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Nothing succeeds like a toothless budgerigar

03/07/2012

George Bernard Shaw is widely credited with having famously written that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. Except that he didn’t. Oscar Wilde, as usual, coined the notion first – in his play, The Canterville Ghost (1887): “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”. In 1887 GBS was still scuffing as a very obscure art critic while Wilde was the literary golden boy, and would be for another 8 years.

Bertrand Russell probably thought he was being original in the Saturday Evening Post (3 June 1944): “It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language”. In a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published afterwards in The Listener, April 1954), he wrote that European writers and scholars in America were “up against the barrier of a common language”. An interesting elision of Europe and the UK there.

The Times once tried to give the credit elsewhere again: “Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language” (26 January 1987). I suppose the only real surprise is that nobody has (yet) attributed it to Dorothy Parker.

There’s a popular internet myth that Electrolux cocked up by launching an ad campaign in the USA, using the strapline of “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. Gosh, wasn’t it amusing that the silly old Swedes were so ill-educated, unaware and untravelled that they wouldn’t know that it’s hardly a persuasive product endorsement across the Atlantic.

Except,of course, that the Swedes are none of those things. Most of them, with one notable exception (you’re going to have to allow me a very private joke here), speak English better than most English people. The clue was up there in the words “internet myth”. It’s such a soft target that you can find fake ads in support of the story:

Yes, you’ll have spotted the crucial absence of “an”. The truth, as is so often the case, is far more dull. The strapline was used successfully in poster campaigns in the UK since the 1960s, and here’s a real example with a wittily tilting Tower of Pisa.

Americans were reputed to have assumed that using it was a blunder. In fact, the US slang meaning of “sucks” was already well-known internationally, and the company simply hoped that the double entendre would get it brand recognition over there.

Webwrights: heartless destroyer of illusions.

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