April 15, 2024

What the Brits don't understand... literally

For years, I always heard that London was a lot like New York. And when I finally made it there for the first time last year, I could see it. Squint hard enough, and the streets start to look familiar, even if the cars are on the wrong side of the road.

It certainly helps that the language is the same… sort of. There are the well-worn differences between apartments and flats, loos and bathrooms – but as it turns out, that’s just the beginning.

Ask a Brit about zitikwanza, or tilapia, and they’ll look at you like you have two heads. And in all fairness, I don’t know what they mean by tippexbiro, or tombola.

According to a study by researchers from Ghent University, University of Roehampton, and Tilburg University, these words are some of those best known by each country and least known in the other. 81% of Americans know what ziti is, but just 8% of Brits do. 99% of Brits can identify a biro, while just 16% of American English speakers know what they mean.

The paper’s authors looked at 62,000 lemmas (basically word stems) and how often they were understood by different populations, using crowd-sourced data from 220,000 participants. In addition to the geographic splits above, they also looked at gender, which showed discrepancies as well, albeit smaller in scale. The headlines there: 84% of men understand howitzer, as opposed to 53% of women. And 64% of women knew the word peplum, which only 13% of men got.

This study, which was brought to my attention by the great Annie Rauwerda of Depths of Wikipedia, illustrates two central ideas from Simply Put. The first is our challenge with empathy, and how hard it is to speak in the language of our audience. In our industries, we know the jargon. In our communities, we know the slang. On our teams, we know the inside jokes. But so often, the things that are obvious to us are novel and confusing to our audience.

And another finding of the paper shows how unfamiliar language can be a source of friction. Even in some of the most understood words, there was a measurable difference in how quickly we recognize words with 99% vs. 100% comprehension – 20ms on average. That tiny bump of friction can be enough to push somebody off course.

A large chunk of the words Americans know that the British don’t are related to food. Tomatillokielbasa, and crawdad all made the top list. In my biased opinion, this makes sense – New York’s food beat London’s pretty handily.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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