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Separated by common language, part II

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.


  1. Brian Greenberg

    The one that always stood out to me was “fancy dress party,” which in England means everyone puts on a costume (a la Halloween), but in the US, would probably be assumed (at least by me) to be a formal affair (i.e., tuxedos & gowns).

    Then again, I’ve only been to England twice, and once was with you… πŸ˜‰

  2. Jeri

    I had to laugh when my Canadian consultants were in town last week. One of them had computer problems – her ethernet connection was “hooped”. πŸ˜€

  3. Cheryl Sligh

    Hello my friend,

    I have been here just shy of 5 yrs and I still say “purse” and “wallet” when in the UK it means “Handbag” and “Purse”. “Tights” are panythose (not that I expect you to know) but I catch myself now saying “bugger that” more often than I want. I also have a teen who has “Sports” instead of PE and “maths” instead of math.

    I enjoy reading your blog by the way πŸ™‚ McCain instead of Obama….


  4. jason

    I think there’ve been enough British comedies on TV over here that most people get the meaning of “mate” (it’s pretty obvious from context whether you’re talking drinking buddies or significant others), and I’ve never misinterpreted “pissed” when used for “drunk” (again, it’s a context thing), but I will admit that the school terminology really baffled me for a long time. It made reading the Harry Potter books — and Tom Brown’s School Days back in college — a bit of a trick at times.

    It works both ways though. I recall when I went to the summer school program at Cambridge that we American students embarrassed their English neighbors by referring to our trendy waist-pouches as “fanny packs,” “fanny” apparently being a rather impolite term for part of the female anatomy.

  5. mama

    Not for this article, but where the pictures from France, or maybe “photos”? I am waiting, Costa Bravo I
    have watched between 3 to 4 times.

  6. Ilya

    Kostyan, pissed off is fairly commonly used, while ticked off is an old-fashioned, high-society version.

    Brian, I don’t hear fancy dress party too often, but I actually would interpret the term as a costumed party, whereas the formal affair would be referred to, in my mind, as a black-tie. The latter is used in the UK as well.

    Jeri, Canadians clearly developed their own slang over the centuries. My Brit colleagues are not familiar with “hooped”.

    Cheryl, I knew that I had to poll my fellow expats before embarking on this exercise. That way, I wouldn’t have missed such commonplace example as “purse”/”handbag”. Thanks! And for your kind words as well!

    Jason, one co-worker whom I asked was quite adamant that “fanny pack” is actually an American expression and in England, where waist-pouches do not have a widely-accepted use, they are called bum-bags. I seem to remember first hearing the term “fanny pack” ages ago, certainly in the States…

    Mom, as soon as they are ready.

  7. Ilya

    By the way, I royally goofed in attributing the word “pickle” to a real Brit. That passage in the body of the post has now been revised.

  8. Vince

    A long time ago when I was in the Air Force I was watching a show from England along the line of Benny Hill (whom I love, non-politically correct be damned) and there was a sketch all done in slang. It was funny, although I didn’t have a clue. Finally a friend of mine who had lived in England when her dad had worked at the consular office explained some of them to me. The only thing I remember was that “plates of meat” were feet.

  9. Ilya

    That would be an example of Cockney Rhyming Slang, Vince, where something like water may be used to mean “daughter” because it rhymes. I know a couple of people at work who are very proficient at this, but it is certainly not mainstream English.

  10. Nathan

    I had an English roommate when I lived in Israel in 1978. We kept in touch for a while after returning home and I screwed up the time difference when calling him. As I’d obviously woken up his mother, I asked if she was pissed. My friend was mortified that I’d think his mother was drunk.

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