Saturday 4 December 2010

It's a little bit funny.....

I made a discovery yesterday.

Americans don't use the word 'bit'. At least, not when they're talking about something other than the thing that goes in the horse's mouth.

I had a friend round, and her son was helping the Littleboys construct a marble run. Littleboy 1 was acting as the foreman, and was rather bossily ordering the other two about. He kept asking them to get him a 'red bit', a 'yellow bit' and so forth. At one point I had to intervene, and (being shamefully less good than my five year old son at actually following the instructions) I then asked him if "that bit goes there?"

"Oh," said my friend. "I've finally worked it out. Bit means piece."

She had thought we were referring to some technical marble-construction terms, and explained that, to her, bit was, well, getting the bit between your teeth. And thinking about it, Americans don't tend to say "It's a bit strange." They would say something was 'a little strange'. (US readers, If I'm wrong here, do let me know...)

It's strange how these little bits (ha!) of information can still surprise you. I remember being astonished last year to discover that Americans don't say they are 'cross' about something. It's mad, or angry. I found this out because someone was saying how cute it was that her son picked up British expressions from Thomas the Tank Engine. So, saying that I am a little bit cross about the fact that Littleboy 1's basketball lesson was cancelled today without our knowledge, would presumably be either quaint or completely meaningless to them. (I am more than a little bit cross about that, by the way. But I'll get over it).

Still, I feel as if I am being constantly educated. Today, for instance, I have been informed sternly by sons that 'dreidel' - a Jewish Hanukkah toy that they have been learning about at school - is not pronounced to rhyme with sidle, but cradle. At least I have the boys to put me right......


Almost American said...

I think some Americans have a problem pronouncing dreidel correctly too - or at least spelling it correctly, as I saw some 'draydels' on sale at CVS today.

Anonymous said...

I do use the word "bit" adjectivally, but I don't know if I'm typical. I wouldn't use it to mean a piece or a small thing, though.

And no, we don't use cross, it's old-fashioned at best. The word pops up in the Ramona books, which is strange because otherwise they're largely timeless.

As far as dreidel goes... "ay" is how you say the "ey" or "ei" phonogram in transliterated Yiddish, isn't it? (Frantic googling indicates yes!) Dreidel is a Yiddish word, the Hebrew term is sevivon. The correct way to pronounce the word, then, is the way it's said in Yiddish.

This Mid 30s Life said...

Didn't know about "bit!" Funny.

Since moving to the UK our little boy says "Do I look smart?" also "Don't be cross" and is fast developing such an English accent. We really have to stop ourselves from giggling.

He had to tell me what a conker was!

My New Normal said...

I'm an American Expat living in London and I noticed that when I moved over here. But what is funny was that when I ready your post I thought it was going to be about someone talking about their "bits" and not realizing what it means in the UK. I guess I've been living in London for too long now.

One thing that used to confuse me was when I would describe a visit to a new place. When asked how I found it I used to explain in detail the route I took (via the bus, tube, or walking). It took a while (and some very funny looks) for me to figure out that they were asking how I liked it. So funny how it's all English but sometimes it's still like a foreign language.

Dumdad said...

Interesting bit of info about the American-English divide.

Nota Bene said...

Dundad stole my comment...that's a bit rich!

MarmiteFluff said...

I once had a surreal conversation about the word 'Cross' and its position in the hacked-off spectrum.

'It's like angry'?
'No, a bit less than angry.' [Or perhaps that should have been 'A piece less.']
'More than annoyed.'
'No, not yet, it's only 10 a.m.'


Janet said...


Maybe you don't hear bit and cross used in those ways because you're in the North. Bit is used to mean a piece of something here in Virginia, and if you find southerners with long roots in the South, you'll hear them use cross to mean angry.
Everything--language, food, culture, etc.--is different depending on where you are in this big land.

Expat mum said...

I say "bit" a lot but in the contect of "a bit much" and all my friends imitate me!
The thing that used to tickle me was when Americans say they "got upset" about something, when they were really bloody furious. I always pictured them with big fat silent tears rolling down their cheeks, because to me "upset" is a much sadder, internal emotion than what they meant.

Iota said...

It's really complicated, isn't it? I miss "cross". Angry or mad, both seem too strong. But frustrated or irritated are too weak.

There's the silly/stupid divide too. Have you worked that one out? I sense that stupid is ruder in the US than the UK. And silly means something a bit different (that "bit" again!) It's more the idea of larking around. People say to children "are you being silly?" in affectionate terms. It's not such a negative word as it is in the UK. I guess they say "foolish" for our use of "silly".

I hate all these nuances. Makes me feel like I'm communicating with a broad brush, instead of a fine point. I wonder how much I'm missing, and how much I'm failing to get across. (Get a-cross, geddit, geddit?)

A Modern Mother said...

That is so true! I get called out all the time on this when I'm in California. So British!

Anonymous said...

Silly, btw, has a fascinating etymological history: (this is only part of the story, naturally.)

It's almost as bad as nice! (

Julie said...

I use "bit" and am an American who grew up in New Jersey. For example, I will say "just give me a little bit of cake" or "I will meet you in a little bit".

nappy valley girl said...

Almost American - glad it's not just me, then.

Conuly - I seem to remember the word 'crosspatch' being used in some older American books for kids. Maybe it's just fallen out of usage?

Mid30s life - yes, and smart has a completely different meaning here!

Mynewnormal - how funny - I bet they find that highly amusing!

Dumdad, Nota Bene - great minds obviously think alike....

MarmiteFluff - pissed is the one that always amuses me. (I'm still trying to work out what else they use for 'drunk' - we have so many words for it in the UK).

Janet - that's fascinating.

Expat Mum - re our conversation in Chicago, so is upset more or less emotional than 'I'm not comfortable with that." - ??

Iota - I use cross all the time with the boys. And silly. (That kind of sums up an average day with them, actually....)

Susanna - so do you sound more British than American now?

Conuly - interesting about nice. Nice is generally thought to be a rather overused word in the UK. I still find it amusing that in the NY Times weather section, the weather is often described as 'nice'. In England it would be 'fine' or 'good' - nice sounds rather lazy in this context!

Julie - that's fascinating too. (I wonder if 'bit' made it up from the South as far as New Jersey but didn't reach New York?)

Unknown said...

I think we've got more words for drunk than any other language!

Mwa said...

I can't work out the difference most of the time. I think sometimes I use American words, but mostly British. Must be very confusing, having to adapt your language while theoretically they speak the same one.

Harriet said...

It's "cross" that gets me most interested (more than a bit interested perhaps?).

Maybe I'm wrong but I get the impression that that's one of those instances where we on the Eastern side of the Atlantic use more words for the same thing. I know we'd never say "pissed" in this context, but would Americans use "miffed" or "peeved" or "put out" or my personal favourite "disgruntled", all of which I'm rather fond of (of all of which I am rather fond, clearly).

I'm sure there are instances the other way round (where there are lots of words they use in the States and we only stick with one...) too. Would love to know what they are.

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

Nope, Americans don't have much love for the "bit" - now I have much love for it and use it all the time.

I like the nuances in how the same words are used/interpreted on either side of the of my fav's is using "go" instead of "turn!"

I also learned after moving to England that I should lay off the caps lock in emails or people would think I was yelling at.

Grit said...

that's fascinating. i'm surrounded by american speakers in one of our routine home ed groups. i can sit there for hours wondering what they're talking about.

Artemisia said...

Oh, I'm so late to the conversation. But I have to second Janet, it's where you are (and your family's/friends' culture). My family (southern background, western states) always used "cross" to mean annoyed or a bit angry. I don't hear it much in the Northeast.

It's true, though, that we use "bit" to mean "a little of" something (a bit angry, a bit of cheese) rather than something itself (that red bit).

You might be getting a funny picture of American English depending where you are on Long Island. I'm kind of shocked that your friend didn't immediately understand what you were talking about.

Moll said...

Late to the party, but I use "bit" in all the senses that you mentioned, except for possibly a small thing (red bit, yellow bit). But, I'd know what you meant and am surprised your friend didn't.

I'm from upstate New York. Many of my college friends were from Long Island and we found that, dialectically speaking, LI is worlds apart from upstate NY and the Northeast. For instance, we use "swear", not "curse".