Back in 1937, the Gershwin brothers composed a cute and comic love song entitled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” poking gentle fun at the contrast between American and British English. In “Shall We Dance,” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang and rollerskated their way through this iconic ditty, tearing up New York floors with their hot-toed moves. They were cast as transatlantic sweethearts on the brink of breakup over dissimilar ways of pronouncing familiar words and thus, of viewing the world. True love finally won out, though, resulting in a happy ending for the darling duo (or is that dah-ling?), while their theme song has become an instantly recognizable classic.
As of the 21st century, despite the popularity of international travel and the globalizing influence of the Internet, the Yanks and the Brits still preserve many of their longstanding linguistic differences. Pronunciation, spelling and word usage all serve to distinguish the speech of John Bull from that of Uncle Sam. Besides the well known “tomato/to-mah-to” example, just think “color/colour” or “flat/apartment.” And there are thousands more.
All this leads to great confusion for foreign-born students of English -- who are never quite sure exactly which language it is that they are learning -- as well as heated disagreements among those native speakers whose passion for linguistics rivals Astaire and Rogers’s ardor for each other.
Take, if you will, the word “faucet.” Derived from the Middle French “fausset,” meaning bung, faucet is the word of choice to describe the thingamajig that you use to turn the water on and off in a bathtub, sink or washbasin...that is, if you speak American English. The British prefer to regulate their household water supply with a fitting known as a “tap,” based on the Old English "teppa," which referred to a peg inserted into the bunghole of a cask to control the flow of ale, mead, or other intoxicating beverage (ye olde Anglo Saxons were quite the merrie bunch).
All of this brings us not to the point of clarity but to still more confusion. Many true blue Americans do use tap as a common term, but only in relation to the dispensing of alcoholic beverages. Just call to mind the stereotype of college fraternity members enjoying themselves by tapping a keg after a US-style football game. In this, they seem to be out-Englishing the English in keeping to the original sense of the word.
Others claim that a tap, in American usage, is a part of a faucet -- or that a faucet is neither a faucet or a tap, but actually a spigot or spicket, all depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you wish to bathe or quench your thirst. Oddly enough, with today’s increase in environmental awareness, a large number of US residents worry about the quality of their tap water, but never give voice to a single concern over drinking faucet water.
And what do professional plumbers think about this earthshaking controversy? After all, as experts on water systems, they of all people ought to know the proper terminology to refer to water control valves. An online search for “plumber install faucet” brings up almost twice as many results as “plumber install tap.” However, an informal survey of plumbing companies would most likely reveal that they are just as adept at installing taps as faucets...no matter what their geographical location might be or which dialect of English they happen to speak.
Laura Firszt writes for Networx.com.
Updated March 11, 2018.