English vs American
Can British and American boaters communicate or are they divided by a common language? Roger Hughes explores the muddy waters
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...
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’.
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.
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 The reason they are called Mole grips in Britain is because they were originally made by a Welsh company called M. Mole and Son.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.
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.
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