This site is intended for health professionals only

The common language that divides us

Dr Patrick Neustatter, formerly a GP in the UK and now a family doctor in Fredericksburg, Virginia, shares a lost in translation moment with a colleague.

Churchill's quote about 'the common language that divides us', and the inability of Americans and English to understand each other, still holds true according to a local pain doctor.

Various specialists bring us lunch to the office from time to time, as they come and peddle their wares. This day was the turn of local algologist Bhavin Suthar – who came wearing an Imperial College sweatshirt.

This of course was an inevitable source of enquiry to a Londoner. So, casting aside any pretence at academia, we got talking about London and his experiences there as a student. He was intrigued by the language barrier.

Doing an exam with pencil and paper, a fellow examinee leans over and asks 'do you have a rubber?'. 'What, now??!!' thinks Suthar – not understanding that the guy wants an eraser not a condom.

Preparing for a wild night out he went shopping for polka dot 'suspenders' and is perplexed by the haughty response of 'you'll have to go to Soho for that sir' - not understanding he is not looking for some racy garter belt to match his lady friend's panties, merely a pair of braces. (Of course reversing the scene, any Englishman asking for braces in the US would probably be equally perplexed by being directed to the orthodontist)

Or again, Suthar, preparing for a night out one summer evening and not sure what degree of formality is appropriate, asked 'are you wearing pants?'

He was taken aback by the hostility, he remembers, when he got a 'what business is that of yours?!' response - until someone gently explained that he just might be seen as a bit of a pervert wanting to know if someone is wearing underwear. Rather than merely enquiring whether he should wear formal trousers.

You say tomato: Learning the lingo has proved a challenge for one expat GP You say tomato: Learning the lingo has proved a challenge for one expat GP