Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

George Bernard Shaw? Mallory Browne? Raymond Gram Swing? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The influential Irish playwright and commentator George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a humorous remark about language. Here are four versions:

1) Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.
2) The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.
3) England and America are two countries separated by one language.
4) The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by the same language.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1887 the Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde published a short story called “The Canterville Ghost”. 1 While describing one of the main characters, the narrator included a comical remark contrasting England and America that was similar to the saying under examination. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts in September 1942. Mallory Browne who was the “Monitor” reporter based in London traveled to the countryside to conduct an interview with George Bernard Shaw: 3

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language!” On the way down to see him at a mutual friend’s house in the country, I reflected delightfully on this typical remark of Bernard Shaw. I had read it only a few days before, and been struck by its essentially Shavian character; completely false in fact, yet so much closer to the truth than merely factual statements ever are.

Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who located the above citation and shared it with fellow researchers. Browne commented that he had read the remark a short time earlier; hence, it was already in circulation. Yet, an earlier source has not yet been located. Also, QI and other researchers have been unable to find the saying in Shaw’s oeuvre.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

Notes:

  1. 1891, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost, Start Page 90, Quote Page 94, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908, Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde, Section: Miscellaneous Contributions to Magazines Periodicals, etc., Bibliography, Quote Page 336, Methuen and Company, London. (This book specifies the dates of first appearances of the two parts of “The Canterville Ghost”) (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1942 September 5, The Christian Science Monitor, Section: Weekly Magazine Section, How Now, Mr. Shaw? by Mallory Browne, Start Page WM1, Quote Page WM7, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)