A Scot in Montana: Divided by a common language



On his first trip to Billings in 1993, Roger Kettle was briefly flummoxed by a clerk who told him to “Have a good one.”

I was born in Scotland and have lived in this fine country all my life.

It should not surprise you to learn that I have a Scottish accent and that I occasionally use words or phrases that don’t register with Americans—something that has led to some amusing confusion on my trips to Montana.

To be fair, it works both ways. There have been times when I have no idea what you guys are talking about.

On my first trip to Billings, back in 1993, I remember buying some postcards in a downtown store.

“Have a good one,” said the man who accepted my money and passed me my purchase. I was briefly baffled and my first thought was that he hoped one of the postcards I’d bought was “a good one.”

It took me a second or two to realize he was using a variation of the ubiquitous American expression “Have a nice day.” I’m guessing that, over the years, this four-word command has been contracted from the less authoritarian, “I HOPE you have a nice day.”

Let’s face it, you can’t actually TELL someone to have a nice day. Well, I was planning to have an awful day but, now that you’ve told me to have a nice one, that’s what I’m going to do.

The weird thing is that you guys actually seem to mean it. Despite this being a much-mocked expression of insincerity, you genuinely want me to have a nice day. I rather like that.

I also must admit to being slightly puzzled by your use of “you bet,” which seems to cover most situations.

“Can I have a beer, please?”

“You bet.”

“It’s warm today.”

“You bet.”

“Is this the right road for Hardin?”

“You bet.”

You appear to confuse “you bet” with “yes,” but I’m not complaining. When I hear that, I know I’m back in my second home, Montana.

Talking about the word “yes,” this is where I have to be careful. In Scotland, we tend to use the word “aye” for the affirmative, but I try hard not to say it when I’m in Montana.

I remember one time in Billings being asked if I was having a good vacation. When I answered “Aye, absolutely!” this was met with a blank stare and an uncomfortable pause. I eventually realized that what my questioner had heard was “I absolutely…” and was waiting for the rest of the sentence.

Apart from these minor glitches, we tend to understand each other pretty well and, indeed, my Scottish accent is warmly received. A lady working at Denver airport once kept asking me to repeat the name of my destination, “Edinburgh,” because she liked the way I pronounced it. (It’s sort of Edin-burr-uh, if you want to give it a go).

The main cause of confusion usually lies with expressions rather than accents. On one occasion in Billings, I was trying to arrange a meeting with a friend who finished work at 5:30.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll meet you in the pub at the back of 6.”

“The what?” was his response.

I now realize that “the back of 6” is a singularly Scottish expression. It means that 6 o’ clock is a rough estimate, a loose arrangement. It means that “we’ll try to meet at 6 o’ clock but it may be five or 10 minutes past that.”

I like that and I encourage you all to adopt it. Next time I’m in Billings and you see me in the street, just say that you’ll meet me in the pub at the back of 6.

Or the back of 5. As I said, I’m Scottish.

Roger Kettle lives in Newport-on-Tay, Scotland, near St. Andrews. He has been a comic strip writer for more than 35 years. He has two long-running strips in the U.K., “Beau Peep,” a Foreign Legion spoof, and “A Man Called Horace,” a Western spoof based on Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story “A Man Called Horse,” later made into a movie. Kettle also wrote “Andy Capp” for 11 years after the death of creator Reg Smythe. He has used Billings as a base of operations to explore the American West on several vacation trips. He also wrote one of our favorite installments in the Last Best News series Lay of the Land.

The accompanying illustration is by Steve Bright, or Brighty, as he signs his work. He is one of Britain’s top cartoonists. Feast your peepers on his work at his website, http://www.brighty-art.co.uk/.


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