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It's been said that Britain and America are two countries Separated by a Common Language
. These days, that might truly be said of the entire anglosphere. Despite the homogenising effects of mass media, different English-speakers continue to speak English differently. Some of the differences are:
- Pronunciation: Does "caught" sound like "court" or "cot"?*
- Vocabulary: Are "chips" thin crunchy things you eat with dip, or long chewy things you eat with vinegar?*
- Spelling: Can "storey", as in "floor", be spelled the same as "story", as in "tale"?*
One of the consequences of this is that wordplay may not always work as well for one English-speaker as it does for another. Words that sound the same in London may sound very different in Bristol. Words that rhyme in England may not do so in Scotland. And a commonplace word in the United Kingdom may not even exist in the United States.
This page is for puns, rhymes, and other forms of wordplay that work in some varieties of a language, but not in others. These typically involve forms of English spoken in different countries, but may also be accounted for by regional or class differences within a country. Moreover, English is not the only language with diverse forms: Québécois sounds very different from Parisian French, and Spaniards do not speak Spanish the same way Mexicans do. In order to belong here, all that's necessary is for a play on words to be comprehensible to one group of people who speak a language, and incomprehensible (or, at least, less obvious), to another group of people who speak the same language
Thanks to books, movies, and jet planes, most of us have some idea of how English is spoken in different parts of the world. If you're looking for more information, check out this page
for a concise break-down of the pronunciation differences between some of the major English accents. See also the American Accents
, Australian Accent
, British Accents
, and Canadian Accents
Examples are listed by country of origin.
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- Motoring organisation, the AA, launched a campaign for its breakdown rescue service with the tag-line Aask the AA. Looked good in print with the reinforcing emphasis on the "AA" part. Spoken, it wasn't so sensational outside the South of England: the ad agency failed to take into account the fact that the word "ask" is spoken with a very short "a" Oop North. To anywhere that didn't speak RP English, the ad campaign went down like a lead balloon.
- Some of James Roberts' wordplay and puns in the comic Transformers: More than Meets the Eye work better in his native English accent than in an American accent. For example, the Duobot twins are named Shock and Ore, which only becomes a pun if "ore" is pronounced the same as "awe."
- Some of the Punny Names in the English translation of Astérix. Most characters with '-a' names (Gaulish and Roman women, and Numidian men) are named actual words that end in '-a', but a few characters get plays off '-er' words that only work if you have a non-rhotic accent - for instance Flaturtha (Flat-Earther). There are also some names that only sound accurate in London accents with dropped 'h's, like Sendervictorius & Appianglorius, and Mykingdomforanos* . Another pun relied on the words "flawed" and "floored" being pronounced identically, which only works in non-rhotic accents.
- Knock-knock, Who's there?, Adam, Adam who?, Adam holds water. Meaning 'a dam'. The name usually pronounced 'Ad-am', some people from the West-Midlands pronounce it 'A-dam'.
- The classic one that stumped Stephen Fry: THE THIEVIN' BASTARDS
- "Marmite, but Pa might not." Supposed to sound like "Ma might". Then again, Marmite isn't as familiar to non-Brits.
- In Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle's line, "We called him 'Tortoise' because he taught us!" makes a lot more sense when said with an English accent than with an American one.
- In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun meets the "Plentimaw" fish, who have plenty of maws, i.e. mouths. This is a play on the saying "There are plenty more fish in the sea," but only works in non-rhotic varieties of English, where "maw" is a homophone for "more".
- Apparently "dark" and "clerk" rhyme in British English. American readers, however, will likely be baffled.
- In Equal Rites, the Unseen Accademy refuses to accept female students, arguing that it would be "against the lore". "Lore" and "law" sound identical in RP.
- A Double Subversion: Djelibeybi is a pun on the name of a British candy that was lost on Americans. So Pratchett created the nearby country Hersheba - which is equally lost on people who speak with a rhotic American accent.
- It also doesn't work if you don't think to place the stress in the way Pratchett intended. Here in the UK I have certainly heard of a HERshey bar, but having automatically assumed that the name of the country was pronounced "herSHEEba" the joke remained obscure until pages like this one began to exist.
- Winnie-the-Pooh: It's far from obvious to many Americans that Eeyore was named after the sound a donkey makes (eee-aww = hee-haw).
- Harry Potter: Rita Skeeter is a lot more fun to say in non-rhotic varieties of English (in which the two words rhyme) than in rhotic accents (in which they don't).
- "Spello-tape" is a play on "Sellotape"* , a proprietary eponym popular in the U.K. and other countries, but not in North America, where the same product is generally referred to as "Scotch tape".
- This exchange from the P. G. Wodehouse novel Uneasy Money:
". . . I wish I could remember his name. I had it about a dozen times tonight. It's something with a window in it."
"A window?" Nutty's brain was a little fatigued and he felt himself unequal to grasping this. "How do you mean, a window?"
"No, not a window—a door! I knew it was something about a house. I know now, his name's Lord Dawlish."
- Some of the puns in Horrible Histories Wicked Words are more easily understood in an English accent:
- This Spoonerism: "A cat popped out on its drawers".
- A joke that "Onomatopoeia" comes from "On a mat a pier".
- When discussing spelling mistakes: "The suspect was wearing a car key jacket." *
- "Where is your grammar?" "At home with my gran-da!"
- At the end of 1066 and All That, the authors report "history came to a." That's "full stop" in Britain but "period" in the United States. Possibly intentional, as it's a reference to the geopolitical supremacy of the United States.
- An American man wrote in a book how he was surprised and shocked because a woman at the London office he was visiting told him to "knock me up sometime." In British English, "knock me up" means "call me on the telephone." In American English, it means "get me pregnant."
- The Two Ronnies' Four Candles / Fork Handles sketch.
- The Vicar of Dibley provides a Visual Pun in a game of charades that only works with certain British accents. Alice is standing there with a pair of jars in her hands. The other players have worked out that it's a movie but give up. She says it's Jars, which she says she's never seen but is about "these giant jars that attack people". The others realize she's talking about Jaws and give a Lame Pun Reaction
- Arrested Development has a joke based around the idea that "The Gothic Castle" (an English-style pub) would be pronounced identically in a Cockney accent to "The Gothic Asshole" (a gay bar).
- The IT Crowd: In one episode Jen is dating a man who is almost perfect except that his name is Peter File, which in British English sounds almost exactly like "paedophile." Moss even points out that the problem wouldn't exist if they were in America (where the first vowel is a short rather than long "e").
- The Doctor Who serial "The Gunfighters" plays off "Doctor Holliday" and "the Doctor's holiday" in order to fuel some of the misunderstandings that power the plot. The British English use of the word 'holiday' means taking a trip somewhere, or time off. In American English, a 'holiday' refers to special dates like Christmas or New Year and time off would usually be called a 'vacation'. Possibly justified as the only British English speakers in the story are the Doctor and his companions, explaining why the Americans begin to assume the Doctor is Doc Holliday.
- Robert Plant of of the British group Led Zeppelin was baffled when Americans failed to recognize the song "D'Yer Mak'er" as a reference to Jamaica.
- If an American had sung "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music, they might not have thought that "Fa" was such a long long way to run, but could have noted that "La" is something a lawyer practises.
- The opening number of Jesus Christ Superstar rhymes "Fire" with "Messiah", which only works if you're Epic Rocking. "FI-yah!"
- From My Fair Lady:
- Invoked in the song "Show Me", where one of the couplets ("Haven't your arms Hungered for mine?/Please don't explain, Show me!") only rhymes if Eliza briefly slips back into her Cockney accent (where "explain" is pronounced "expl'ine").
- Another curious example occurs in the song "The Street Where You Live", when Freddy sings the line, "People stop and stare, they don't bother me / For there's nowhere else on earth that I would rather be". The rhyme would completely fail in American English, where "rather" rhymes with "gather". Fortunately, Freddy is singing the Queen's English, in which "rather" rhymes with "father". They rhyme still fails in British English, because of the subtle distinction that Brits (and, indeed, most English speakers) make between the short "o" of "bother" and the long "a" of "father". However, most Americans make no such distinction: for them, "father" and "bother" are a perfect rhyming pair!note So the rhyme works — but only if it's said by a Brit and heard by an American.
- A lot of Shakespearean examples of Get Thee to a Nunnery are missed by modern readers due to shifts in pronunciation. For instance, there's these lines from As You Like It:
And so from hour to hour, we ripe, and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.
- The lines make a lot more sense if you know that in Shakespearean English, they would sound something like this:
And so from whore to whore, we rape, and rape,
And then from whore to whore, we rut, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale/tail (meaning the penis).
- When King Lear's Fool says "Sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace", this is a pun on how in 17th Century English "peace" sounded the same as "piss".
- In The Pirates of Penzance there is a rather lengthy joke in which different characters confuse the word "orphan" for the word "often." Needless to say, this doesn't come across in any accent besides very proper British English and even then is a stretch.
- A wee boy goes into a cake shop and points in the window and says "Is that a cake or a meringue?" "No, you're right" says the baker "It's a cake."
- Q: What should you do if you find a trumpet growing in your garden? A: Root it oot.
- An American is in a pub in Scotland chatting to some of the locals and the topic of hunting comes up. The American boasts about having shot a moose, at which point the guy he's talking to looks at him like he's mad and says, "You shot a mouse? You don't shoot a mouse, you'd blast a hole in the floor." (variants include "You don't shoot a mouse, you stamp on a mouse" and "You don't shoot a mouse, you set a trap for a mouse.")
- An Irish mother is teaching her son her recipe for bean soup. She tells him to add exactly 239 beans. He asks her why. "Because if you add just one more bean, it'll be too farty."
- An African-American guy is walking down the street and asks an Irish fella how much further he must go to get to O'Reilly's Pub. He answers "You're a block past it!". Cue one punch in the nose.
- Whale oil beef hooked◊ is either a random slew of words or a swearing Irishman.
North American English
- In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion's assertion that Courage "puts the ape in apricot" only works if you pronounce it "APE-ri-cot".
- The Realtor took the Southern Belle to see a house. Before they went inside he spoke at length about the many amenities the house had. He mentioned the central heating/air conditioning that had just been installed. He boasted about the professional quality kitchen. He went on about the huge closets, vaulted ceilings, and the built-in sauna and hot-tub. "Why," he said proudly, "This house hasn't a flaw!" "It hasn't a flaw?" The Belle drawled. "Well then what do y'all walk awn?"
- A Southern belle, having moved to a big city in the north, visits a stationary store and asks for some rotten pepper. The owner tells her that he doesn't carry that sort of thing and directs her to the nearest grocery store. She thanks him and is about to leave; but then he asks, "If you don't mind the question, why do you specifically want rotten pepper?" "To raght home on."
- The Southern Belle is chatting with a group of Yankee lawyers. "So, where did y'all go to school?" she asks. One of them answers, "Yale." So she takes a deep breath, and bellows, "Where did y'all go to school?!"
- "You know the thing about nacho cheese? It's not your cheese!"
- This doesn't stop endless Brits attempting this joke.
- A common joke is to get someone to say "Mike Hawk" out loud. Most Brits won't pronounce it as intended unless they are specifically told to do it in an American accent.
- A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came out of the office and asked them to disperse. "But why?" they asked, as they moved off. "Because," he said, "I can't stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer." (In the US, "foyer" is usually pronounced the way it looks, but in Canada is pronounced as "foy-ay", which makes the connection to "fire" less obvious.)
- An inverted example. In The Lord of the Rings one of Sam's relatives is "Halfast Gamgee"* . American commentators suggested this was a pun drawing attention to the character being a little bit of a dolt to his Shire neighbours. British readers went "huh?" as they couldn't see it (Halfast = Half-assed) not realising we don't have quite the same pronunciation in British English, and nor would J. R. R. Tolkien.
- Though Tolkien does make that joke - with the name of Sam himself - "samwise" meaning "half-wise" in Old English. In fact LOTR is stuffed with obscure philological puns which go right over the heads of readers who don't have Tolkien's level of expertise.
- The Killer Angels. A union soldier asks an imprisoned confederate solider why they are fighting. The union soldiers are confused because the rebels say it's for their "rats" (rights).
- Shel Silverstein's poems have this issue sometimes, such as a joke based on the words "ant" and "aunt" sounding identical, and the poem "Fancy Dive" relying on the words "quarter" and "water" rhyming. The title of Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book also sounds a lot less strange if the Z is pronounced as "zee".
- To Americans, World War Z is an obvious pun on "World War 3". English speakers from any other country won't get it instantly. To them it would be "World War Zed".
- Seinfeld: Dolores rhyming with a part of the female anatomy, or anything else, depends on regional pronunciation.
- The Daily Show's Most Immature Montage Ever revolves around the fact that in American English, the word "caulk" (as in, the stuff you use to seal up cracks in your walls) sounds exactly like the word "cock" (as in... you know). The montage probably seems doubly immature in other English-speaking countries, where "caulk" doesn't sound at all like "cock", and may, in fact, be a homophone for "cork".
- The Muppet Show had an entire sketch centered around the guest star's thick southern accent.
Guest: What right do you have to be here?
Rolf: What rat? This rat (Produces rat).
Guest: Put up your hands!
Rolf: Put up my hens? Sure (Places a pair of chickens on the counter).
- QI has Stephen Fry jokily responding to Rich Hall talking about his aunt with "I didn't know you had an ant." Since in most dialects of British English "aunt" is pronounced to rhyme with "aren't", that particular American pronunciation sounds much closer to "ant" than anything else, even if they're pronounced slightly differently.
- The last line in "The Alphabet Song" only rhymes if you pronounce Z "Zee", as the Americans do, instead of "Zed", as Canadians and most Europeans do.
- Some British children are taught, "W, X, Y, Zed, you see..." which will work with the closing lines.
- Joanna Newsom has a song called '81 (referencing a year from a recent century), but when spoken in the song itself, the lyrics book says "A.D. 1". This pun only works in American English, since in British English, the D and T sounds would be completely distinct.
- In one strip of Calvin And Hobbes, Calvin writes for a homework assignment that lords and vassals lived in a "futile" system, only for Hobbes to point out that it's spelled "feudal". This pun doesn't work in British English where "futile" is pronounced as "few-tile".
- To a British person, the name of the game Bananagrams sounds like a very strained pun on "anagrams", as the middle vowel of "banana" is lengthened.
- A classic American reclining chair, as seen in Frasier, loses some of its ring in Britain. "La-Z-Boy" only makes sense in american English. Over here it's "La Zed Boy. Weird name. What's it meant to mean, then?"
- The fact that a long "a" or an "aw" turns into an "ar" on the end of certain words in some American dialects (mostly East Coast areas like New York and New England) wrecks several jokes that use this in wordplay. For instance, the fact that the "law" of "law enforcement" turns into a "lar" is used in a Dropkick Murphys song for a rhyme.
- The name "Herbal Essences" is probably meant to sound alliterative, but it only works when said with a U.S. accent; in other countries, "herbal" has a voiced "H" in it.
- The riddle "What do the words polish, job, and herb have in common?" They all have a different pronunciation with a capital first letter. To non-Americans, this does not apply to the last one.
- Many consumer products in in the United States are sold with the label "EZ", which sounds like "easy" to Americans but is lost elsewhere.
New Zealand/Australian English
- This supermarket advert for Wine and "Bear" Week. The jokes don't make much sense without New Zealand English's beer/bear/bare merger.
- In the audio commentary to The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson jokes that orcs should not be confused with people from Auckland. Cue head-scratching from North American viewers and groans from most others.
- New Zealanders (as well as Australians and the British) pronounce "Auckland" the same way North Americans pronounce "Oakland", so they were thinking of the city on San Francisco Bay rather than the one on Waitemata Harbour.
- An Australian is travelling through New Zealand, and notices a farmer having sex with a sheep. He asks, "Shouldn't you be shearing that sheep?", to which the New Zealander replies, "Fuck off, I'm not sharing it with anyone!"
Live Action TV
- Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby offers a jargon-dependent joke when Gormsby calls himself an "utter relief teacher". Since what New Zealanders call a "relief teacher" is a "substitute teacher" in North America and a "supply teacher" in Britain, the joke is lost.
- Full House: Stephanie and Michelle board an imminently departing airplane so Stephanie can flirt with a handsome young New Zealander. Since she thinks that the boy just told her that the plane is going to Oakland (across the bay from their San Francisco home), she is not particularly concerned about getting off before takeoff. Cue the flight attendant announcing that they're on a 14-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand instead. The rest of the episode revolves round them getting back to the USA.
- Courtney Act from season 6 of RuPaul's Drag Race is from Australia and admits that her Punny Name only really works in Australian English, where it sounds like "Caught in the act." To make the pun more obvious Ru introduces her using a fake Australian accent.
- Ukraine's 2007 Eurovision Song Contest entry, "Dancing Lasha Tumbai", caused some controvery as 'Lasha Tumbai' sounds like saying 'Russia Goodbye' in a Ukranian accent.
- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker contains a joke where the characters nickname Big Boss 'Vic Boss' (short for 'victory') due to him being The Ace. This works a lot better in the Japanese pronunciation of English loan words (where there is no distinction between 'b' and 'v') than in the American English the characters are actually supposed to be speaking, making it come across in the English translation as bizarre.
- At one point in Metal Gear Solid 3, Big Boss howls "Ocelot!!" at the character in question, in a way intended to be the exact same manner that Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2 yelled "Liquid!!". Hideo Kojima points out in the director's commentary that it works so well because the names even rhyme (O-se-ro-to, Ri-ku-i-do). In English, though...