It’s been close to a year since I posted a brief sampler of the linguistic differences between British and American English language variants. I had a clear intent to parlay that article into a potentially fun series. But in the intervening time, I suppose, I lost my ear when it comes to noticing divergences in everyday vocabularies. As a result, off the top of my head I could not think of many additions to my initial list.
That may be partly due to the self-imposed scope. I wanted to include only the terms that are used frequently or, at least, define objects that have a common place in everyday life. I also wanted to look for instances where an American word would be likely misunderstood if used, either because it has a different meaning in British English or is entirely uncommon on this side of the pond.
A beauty like knackered (suggested by the fellow expat Geo) does not exactly fit into these boundaries. It is a word that you’d never hear in the States, but it is considered a slang in England, never replacing exhausted in polite circles. A fun little titchy, which Becky increasingly uses in her teen-speak, is similarly too much of a colloquialism – my preferred American translation of it would be teeny-tiny – to qualify as part of formal vocabulary. And terms such as boot fair, hen night or stag party are too situational to be frequently used.
Well, I’m guessing Posh frock! could be a frequent exclamation in families with girls on shopping sprees, but in this era, girls rarely don dresses, no matter how nice.
Long story short, I realized that the best I can do is mention here the handful of words that were omitted from the original list. The short register has been lying on my desk for months. Maybe, as soon as I post it, new examples will spring to mind, giving me an excuse for another post on the topic.
The most inexplicable omission from the list was the word mate. In the States, I primarily associate this word with the process of procreation, and “I’m meeting my mates tonight” would sound rather risque to an average ear. In England, the plural mates almost exclusively replaces friends – even Becky rarely uses the latter anymore. What’s more, the singular mate is used everywhere as a form of address between men who are otherwise not acquainted with one another but need to engage in a brief transaction, be it over a counter of a sandwich shop (“Do you want a gherkin on that, mate?”) or on a packed train (“Sorry, mate, I’m trying to get off”). When I manage to insert that in my own speech, I’ll know I’ve become anglicized. (Insidentally, a gherkin is what we Americans know as a pickle.)
In schools, what we are used to call grades (as in “My daughter is in 8th grade”) are called Years. A group of students that takes most of the classes together is called a form, whereas I think in the States they would still be termed a class. A principal is branded a head teacher.
The cars in England each possess a bonnet and a boot, rather than hoods and trunks. We were almost detained on our first trip via Eurotunnel, when the customs officer politely asked me to “lift the bonnet” and met an expression of utter incomprehension in return.
And one of the favorites of a couple of my American friends here is pissed, which means wasted as in drunk. Believe me, in England, it’s a commonly used part of everyday vocabulary.