By Sarah Pridgeon
For the purposes of this column, I must out myself as a very big fan of puzzle books. Any kind of brainteaser will do; crosswords, logic puzzles and sudoku all have the same appeal. As you can imagine, my glee was palpable when I discovered a whole pile of bumper puzzle books on sale for a dollar each… until I got them home.
Each one was filled with hundreds of assorted puzzles from which I anticipated hours of thought-provoking entertainment. I settled down with a nice cup of tea and set about exercising my brain cells.
At which point I discovered that I have been laboring under a mistaken belief. Like most of my countrymen, I assumed that my constant exposure to entertainment created in the land of the free had provided me with a full understanding of American culture.
Our television channels are saturated with virtually every prime time show ever made and our movie theaters rely almost entirely on Hollywood. Just as many books are published by American writers as by British ones and we even subscribe to the odd magazine and newspaper from these shores.
American entertainment is as prevalent as our homegrown offerings. In fact, if it has ever crossed your mind that British culture has started creeping insidiously across the ocean, you ought to see how interchangeable the two are on the other side of the pond.
Nevertheless, my puzzle books gave me an insight into just how much was left out of my transatlantic education. I also discovered how difficult it is to complete any type of question-based conundrum when there are gaps in your personal pop culture database.
Despite the continued attempts of my poor mom-in-law to enlighten me, I still have no idea which football teams sport what colors. I don’t know what catchphrases should be attributed to which of the myriad of celebrities I’ve never before heard a whisper of.
I don’t know much about American soap operas, because Australian offerings like “Neighbours” and “Home and Away” have filled the niche since back in the 1980s. This may be the only section of popular entertainment that we look for from anywhere else in the world.
I couldn’t tell you who won “America’s Got Talent” or “The X Factor” in any particular year, either. The Brits invented most of those shows and so I’ve only ever seen our own versions, the former of which generally includes dancing dogs and strange people trying to play tunes on wooden spoons.
I have no idea what the defining features of all the other states are or what flower or tree any of them claim as their own, although I could have answered if they’d asked me about Wyoming: it’s the Indian Paintbrush and the Plains Cottonwood. My grasp of geography is sketchy at best even for my own much smaller home country, a fact that I generally attribute to having no spatial memory to speak of and therefore absolutely no sense of direction.
I was even flummoxed when asked to name a bean that serves as a salad bar staple, partly because we don’t eat many garbanzo beans in England and partly because a salad bar where I’m from is usually resolute in offering nothing more glamorous than lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a bit of onion if you’re lucky.
Even the phrasing of some clues foxes me. For example, one puzzle wanted me to tell it what a “non-southpaw” is. Not knowing what a southpaw is, I was at a loss to tell it the opposite – though, ironically, it turns out I’m a southpaw myself.
These knowledge gaps took crosswords squarely off the table, but the problems didn’t seem to end there. I stared at a fill-in-the-blanks challenge for several irritated minutes before realizing that the word I was trying to cram into the box didn’t fit for a reason. I was adding extra vowels to it.
My brain is set up to recognize “colour” as a potential box filler, rather than “color”. It looks for vowels where vowels no longer exist, which makes me assume that a “Halloween maze box” is some sort of training device for rats involving cheese and electric shocks.
To me, it should have been a “Halloween maize cube” so, when I sneaked a peek at the answer and found it to be “bale,” I was no more enlightened than when I started. Sometimes, an extra vowel is not a bad thing.
My brain also wants to put an “s” where the crossword would prefer me to place a “z,” because I “recognise” things rather than “recognize” them, for example. This thoroughly confuses me when the answer to “striped horse-like animal” then appears to be a “sebra.”
Some spellings are so completely different that I never stood a chance of guessing the answer. To me, a “check” is the mark one places in a box on a form, while a “cheque” is the money replacement to be handed to a store assistant. I play tennis with a “racquet” rather than a “racket” because the latter sounds to me like it would be constantly making noise.
It turns out that the crossword questions in this slightly parallel dimension are as slightly parallel as everything else. I don’t use the right slang or think of the same phrases, nor recognize the same foods and landmarks, nor assume that words mean quite the same thing.
This wasn’t quite what I was aiming for when I set out to be puzzled, but I’m sure my new knowledge will come in handy. In the meantime, it’s probably for the best that I stick with wordsearches and the odd bit of sudoku – after all, even I can’t mistranslate a number.