Say it in (Plain) English – the use of language in the US vs. UK

Co-lingually – and you’ll have to excuse me for stating something that is blatantly obvious – the words a person grew up using, even when they “speak the same language,” can be remarkably different. It’s more than just a different part of the world having different nomenclature/jargon for the same thing; sometimes you’ll come across completely conflicting information (example: packages of french fries saying “French Fries” on them, despite them being called “Chips” anywhere else in the UK except on the package that they come in… d’oh).

There is also more than a fair amount of regional slang (Sky Rocket = Pocket), but rather than get too deep into that one, I’ll (hopefully) stick to the nationally recognised offenders. For the sake of clarity, I’m alphabetising these by the UK nouns. Some of these are very well known (Fag = Cigarette), but I’ve thrown them in because I like people to have things they can point at and say “I know that one!”

It has to be said that the English Language didn’t simply borrow from other languages; in a very real way, English is guilty of mugging them in dark alleys and stealing all of the best words they had, rebranding them and then trying to pawn them off for more than they are worth. All joking aside, there is a thread of seriousness there that can’t be ignored: English is the butcherer of all other languages and speakers of it pronounce words with roots from all over the globe in ways that would make their original owners shudder if they knew. Pick any word you would like and look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.

One final disclaimer: This is NOT a complete list. Despite all of my efforts to compile it as I’ve heard or thought of differences, it is impossible to cover them all on my own. If anyone can think of others that did not end up on the list, I would love them to make a note in the comments so that I can them on a later date. 🙂

Without further ado:

Aubergine = Eggplant.

Billfold/purse = Wallet, not to be confused with the British Envelope/Wallet which are generally reserved for holding letter-sized or larger pieces of paper.

Bins = Trashcans. Kind of obvious, to be fair. But remember it when you need trash bags.

Bin Bags/Bin Liners/Refuse Bags = Trash bags. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Biscuit = Cookie. Any kind of cookie. Even when the package in the store says “cookie” it is still co-lingually called “biscuit.”

Bum Bag = Fanny Sack. A fanny (you’ll see further down on the list) means something completely different in the UK. Call it a Fanny Sack and people will giggle at you at best, or publicly mock and humiliate you for weeks after the fact at worst.

(single) Carriageway = undivided Highway. A single carriageway – sometimes referred to as “carriageway” – is a highway without the median separating the two sides of the road from each other.

Car Park = Parking Lot/Parking Ramp. Most often, when this term is used, they mean a Parking Ramp, however it can be used in relation to a Parking Lot. Of course, the difference between the two terms in the US is that one has several levels (Parking Ramp) in which to park and the other does not (Parking Lot).

Central Reservation = Highway Median. Because it wasn’t confusing enough.

Chips = French Fries, which we touched on this earlier. Not joking: in the freezer section of the your local grocery store, the bag that they come in still says “French Fries.” Why? Because dots…

Clothes Pegs = Clothes Pins. They call them pegs; I’m not sure why. Even if they are the spring-action type that you can also use to pinch your nose closed when changing a dirty nappy. This one drives my husband’s Nanny C. up the wall when I use the “American” term for them.

Correction liquid/tape = White Out. American brand name for the fail!

Courgette = Zucchini.

Crisps = Chips. Also pretty obvious, but we’ll cover it anyway. But this is almost exclusively for the potato variety; occasionally you will see “Tortilla Chips.” Rest assured, they’re exactly as you might expect. Also, I observe that most crunchy, salty snacks that come in single-serving packets get called this co-lingually; whereas I would know them probably better by the the brand name (i.e.: “Cheetos”), why? Because dots…

Dinner/Supper/Tea = Last meal of the day, either dinner or supper. Best as I can figure “Tea” for a meal is had when it is after the LARGEST meal of the day, which is in line with old American English which had Dinner as the biggest meal served at noonish (making it Lunch by today’s standards).

Dual Carriageway = divided Highway. A highway WITH the median separating the two sides of the road.

Dummy = Pacifier. Understanding this one takes etymology. They mean dummy as in a stand-in/substitute for something else, a fake in short. In this case, I suspect it’s standing in for a bottle/breast. Pacifier, really is just American ingenuity at it’s best: taking verbs (“to pacify”) and using them as nouns.

Envelope/Wallet = Can be real envelope, but both seem to be a general terms for anything that can be used to hold a certain amount of paper, not to be confused with a Billfold.

(the) Estate = Section 8 Housing. Okay, technically speaking, that isn’t completely correct, but it’s the closest thing that I know of in the States. It’s a bunch of flats/houses that are owned/paid for by the government for those with limited income to live. Section 8, is really a subsidy programme to off-set the cost of renting… blah, blah, blah.

Fag = Cigarette. Mentioned this already.

Fairy Liquid = Dishwashing liquid. It’s a brand name, okay? Moving on…

Fairy lights = Christmas/Holiday lights. This one only makes sense once you realise that it is actually rather common for people in the UK to have these things strung up and decorating the inside of their house all year long (like, on a bookshelf or around the pipes from the radiator or something) in a completely non-festive way. It’s just atmospheric lighting.

Fanny = Vagina, got it? Carry on.

Flannel = wash cloth; the kind you take into the bath with you.

Flap Jack = Cereal bar/breakfast bar. Not to be confused with a cookie (and Minnesotans know the difference). What the British call a Flap Jack is a bar derived mostly from grains and sugar in one form or another.

Flat/Apartment = Apartment. Note: context matters. A person can “have a flat tyre,” in the UK as well.

Gammon = Pork roast. One thing to note: The British like to keep the rind on their pork and to let it crisp up really good in the oven (they call it “Crackling” and it’s a noun, not a verb).

Garden = Yard/garden. Garden in the UK appears to be a catch-all term for any bit of landscaped piece of property, even when all it contains is manicured grass (see: all lawn).

Give Way = Yield; this is mostly seen on road signs, but it can be heard on occasion.

Hire/To Let = Rent/hire. In the UK, they also use the term to rent as well, however it is not as common as these two. You will “hire” a van for move, but when you’re looking for a place to rent to live, you are searching “Lettings” or seeing a “letting agent” and most signs advertising places available will say “To Let.”

Hoover = Vacuum. Hoover? HOOVER? Remember what I said about brand names? Yeah, this is one where the Brits botched it. Proof that neither side of the pond is safe.

Loo/Bog/Lavatory/Water Closet = Bathroom/restroom; can specifically mean toilet + sink. Sometimes, just means toilet (the British can be real pikers sometimes, I tell you…) and the sink is in a completely different part of the building (try not to think about it); this is partly due to the fact that a large proportion of the houses in the UK were retro-fitted with plumbing and they had to fit it however they could. The results of that are sometimes cringe-worthy, as I am sure you can imagine.

Lorry = Truck, not specifically for the 18-wheel variety, but when they say lorry, it’s a bit bigger than a SUV (sport utility vehicle) or Van. Just assume that, if its blocking your way on the road and happens to be carrying cargo of any sort, it’s a lorry.

Lunch/Dinner = Lunch. Yes, it’s confusing. As far as I can tell, Lunch is a normal sized meal in the UK whereas Dinner (when served at noonish) is typically bigger.

Napkin/Serviette = Napkin. Note: Serviette is a FRENCH word that means the same thing. Fair warning, if you use it, you run the major risk of looking like a duche that’s trying to be suave by using foreign words – according to Watching The English by Kate Fox that, Given how classist the UK can be, only wannabe-affluent types use Serviette. The socially inclusive word is “napkin.”

Nappy = Diaper. Can also mean a spit-up rag. I will assume this is a throwback from the times when cloth diapers were in fashion and they pulled double-duty.

Pancake = Crepe. I don’t care what the natives say (they do love to argue why this isn’t a crepe, so if you ever want to irritate an Englishman, you now have the perfect ammunition), the recipes are identical and the method of serving is more or less the same as well. See: thin batter cooked in a skillet and served with lemon+sugar on top and/or with a some kind of filling.

Pants = Underpants, underwear, panties, tightie-whities, boxers… you get the idea. Anything except, you know, PANTS.

Plaster = Band-aid/adhesive bandages. Americans; the Brits probably have this one right. 90% of the time, we use the brand name for this do-dad. Pro-tip: if you use a brand name for an object, you’re probably wrong.

Pork Scratchings = Fried Pork Skins.

Rubber = Eraser. Do not confuse yourself by thinking this is in any way related to the American “rubber” which, we will note, is a CONDOM (what an awkward conversation that would be…).

Schedule = Schedule. Okay, they mean the same thing, but it needs to be noted that (in caps for emphasis) THE BRITISH PRONOUNCE IT WRONG. Yes, “sch” is typically of German oragin, however this word is actually Greek – see: Latin – and because of that, it is “Skedule” not “Shedule.”

Scheme = Programme/plan. Typically, you will hear this one used in reference to specific government ideas (example: “Back-to-work Scheme”). Side-note: occasionally, like “Schedule” this one, too, will be pronounced incorrectly in the UK; try not to wince every time you hear it, okay? But don’t hate on them too badly, it isn’t their fault – they’re only saying it the way the French taught them (so says the Online Etymology Dictionary).

Sherbet (a fine, sugary, flavoured powder usually sold with dipping sticks) = Some sort of powdered candy.

Sorbet/Flavoured Ice = Sherbet/Sorbet; a frozen fruit juice+sugar dessert.

Shiver (of an object) = Sliver. A SHIVER of wood, a SHIVER of cake. The word shiver is also used in the UK in relation to the cold (Shivering). Perhaps surprisingly, it makes me think of an old co-worker of mine from Chicago who used to use it the same way. You know, just when you thought that this list wouldn’t have any crossovers…

Sledge = Sled. I’m thinking the Americans borrowed/stole from both the Germans/Dutch to get to this delight. Not to be confused with the German sledge (which means “to strike”), the German word “to sled” is sledde; also see the old Dutch verb meaning “to sled”: sleedse. I have no justification for the British.

Swede = Turnip.

Sweets = Candy, and it makes the hair stand on the back of their necks if you use the American word for it.

Tap = Faucet. Yes, some Americans will call it a tap as well, but most know it as a faucet. Taps, in the States, are either found outside the house so that you can easily water your lawn or at a BAR (i.e. Tap Beer).

(Cup of) Tea/Tea (meal) = Tea (a drink that is not coffee) OR, the last meal of the day (Dinner/Supper). Meals in the UK are complicated, okay?

(Garbage) Tip = (Garbage) Dump. Kind of self-explanatory, moving on…

Tissue = Tissue/Kleenex; again, that brand name issue we’ve got happening in the States is all fail. It’s facial tissue across the pond.

Trousers = Pants, i.e. slacks.

Wellies/Wellingtons = Rubber boots/Rain boots/Galoshes. Always with the brand names. I remember being most perplexed when I first went out to get a pair of these; I did not have the foggiest idea what they were and the only thing my UK family could do to describe them was say “Wellies are… wellies!” 8D ← With that exact face. It wasn’t until I saw them for myself that I was able to put another name to them.

Windowsill = Windowsill/Window Ledge. these are interchangeable words in my dictionary, but Windowsill seems to be an exclusive term in the UK for that gap of space on the inside of your windows that you sometimes (maybe, if you’re lucky) set your plant/decorative objects on.

White Goods = Appliances. More specifically, large kitchen appliances like the refrigerator and washing machine. Most often seen in advertisements for houses/apartments for rent.


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