I am in the midst of planning a trip to the northeastern United States, and wondering about what to expect.
It will not be my first visit the U.S., having passed through California a number of times and having also birded in Florida as well as Texas a couple of times.
The thing is, as Oscar Wilde wrote in 1887, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
As witty as this sounds it still embodies a basic truth: We think we mean the same things when using the same words, but it ain’t necessarily so!
I found that California, Florida, and Texas were in many ways virtually different nations. Dress, attitudes, politics, architecture, food… you name it and each state had its own. Lucky for me the one thing that did seem constant was that almost everyone I met was an anglophile.
I have no idea whether the open hospitality and generous lending of time would have been so forthcoming had I been a French or Russian birder. But I was looked after right royally in hotels and on birding outings by as wide a range of people as you can imagine, from the ranting Republican fundamentalists to the equally ranting pinko Democrats. To a man and woman they enjoyed my accent despite the fact that it is rather, as we say “estuary.”
And there you have it. I put that word into quotes as it will probably mean nothing to most readers. (As it happens, “estuary” to Brits refers to the rather poor English of the working class southeast who have grown up in Essex, Kent, or London – old father Thames’ Estuary.) My better-spoken better half is always telling me to take care over the details of my pronunciation, and I respond with, “the dee’ails of wot?”
What turned out to be fun was comparing words and phrases that were specific to birding.
Let me give a few examples.
You Americans love to see new life birds, whereas we Brits want lifers.
You put your binos in the trunk, whereas we put our bins in the boot.
You may study the peeps among the shorebirds, while we quiz the shanks among the waders.
There are, of course, many birds common to both sides of the Big Pond between us, but they often have completely different names. You’ll be at an eastern seaboard beach watching common loons, jaegers, and murres. We could well be on the other side along our western coast watching great northern divers, skuas, and guillemots, and it turns out they are the very same species you are watching!
Of course the real confusion comes from a history of homesick settlers. They missed the familiar birds of home and dubbed anything vaguely similar with the same names, but for entirely different species. Our robin (a chat) is not your robin (a thrush); our song thrush really is a thrush, whereas your waterthrush is a wood warbler. Worse yet, our wood warbler is an Old World warbler, unlike and unrelated to any of your wood warblers!
For at least a couple of decades birders, have been encouraged to adopt universal English names, but its never going to happen. Its no good sticking American or European in front of a bird name because we will all ignore them and call a kestrel a kestrel, even although they are separate species.
Personally, I think we should give up. In a multicultural country (and we both live in those) you don’t try to homogenise the populace as if it were full fat milk. No, you rejoice in the diversity. Well, language is like that too.
You export more TV than you import but lovers of “Downton Abbey” pick up plenty of English English while the many sci-fi and cop shows we import teach us what a sophomore, rutabaga, and quarterback are. Indeed, I’ve noticed a tendency of late for American TV shows to have lead roles played by English actors using British argot, which your anglophiles seem lo like.
Ever since I birded with one of Florida’s leading listers, he’s adopted one commonly used British word until it’s exhausted. I didn’t know when I met him that in America, “brilliant” merely means shiny. We use it to mean fantastic, so I had a brilliant time birding with him—although he has unfortunately picked up in my accent and pronounces it “bwilliant!”
I swap these tales of Anglo-American language variety with a number of U.S. birders and we generally rejoice in them. Even a friend of mine, the man behind WebBirder, enjoys the exchanges, although his name, Randy Minder, always makes me smile as in British English a minder is either someone who looks after small children or a hoodlum’s body guard, and randy means sexually aroused. So when I saw his name, I imagined a teenage baby sitter hoping to get her boyfriend to join her on the couch!
Some of the differences in meaning could get you into scrapes or cause embarrassment. When I smoked, I used the common British word for a cigarette: fag. This would now be considered homophobic nomenclature!
Nevertheless, there are a few birding words and expressions I will leave to your researches lest anyone take offence. I’ve tried to keep this piece free of titters and will not descend into innuendo, but in the privacy of a bird hide (blind) ask your English mate (friend) what term we use for identifying birds on their general impressions alone, a term we have used for decades, but which I saw described in a U.S. article as a new way of birding. And I’ll say nothing about the English equivalent of a chickadee!
About the Author
Bo Beolens is best known in birding circles for his extensive web presence: Fat Birder - one of the world’s biggest and most-used on-line resources for birders and Birding Top 1000 lists the top birding websites by their popularity. He also has a monthly column in a UK birding magazine as The Grumpy Old Birder and has written articles in BWD and other magazines. He has had seven books published and more are in final edit… ‘The Eponym Dictionary of Birds’ came out in time for the British Bird Fair in August 2014. He also champions birders with mobility problems setting up a charity in 2001 Birding For All Having birded on six continents he also organises trips for others via his Anytime Tours website. If he ever gets time he goes birding! His wife Maggie and son Ash are keen birders but the rest of their children and some of their five grandchildren (21, 14, 12, 10, 5) have yet to be convinced... although two are now showing a healthy interest! Having reached the magical age of 65 Bo has recently launched a new BLOG: Angry Old Bloke