Words & Stuff

zzz: Across the Pond

(19 December 1999)

"Everything is expensive in the UK, especially in London, but it's hard to tell because prices are listed in some kind of weird foreign money."  -- me, with tongue firmly in cheek

As has been noted often, British English and American English are quite different in many ways. Of course, that statement implies that each is a monolithic language with no internal variation, which isn't true: the range of accents and regional vocabulary in each is impressive. But there are several aspects of language that are clearly British or clearly American.

British spellings often differ from American spellings. Aside from the obvious common terms like "theatre" and "colour," British spellings less commonly seen in the US include aluminium, cheque [n.], gaol, kerb [n.], and tyre, for American aluminum, check, jail, curb, and tire respectively. In some of those cases, the pronunciations differ as well (in addition to being spoken in British accents. I was delighted when I discovered that Eeyore in a British accent would be pronounced approximately /'i O/, which is the donkey sound that in American is rendered "hee-haw." In American pronunciation the name is entirely cryptic).

British punctuation differs from American punctuation in some cases. I gather that connecting two independent clauses with a comma -- which American teachers call a "comma splice" -- is much more acceptable in the UK. British punctuation of quotations is more sensible than American: punctuation that isn't part of the quotation goes outside of the quotation marks. (In America, commas and periods at the end of a quotation go inside the quotation marks, whether or not they're part of the quotation. The Chicago Manual of Style defends this usage, but can muster only the somewhat feeble defense that Americans have been punctuating this way for a long time and it hasn't really hurt anyone. As an American, I can understand their dilemma: the American style does look right to me, and the British style looks odd, even though it's far more logical.)

British grammar differs from American grammar in some respects. For example, singular nouns which refer to a group of people (such as "team" or "government") are treated grammatically as plural: "The home team are happy to have won the match," where an American would say "The home team is happy to have won the game." Also, British people say "in hospital" where Americans would say "in the hospital," and "standing on line" where (most) Americans would say "standing in line." (Or is "on line" Canadian?)

And, of course, British vocabulary differs from American vocabulary in some cases:

The British term means, in American
advert [Australian?] ad
any road anyway
aubergine eggplant
banger sausage
biscuit cookie
bloody [an expletive]
bonnet hood (of a car)
boot trunk (of a car)
braces suspenders
brolly umbrella
chemist, chemist's pharmacist, drugstore
chips French fries
cracker [a favor wrapped in paper with twisted ends; makes a cracking noise when yanked apart]
crisps chips
draughts checkers
fag [n.] cigarette
fagged tired
fancy [v.] like
fanny female genitals
flat apartment
football soccer
gents' men's room
jelly gelatin
knackered exhausted
knickers underwear
knock up wake up
lemonade [a lemony carbonated beverage]
lift elevator
loo [old-fashioned term?] bathroom/toilet
lorry truck
mileometer odometer
nappy diaper
nick [v.] steal
nutter kook
pants underwear
petrol gas (gasoline)
pinch [v.] steal
pissed drunk
pram baby carriage
pub bar
public school private school
queue line
rellies [Australian?] relatives
rubber eraser
rubbish [literal or metaphorical, including "talking rubbish about" someone] trash
sod off [supposedly derived from "sodomite"] fuck off
solicitor lawyer/attorney
spanner wrench
spots zits
starkers naked
(the) States US/America
sultanas golden raisins
telly TV
tin [n.] can
torch flashlight
tram streetcar
treacle molasses
wank masturbate
way out exit
whinge whine
yonks ages
zed Z

There are many Web pages containing lists of British and American terms. Unfortunately, most are inaccurate on some American terms, so I don't know whether to trust them for British usage. For instance, a couple of pages mention "car" as the British word for American "auto" or "automobile" -- that's just plain silly. Americans almost always say "car," and never say "auto." Of course, I probably got several of the British terms in the above table wrong, too.

It's hard for me to tell, with some terms, what's British and what's not. I hear Americans use "roundabout" and "rotary" indiscriminately; and I hear both "luggage" and "baggage" all the time. But then again, a lot of my friends are Anglophiles who are inordinately fond of British fiction and television, notably various children's books, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python; so it's entirely possible that we all picked up these un-American words from contact with fictional British people. (And many terms are becoming common on both sides of the Atlantic.)

The most interesting terms to me are those that are used in both the US and the UK but mean different things. Biscuit, for instance, and chips. The terms most likely to lead to awkwardness or confusion are, of course, those that have a sexual meaning one place and not in the other: fanny in the US is a slightly old-fashioned term for what I gather is called one's bum in the UK. It can be entertaining to come up with questions or comments that are entirely inoffensive in one country but odd or eyebrow-raising in the other. Samuel Goldstein suggests "If you need anything, just give me a ring"; apparently in the UK that would be taken literally, not as the metaphorical US meaning of "call me on the telephone" (which in British English is "ring me up"). The best such suggestion I've seen so far came from Thida Cornes: "Can I borrow your rubber?"

Finally, there are terms that mean more or less the same thing both places but are used slightly differently. In particular, the term "toilet" in the US usually refers specifically to a commode, and is mildly off-color; it would be inappropriate to have a large sign in a US restaurant saying "TOILET." In the UK, such signs are common.

Thanks to Mary Anne Mohanraj for suggesting some of the listed terms. Here are the Web pages I used for reference material for this column (but mostly only to refresh my memory; I included very few words that I haven't personally seen or heard in British use at one time or another):

and, most usefully (even though the author seems to think we Yanks don't know what "shagged" means):

That last page also includes a pointer to a list of other UK/US dictionaries.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>