English Here and There

Many years ago, I spent some time working in a retail bookstore, something which, among other dubious benefits, produced a lot of highly entertaining anecdotes. One that I was reminded of today illustrates the sadly unavoidable fact that the English language is far from uniform throughout the many, many places it’s spoken, and some of those minute differences can lead to humorous misunderstandings when traveling (or communicating on the internet, for that matter.)

An Englishman, as he proved to be, walked up to the counter and presented himself before me. I made the obligatory polite inquiry as to how I could be of assistance, and he replied with but five words. I know; just five words, but they were quite unexpected, and in a combination of shock and confusion, I responded “I’m sorry?”. Apparently believing I had difficulty understanding his accent, he repeated himself, slowly and with perfect clarity:

“Have you beat the cops?”

“No,” I responded cautiously, “I try not to pick on people larger than myself, and who carry guns.”

We stared at each other in bewilderment for a few moments, before he finally laughed. “No,” he said, “a book, about getting out of traffic tickets, called Beat the Cops.” After a few moments, he added “I could have phrased that better the first time ’round, I expect.”

We did have a copy, as it turned out, but it illustrates the inherent opportunities for confusion in the phrase “have you”, especially where bookstores are concerned. I imagine it gets quite tiresome for English booksellers, constantly being asked “Have you bleak expectations?”, et cetera, but I’d find it funny… at least for a few years. Then again, when working retail, and asked if the store accepted cheques, I invariably respond “Yes, and Slovaks, too”, which very few others seem to find amusing. (Given the state of the American education system, odds are that few people I ever said that line to were aware that Czechoslovakia was no more…)

Published in: Geekiness, General | on October 8th, 2007| Comments Off on English Here and There

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