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TWTS: To discuss a tabled item or not? Depends which side of the pond you’re on

Have you ever heard someone describe the United States and another English-speaking country as “two countries separated by a common language?”

A listener named Randy Miller wrote to us recently about some of the language differences he encountered while living in England.

There were words like “lorry” and “lift” that many of us already know, but Miller also found there were “embarrassingly different meanings of some words, like suspenders and pants.”

One difference that Miller found particularly striking has to do with the verb “to table.”

“To table” came to mean to lay something on the table of a legislature assembly or some other deliberative body. By the mid-1600s in England, if you tabled something, you were submitting it formally for discussion.

However, by the mid-1800s in the U.S., there’s evidence that if you tabled something, you were actually postponing discussion of it.

Interestingly, “on the table” seems to have the same meaning for all of us – that it’s up for discussion.

That means if you’re in the U.S. and there’s an issue “on the table,” it’s up for discussion. But it you table it, it’s not up for discussion. If that seems confusing, that’s because it is.

What confusing words have you found while traveling in other English-speaking countries?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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