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Excerpt: 'Walking English'

Cover of 'Walking English'

I wasn't so linguistically confident when I first visited San Francisco. It was in the 1960s, during my very first trip to the USA. I stayed in a downtown hotel and came down in the morning to a diner-style breakfast. I sat up against the bar and looked at the menu, I asked for orange juice, toast, and some ham and eggs. The chef looked at me: 'How do you like your eggs?' he asked.

I did not know what to reply. I had never been asked that question before. It simply wasn't a British question at the time. If you asked for 'bacon and eggs' in Britain, it would have been automatically been taken to mean fried eggs.

If you wanted a 'boiled egg' you would have asked for one using those words.

How did I like my eggs? I replied: 'Cooked?'

He looked at me strangely, and said, 'Limey, huh?' And then he rattled off a string of alternatives: I remember sunny side up and once over lightly. 'Once over lightly?' I said, and presumably I must have asked a question, at least in my facial expression. 'Sure, over easy,' he said. I nodded. It sounded good, and so it was.

These days, the British lexicon of eggs has changed. You could hear these phrases in the Savoy.

The last time I visited San Francisco was in 2004, when I had a series of meetings in and around Silicon Valley. I'd spent the morning wandering round colourful Fisherman's Wharf, taking in the honking seals, Alcatraz, and some clam chowder, and trying not to spend too much time being a linguist.

But it was impossible. The Pier 39 area had so much ingenious language play, my notebook and camera were always in use. The store names, especially, took my fancy. Quite plainly the only reason there were rules in the English language was to bend and break them, to maximum effect.

Several played with spelling and puns. Krazy Kaps sold novelty headwear. Bare Escentuals sold cosmetics. Shirtique sold casual men's wear. Le Beastro was a dog boutique.

The cat boutique relied on a different strategy adopt a familiar expression: Here Kitty Kitty. Similarly conversational was an art shop run by a Michael Godard: Oh My Godard. And several stores relied on everyday allusions. To Herb With Love sold aromatherapy bath salts. Charms by the Bay sold charms. The San Francisco Sock Market sold, well, socks.

Not even grammar could escape. Collectible knives were sold at We Be Knives.

I had to leave, as I'd arranged to meet some colleagues after lunch, at the cafe on the corner of the psychological heart of downtown San Francisco, Union Square. It was early November, and when I reached the square they were in the process of erecting a giant eight-foot Christmas tree. A man in a box at the end of a crane was trimming the tree into a perfect triangular shape. The ground was littered with discarded branches.

It was a pleasantly warm day — this was northern California, remember — and the square was packed with tourists and shoppers. A group of diminutive children walked past all wearing sweaters that said Giants. 'Why giants?' I asked someone at the next table. I got a withering 'limey'-like look. San Francisco Giants is the local baseball team.

Actually, Americans shouldn't be too quick to condemn Brits, seeing as the name of the game is a British import in the first place. The earliest recorded usage is from England in 1744, when a children's alphabet-book includes 'B is for base-ball', and describes a game in which a ball is hit with the hand and the hitter runs to the next post.

Probably the most famous early reference is from a totally unexpected source. We would not associate baseball with Jane Austen, but there it is, in the opening chapter of Northanger Abbey, where the charmingly imperfect heroine, Catherine Morland, is described as preferring 'cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books'. That was written in about 1799.

Another British import was being read at the next table — a Harry Potter book. At least, an Americanized edition of Harry Potter. I could tell by the title: it read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — not Philosopher's Stone. Evidently, the American publisher felt that US children would have some difficulty with the notion of a philosopher.

If you compare the British and American editions, you find over two hundred substitutions. The children eat crumpets and crisps in the UK; they eat English muffins and chips in the US — potato chips, that is. A dustbin becomes a trashcan, a cooker becomes a stove, Sellotape becomes Scotch tape. It is a mini-dictionary of transatlantic differences: candy-boxes for sweet-boxes, jell-O for jelly, mommy for mummy, sweater for jumper.

Excerpted from Walking English by David Crystal. Copyright 2009 by David Crystal. Reprinted with permission by The Overlook Press. All rights reserved.

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David Crystal