Dear Crabby,

I know we and the British are supposed to speak the same language, but I like crossword puzzles and sometimes have trouble with the London Times. What the heck is an “agony aunt” anyway?


Clueless American

Dear Clueless,

I had to look it up. It means “advice columnist.”

I suspect you’ve already looked it up, too, and you’re just being coy. Writing to an agony uncle to ask what an agony aunt is seems too much of a coincidence. Anyway, I like the term. It’s much less literally descriptive but much more colorful and evocative than “advice columnist.”

Frankly, I really enjoy the differences between American and British English. They’re just a reminder of the crazy, idiosyncratic ways language develops — a subject I find endlessly fascinating because I am an irredeemably nerdy nerd.

There’s no reason I should find it funny that they spell color as “colour,” but I do. It’s unduly hilarious to me to hear some upper-class British guy named something like Nathaniel Cavendish talk about “biscuits” when he really means “cookies,” and “chips” when he really means “fries.” I want to giggle and point.

They call their elevators “lifts.” They call their bathrooms “loos.” They call the trunks of their cars “boots.” And they call their actors “Benedict Cumberbatch.” That is nuts.

Of course, our versions of all of those things sound nuts to them. Though they wouldn’t say “nuts”; they’d say “mental.” Or maybe “daft.”

My delight in these differences aside, I can see how they might make crossword puzzles which the British call “jumbly-mumblies” (not true; I made that up) a bit difficult. It’s the same language, but the dialect is just different enough that you’ll run into this sort of hurdle from time to time. I’d tell you that in those instances it’s fair game to look up a term (something that’s generally considered cheating among avid jumbly-mumbly doers), but crossword clues are such that it’s hard to tell whether you’re dealing with a legitimate dialect difference or just a bit of cleverness from a crossword author.

Maybe the solution is to just to stick to American crosswords. I know that’s limiting, but I can’t think of another way to address this issue. Barring that, you could become more worldly and knowledgeable. I think that’d probably help. And not just with crosswords. You’d have to spend some time in the U.K. to really soak up all of the Britishisms likely to appear in crosswords. That could take years.

For all I know you’ve already started, and you’re reading this online at a pub called Thistle and Elephant over a pint of bitter and a plate of blood pudding. If that’s the case, enjoy your holiday.

And if you’re a single bloke, then I wish you good luck getting some birds to come back to your flat.

Hope that helps.



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