This year marks an odd milestone in my life. Somewhere during the course of the year I will have lived exactly half of my life in the United Kingdom, and half of my life in North America. I can't say England and the USA because the first half contained a couple of years in Scotland (very interesting and formative years, too), and the latter almost four years in Montreal, Canada. So at some point this year I will be the ultimate transatlantic being.
Having straddled both camps for so long, I never cease to be fascinated by the cultural differences between these two major world entities. There are some things the UK does superbly, and some the US does superbly, but they are by no means the same things. Likewise, there are some things at which the UK is absolutely terrible, and those things at which the US is terrible. Again, not the same things by a long way. I could go into some detail about what I think those things are, but I'll save that for later.
The one thing that seems to be the biggest source of material for contrast, comparison and confusion, though, is language. It took an Irishman to observe that:
"England and America are two countries separated by a common language."
And indeed, I have observed many a hilarious episode when unwary travelers from one side of the pond venture to use their own terms and colloquialisms in the other. Misunderstandings can also take the form of non-verbal communication, such as the infamous George H. W. Bush trip to Australia in January 1992 where he waved two fingers at the locals with the back of his hand, not realizing that this is a deadly insult there. He should have turned his hand 180 degrees, thereby turning the gesture into the famous Winston Churchill "V for Victory" salute. It wasn't a great trip for him, as he immediately went on to Japan, where he threw up at a state dinner. Sadly, that trip wasn't the historical lowlight for the Bush family.
But I digress. The reason this post came to mind is that Bill Bryson, in his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything, explains the origins of the name of the light metallic element known as either aluminium or aluminum. While it is true that Americans can occasionally be linguistically lazy, and change spellings and pronunciations to make them easier (or simply get them wrong by mishearing), this is not one of those cases, although many Brits wrongly assume it is.
No, as Bryson points out, the element was "discovered" by the illustrious Sir Humphry Davy and originally named alumium (no "n" or extra "i"). This was a technically correct form for the element, containing the root and the "ium" suffix. Due to some indecisiveness on Davy's part, though, he thought better of it and renamed it alumi-N-um. At this time the Americans jumped into the aluminum business in a big way and simply adopted the name as it was at the time.
Back in the UK, though, Davy's scientist colleagues didn't care for the name, as it lacked the proper "ium" suffix, making it stand out from all those other elements like sodium, calcium, strontium, potassium, and so on. So, after the US had adopted alumi-N-um as the official name for the element, the name in the UK was changed to alumi-NI-um. Why they chose this rather than revert to Davy's original alumium is beyond me. Some compromises will just never be figured out.
So, as I have discovered over the years, it never pays to make assumptions about how these cultural differences play out.
The aluminum/aluminium debate is of particular relevance to me in my line of work as the vast majority of commercial airplanes (or aeroplanes, as the Brits so quaintly put it) are made of aluminum. There aren't any British commercial airplanes any more, so I think I'm safe in using the US term. Let's not even get into the whole French thing with Airbus...
As a final footnote, there's apparently no truth to the rumor that, with the aircraft (transatlantic neutral word) industry moving to carbon composite structure, the UK is proposing renaming the element carbon, "carbonium", or even "carboninium", although the latter has a certain charm.