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09 Aug 2012

The Great (Atlantic) Divide

Not long ago I asked an American friend how she was.

‘I’m quite well,’ she replied, perfectly cheerfully.

‘Only quite well?’ I asked.

‘No, quite well.’ She meant entirely well, extremely well, with no sense of the ‘Mustn’t grumble’ that a Brit would imply with the same words.

Today, I read, in a book written by an American, the words ‘The landscape has all the expressiveness of…’ Now if I wrote that, I’d finish the sentence with something sarky like ‘a bluebottle reading the phone book’, meaning that it had no expressiveness at all. But no. My author – who is writing about Madagascar, as it happens – goes on ‘…a van Gogh painting. Between the red, sandy soil and the cobalt-blue sky grows an assortment of outlandish plants.’ No trace of sarcasm: he intends it utterly as a compliment.

Neither of these cases is a question of vocabulary or even usage, exactly: perhaps what they are is nuance. But whatever you call it they would mean something completely different on the different sides of the pond.

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