For anyone who speaks British English – or a fairly close variant such as South African English – travelling to the United States can be a linguistically challenging experience. As a frequent visitor to the US (I have a daughter living there) my confusion was eased some years ago by a fascinating book, “Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions” by Orin Hargraves (Oxford University Press).

Subtitled “Making Sense of Transatlantic English”, the book not only catalogues the differences between the “two” languages but places terms in their cultural contexts. For example, Hargraves outlines the structural and terminological differences between the Parliamentary and Congressional systems of government, the legal systems, popular ball games, educational systems etc.

The book is equally useful for Americans heading to countries where British English is used.

Although it is a serious work of scholarship it is also extremely amusing. The chapter entitled “What you don’t say” navigates the reader through the pitfalls of slang terms for body parts, “activities and excretions”, and, under the general heading of political correctness, ethnic and racial classifications, sex and sexual orientation, religion, disabilities and so on. For a Brit to say that he was driving his car with his hand on the hooter is likely to cause shock at a polite American dinner party.