Book Review: Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions

Do you know the difference between crisps and chips? How about between a boot and a trunk? Or between an identity parade and a lineup? The difference is that in each case the first term is British and the second is American. Otherwise, they are the same.

Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, by lexicographer Orin Hargraves, is a must-have book for anyone interested in the differences between the British and American dialects. Hargraves systematically documents and explains these differences. 

Chapter one addresses spelling and morphological differences, such as the American tendency to use a single L where the British would use LL as in woolen/woollen or ending words in –og or –ogue, as in analog/analogue. The next chapter deals with variations in word choice, such as the American tendency to use around where the British tend to use about.

Then we come to the core of the book. The next nine chapters address various aspects of life and society and document the linguistic differences between American and British vocabularies. There is a chapter on money and business, one on government and law, on sports, medicine, and education. Every major aspect of life in either country is covered.

In addition to simply documenting the vocabulary differences, Mighty Fine Words is useful as a cultural guide as well. For example, the book does not simply say that the US House of Representatives and the US Senate correspond roughly to the British House of Commons and House of Lords, but it also describes the fundamental rules of these bodies and how the legislative process works in each country. The rules of baseball and cricket are compared and contrasted as is the difference in the “news” covered by the Sun v. the National Enquirer. And the process by which doctors are educated in both countries is described.

Hargraves has done yeoman’s work in the research. Inevitably, when one writes a book of this broad scope there are bound to be a few errors. For example, Hargraves identifies the cloture rule with the US House of Representatives when it is really a term with significance in the Senate. But these errors are few and minor.

Also of value is that Hargraves takes a culturally neutral stance. This is a book that will be valuable on both sides of the Atlantic. He does not simply seek to explain Britain to Americans or America to the British, but he explains the language to audiences on both sides of the pond.

This book deserves a space on the shelves of word lovers in both Britain and North America and the copies purchased will quickly become well-thumbed and creased from continual reference.

Hardcover, 320 pp., Oxford University Press, November 2002, ISBN: 0195157044, $27.50.

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