Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Only in America

It's like arriving late for a party, I know, but I am so naive that I've only relatively recently discovered that with a little common-sense and a bit of searching I can find (not always legitimate copies, of course) British TV shows available on the web. I was very happy to find a copy of the return of Friday Night With Jonathan Ross that aired on the BBC last week. For those who don't know, The BBC suspended Ross for three months following a stunt when he was a guest on a BBC radio show. Jonathan returned with a great line-up - and an apology for the prank. Tom Cruise, British comedian Lee Evans and one of my favorite Brits, Stephen Fry were his guests.

Stephen is always an interesting guest. He and Jonathan talked about Twitter (Fry and Ross are both Twitterholics), and how Fry had been trying to lose weight by walking long distances (his recommendation: walk while listening to audiobooks). They joked about what it would be like if Stephen had played Tom Cruise's part in Jerry Maguire: "Would you be kind enough to exhibit the money?" Perhaps the most interesting things I thought he had to say this time, however, were about America and Americans.

Fry recently made a series, Stephen Fry in America, where he visited each of the fifty states. He explained to Ross how he loved America, visiting often, and even having an apartment (flat) in New York City for a while. He said that, generally speaking, he had found Americans to be "honorable, polite, kindly, well-intentioned, thoughtful" and that any ideas of the British that Americans were a "morass of pig-ignorant fools" said much about a British superiority complex (ultimately an inferiority complex). He contrasted the American attitude, "Let's try it!" with the British attitude, "Oh, no...no...no."

I had a moment of recognition when he talked about the phrase "Only in America." He explained how in the US, the phrase was often used to describe something extraordinary happening. It's an optimistic phrase. He said that if there was a phrase "Only in Britain", it would bring to mind things like queues, rain, incompetency - "no, no you can't!" Of course, he omitted another use of the phrase "Only in America", oft used by Brits when they see some of the outrageous stories about America and Americans in the news. Things like frivolous lawsuits, someone leaving their entire estate to a cat, and so on. I find it fascinating how, depending on where it is used, one phrase can mean completely different things.

Can you think of any similar phrases that have different meanings like this? Please do post a comment and let me know.

Previous post about Stephen Fry


Anonymous said...

My husband is Dutch and can frequently be heard saying "Only in America", usually with a sigh and a slow shake of the head. It's funny, now that I live outside of the US, I see many things the same way. And not in the awe-inspiring way it is used in the States.

Graham said...

That's funny, Tiffany! I'm convinced that a bit of travel around the world would benefit a lot of Americans. Especially seeing how America and Americans are perceived by others.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more!