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Separated by common language

Differences in English language as spoken by the British and the Americans is a long overdue topic for an expatriate blog. Today, I am finally getting around for a primer.

This isn’t about the obvious difference in pronunciation. True, understanding spoken English on British Isles takes considerable training and unwavering focus for someone whose ear is used to the American version. But that is only a part of the problem. The other part of it is that while you may recognize certain words, they turn out to mean something rather different. Plus, there are words which provoke no recognition from you when you hear them for the first time; yet, they mean things that are quite commonplace.

For instance, do you know what a lorry is? It’s a truck. How about a pram? It’s a stroller. Or a garden? Well, ok, it can be used to mean the familiar vegetation area, but it is also an exclusive term for backyard. In truth, don’t ever use the latter or risk offending your hosts.

Conversely, toilet is not a “dirty” word in British English. If you try to say bathroom instead, you may get a blank stare, whereas asking for the restroom will result in directions to the coffee machine. Colloquial loo is often used in informal setting instead.

When you hear an exclamation of Brilliant! or Lovely! it does not mean that what just occurred approximated a stroke of genius or was exceedingly pleasing in appearance. No, these words are used to convey an emotion that we might express via Great! or Excellent!

One of my favorite British words is rubbish, which not only identifies garbage or trash, but is also an indicator of a negative opinion about something (compare That’s rubbish! with That’s garbage! and honestly tell me which one sounds more expressive). To take matters further, a trash can becomes a rubbish bin on these shores.

Among well-known distinctions are lift for elevator, flat for apartment, surname for last name, and the weird notion that floor numbers start only after you walk up a staircase (our first floor being called a ground one).

Houses and apartments are never for rent in England. Instead, they are to let. (Large signs for available lettings occasionally confuse tourists, as they mistake them for bathroom markings with one letter missing).

You do not stand in line in England. You get in a queue. You never wear sneakers – the things are called trainers. And your kid does not use an eraser is school but a rubber.

Even though you are unlikely to get stuck on a subway station because of this, there is never an exit in sight. It’s a way out. Subway, for that matter, actually means a pedestrian underground passage, while underground – or, colloquially, tube – is what we normally call a subway (in New York, at least).

Those who had this staple of traditional British/Irish cuisine, you ever wondered why it is not called fish and fries? Yep, chips here actually signify what we know as fries. And what if you want to buy a bag of Lays? You would not call them chips – it’s a bag of crisps for you.

Similarly, when you are offered a biscuit what you get is a simple cookie, whereas a crumpet would be what Americans might call a biscuit.

A bit more embarrassing situation would be looking for pants and finding yourself led to the underwear section, when what you wanted was actually trousers. Knickers is another common designation for underwear.

Little kids do not need diapers – they need nappies. And you cannot find band aid in a pharmacy – ask for plaster instead.

Of the common institutions, a liquor store is difficult to find, although off licence signs appear on every corner (the term means that the store is licensed to sell alcohol for consumption off its premises).

Food items cause naming adventures of their own. Looking for zucchini? Try courgettes instead. Eggplant? Nope, aubergine.

This is all just barely scratching the surface, but I’ll keep it reasonably short for the moment. Future additions to this dictionary are possible. If anyone has a great example of a commonplace British term that may not be readily recognizable in America, please give me a shout.

For finale, here is a widely-known word that is occasionally used in England in the same sense as in America – for friendly toasting – but also a lot more frequently to mean a variety of other things, from greeting to expressing simple gratitude.



  1. mama

    Wow! I am proud of myself: having been reading my most favorite author Nora Roberts, I know exactly what “lorry” means long before you explained this. She heavily leans on Ireland themes, so I often find this word in her novels. And, notice, nobody explained to me what it meant – I simply guessed from the context.
    Very lovely blog entry!

  2. Ilya

    I am not sure I’d consider the latter country-specific. Travolta used in “Pulp Fiction” and I have not heard it used widely in the UK.

    Knackered is a beauty, though. For perplexed Americans, it means dead tired.

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