vice grips, also called lock­ing pli­ers, which is ex­actly what they are. The rea­son they are called Mole grips in Bri­tain is be­cause they were orig­i­nally made by a Welsh com­pany called M. Mole and Son. Still, if you saw a mole on your boat you could whack it with ei­ther type, the ef­fect would be the same.

Ad­justable span­ner

A Bri­tish span­ner is a wrench in Amer­ica and an ad­justable span­ner is a mon­key wrench. This span­ner is def­i­nitely ad­justable, but where’s the mon­key?


A Jemmy is a use­ful tool to have on a boat, but you won’t find one on an Amer­i­can ves­sel – you’ll probably find a pry bar in­stead.

Ju­bilee clips

When go­ing into a chan­dlery don’t ask for Ju­bilee clips, be­cause you might be told they don’t sell comic books. Ju­bilee was a side-kick char­ac­ter in the Cap­tain Marvel comics, sim­i­lar to Robin with Bat­man. What you re­ally need are hose clamps.


An English­man shap­ing a piece of teak might use a spoke­shave. An Amer­i­can will use a draw-knife. Again, Amer­i­can is more de­scrip­tive, be­cause you do draw the knife to­wards you. But what if you are ac­tu­ally shav­ing a spoke...?

Cock­pit sill: this is called the ‘bridge’ on an Amer­i­can boat

Pon­toon: a ves­sel to en­joy on the wa­ter in Amer­ica, not stroll along to reach your boat

Cap­tain’s hat: most Bri­tish skip­pers wouldn’t be seen dead in one of th­ese

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.