When I arrived in London, my knowledge of the countries making up the United Kingdom was derived from the elastics rhyme ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; inside, outside, on the rails’.
I’d heard the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain and British but wasn’t exactly sure what they each referred to. I was sure however, that there would be a few faux pas to avoid (similar to confusing Americans and Canadians, or Australians and New Zealanders).
Know the difference between the UK and Britain and never say ‘Southern Ireland’
So, let’s start with the geography. The British Isles refers to the two large islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and many smaller surrounding islands. These include the Isle of Man (which is known for the Bee Gees, motorbike racing and tax evasion), Jersey (which is known for its cattle, dairy products and tax evasion) and Guernsey (which is known for its cattle, blue post and telephone boxes and tax evasion).
Great Britain is the largest of the islands, encompassing England, Wales and Scotland. Ireland is the second biggest and is directly west of Great Britain, however, geography won’t save you if you get the political terms wrong.
The ‘political boundaries’ work like this: the United Kingdom encompasses Great Britain and the north-eastern part of Ireland, or Northern Ireland. Ireland refers to the southern part of the island of Ireland, sometimes called the Republic of Ireland or ‘Eire’, but never Southern Ireland.
‘British’ is an adjective pertaining to the United Kingdom, e.g. the British people, however people from Scotland, Wales and particularly Ireland would generally prefer to be referred to as Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather than British.
Don’t ask for cash out when buying your aubergines and clementimes, go to the hole in the wall.
It is fairly easy to brush up on these geographical and political terms prior to arrival in the UK. What really got me were the small, everyday terms I didn’t know. To add insult to injury, people in customer service have mastered ‘The Look’ — a facial expression that conveys ‘what on earth are you talking about, you must be an idiot’. I have been given ‘The Look’ on a number of occasions, usually for using an incorrect though similar term for a product or service.
The first occurrence was at the Post Office where I asked for a money order. The Post Office sells insurance, internet access and exchanges foreign currency but a request for a money order earned me ‘The Look’. I tried to explain the concept but was briskly told they didn’t provide that service while the cashier looked over my shoulder for the next customer. I later found out that they do offer this service, but it is called a Postal Order — thanks for nothing Royal Mail.
At the local supermarket, I’d managed to negotiate the fruit and vegetable aisle – where capsicums are peppers, eggplants are aubergines, mandarins are clementines or satsumas, snow peas are mange tout and zucchini are courgettes – but earned ‘The Look’ at the checkout when I asked for ‘cash out’. I knew this service was available, as the woman ahead of me had used it, so I explained that in addition to paying for my groceries I would like some cash.
“Oh, you mean cash back,” corrected the check-out girl.
I thought about telling her that in Australia a ‘cash back’ offer involves buying a product and then sending away proof of purchase and a completed form to get a cheque in the mail. I could have added that ‘cash out’ is a much more logical term than cash back, as the cash is coming out of my account not back from anywhere except perhaps the back of the till drawer.
However I spared her my soapbox rant, as by working out what I wanted and giving me the correct term to use in future she had actually provided outstanding customer service by supermarket check-out standards. I then tried using the term ‘cash back’ a few days later at another local supermarket.
“Nah, we don’t do cash back, there’s a hole in the wall outside,” replied the check-out lad.
I couldn’t understand why some sort of vandalism or construction issue prevented them from providing this service and stepped outside to see the extent of the damage. There I discovered that ‘hole in the wall’ is an English term for an ATM. Good thing I hadn’t tried to give ‘The Look’.
MID IMAGE: By pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com