Clichés and Chestnuts: Vocabulary
Some common fallacies about British and American English
See also British and American English – 2 which treats spelling differences. These were originally different articles.
I must have listened to ten or more conference talks on British and American English. As someone who has written as many text books in American English as in British English, the differences are part of my daily existence. I’ve always denied the Oscar Wilde quote ‘The British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language’ (which chestnut incidentally was quoted in every single lecture I’ve sat through on the topic). I’ve always told students that the differences rarely cause problems, in spite of the ancient jokes … I won’t list them all, but they rely on different meanings of rubber, knock up, fag and bum for starters.
The events of Autumn (Fall) 1997 made me think again. The televised trial of the 19 year old British nanny, Louise Woodward, in Massachusetts is the case in point. She was accused of hitting the baby in her care, who subsequently died. She denied all wrong-doing, but in her testimony she said that she ‘popped the baby on the bed.’ This drew horror from the jury. In Britain it was inocuous. Why?
Consult Websters dictionary for American English. The first definition it gives is:
1) to strike or knock sharply: hit (popped him on the jaw and knocked him cold)
Then it gives:
2) to push, put or thrust suddenly (popping the berry into her mouth – Virginia Wolf)
The jury interpreted her words as ‘strike or knock sharply.’
Then we turn to The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary where we find:
pop sthg across, in, into etc (especially British) to put or take something somewhere quickly or suddenly: pop a letter into the post; She popped the tart into the oven
You see the problem? In this case it may have been a factor in the guilty verdict and life sentence. In January 2008 I saw that the verb to pop was said to be the most frequent verb employed by British doctors (according to TV personality Dr Phil Hammond). Examples:
Pop this under your tongue.
Pop two of these pills into your mouth before meals.
Just pop on the couch / scales.
Pop your pants / bra / shirt off.
Pop this gown on.
Pop behind the curtain.
Pop along to the nurse / receptionist / pharmacy.
Pop down to the X-ray department.
Pop this prescription into the chemist’s.
I’ll just pop this round your arm and take your blood pressure.
Well, that’s all. You can pop off now.
Pop in and see me next week.
Have you ever taught it? It seems pretty useful. It covers go / take / put / come.
In spite of this, there are many grey (or indeed gray) areas in the differences between British English and American English. Many of the “facts” are half-truths, which go on being perpetuated from year to year. Whenever I look at lists, so-called “British versions” aren’t at all. They’re just fifty years out of date and forms never used in the USA. They’ve largely been replaced by mid-Atlantic terms. I’m going to examine a few of the most common ones.
holiday / vacation
The received wisdom. The British have holidays. The Americans have vacations.
Better explanation: The British use only one word for the two types of event which Americans distinguish as vacations and holidays. Americans use vacation to refer to time off work, and holidays to refer to national and religious festivals. The word origin is “holy days” or religious days. So New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are holidays in America. See the Jodie Foster movie (film) Home For The Holidays.
trousers / pants
The normal explanation is that the British wear pants under their trousers, while to the Americans pants are worn over their undershorts.
Well, the British usually mean underclothes when they say pants, but the word trousers is not going to cause you any problem in North America. In reality, Americans use the two words with overlapping meanings. Two American mail order catalogues (or rather catalogs) throw up these examples in adverts:
relaxed-fit pants / side-elastic pants / tropic weight pants / climber pants / functional pants for hiking / draw-string pants
sta-prest (stay-pressed) trousers /smart trousers / tailored trousers / pleated trousers / cotton twill dress trousers / dress Chino trousers / 100% wool trousers
women’s trousers / striped trousers / solid trousers
Bayside twill pants / softspun pants with all-elastic waist / pull on pants / stirrup pants
Here’s a good explanation of the difference: You don’t take pants to the dry-cleaners. If you dry-clean them, they’re trousers. If you wash them, they’re pants. If they’re in an extremely bright colour (lime green?) they’re probably pants whatever. In other words trousers are upmarket from pants. And pants are more relaxed / casual than trousers.
You could add: if they don’t have a zipper (British: zip) they’re pants. If they do have a zipper, they could be pants or trousers. But if they have a crease, they’re probably trousers.
On the other hand, the American magazine New Woman discusses René Lazard pants at $320 and Banana Republic wool pants at $108. So perhaps it’s not that clear. Go figure.
The word pants for an outer garment is known to the British too. In the early seventies the fashion was loon pants. The British 2010 Cotton Traders mail order brochure sticks to trousers except for three-quarter length crop pants. And think about those idiomatic expressions, all of them current in Britain: beat the pants off (someone), by the seat of my pants, bore / scare the pants off (of someone), keep your pants on, to be caught with your pants down …(You could argue that they’re all even more graphic if you take the meaning as underpants).
panty-hose / tights
The old story is that the British wear tights and the Americans wear panty-hose. I was going to write ‘British women’ in the previous sentence, but let’s not be judgemental. The Americans have the richer language. Panty-hose would be made of sheer material, like nylon. If a similar one piece garment was solidly-coloured (or colored), especially if it was made of a thicker, non-transparent material for dancing classes or Shakesperean acting or for aerobics, then it’s tights. Or they could be wearing thicker footless leggings in both countries.
While we’re discussing women’s undergarments (Ed: Be careful. This is a respectable publication ), let’s look at the word knickers. When I was at school, knickers were navy blue, voluminous, and the girls used to tuck their skirts in them when doing handstands. (Ed: Where is this going? ) Pants or panties was the more adult word. In my state school in my home town, Bournemouth, knickers were exclusively female. In the early sixties, Bournemouth football club resided in the Third Division (South) and so did Southampton. In Bournemouth’s weekly football programme, the team’s outfit was described as:
red shirts, white shorts
In Southampton’s programme (a mere thirty miles along the coast), the outfit was described as:
red and white striped shirts, black knickers
How we used to laugh on our excursions to Southampton. We used to chant from the terraces, Who’s wearing knickers? as Southampton took to the pitch. Nevertheless, Bournemouth lost one game by 7-0. I’ve since discovered that knickers is a regional (and upper class) word for men’s undershorts. Definitely not where I lived! But I remember a friend from London (independent school education) telling me that he had to buy himself some new knickers. I was shocked, assuming that he was intending to buy something pink and frilly. In March 2011 Jeremy Clarkson complained in his Sunday Times column about laundry lists never having the word knickers on them under “Men” (public school education). In America, knickers can refer to knickerbocker trousers (loose fitting knee length pants for sports and informal wear by men and boys). The second meaning is pants for women or girls, such as bloomers with fullness gathered at the knee (which is exactly what we called this garment in Bournemouth) or ‘chiefly British;’ underpants.
In the end, hotel laundry lists are the best guide to current usage. For women’s under garments we find panties on the vast majority of both British and American laundry lists.
Beware all books on the subject. A small book called American English English American (Abson, London 2009) tells us the Americans say underwear and the British say smalls. Rubbish. It’s not been true in my lifetime. We’ve always said underwear in Britain to my knowledge. Smalls sounds as if it comes from an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs (set in 1912). My Welsh grandmother called underpants / panties drawers and the more capacious variety bloomers, but I’d count this as Wales / Northern England only, and pre-1939. I never heard it in the south, except jokingly.
According to the same book, Americans say jockey shorts / shorts and the British say briefs. Not in my memory. The more capacious and airy men’s undergarment in Britain is called boxer shorts or more likely boxers. Then there are Y-fronts. Briefs would be the tiniest male garment.
vests and suspenders
An American dressed in vest and suspenders is pretty formal. The British would say he was wearing a waistcoat and holding his trousers up with braces. Transfer it to Britain, and a guy wearing a vest with suspenders sounds like a politician caught in an extremely compromising situation by a tabloid newspaper, because a vest is what Americans call an undershirt, and suspenders are a garter belt, or garters. In the early 50s British men still wore suspenders to keep their socks up too, but improved elastication around 1960 rendered male suspenders redundant a few years before female suspenders became restricted to the likes of Victoria’s Secret stores rather than everyday garments.
vest (UK) and suspender belt (UK) – actually both are from a “knitted art” exhibit.
Allegedly, America has raincoat and Britain has mackintosh. To me, a mackintosh is something waterproofed by rubberising, in beige or navy with a belt that Jennings wore to private school in 1950s children’s books. I’d say raincoat in Britain today, but mac has survived, but only in abbreviation. However, mac collocates strongly with plastic … a plastic mac. It’s something you can fold up and keep in the car boot (trunk) in case of sudden rain. Raincoats are still sometimes called macs in the UK, but not mackintoshes.
Hi-Heel Sneakers by Tommy Tucker, 45 rpm single
The obvious. The British wear trainers. Americans wear sneakers. But sneakers also covers plimsolls, which are canvas and flimsier than trainers (or running shoes). Lists say the British said pumps, but while I recall Welsh relatives and a Yorkshire gym teacher saying pumps, we always said plimsolls in the south.
The other listed one is wellingtons UK) and galoshes(US). I have my doubts about an Atlantic divide. Wellington boots are rubber or PVC and stop below the knee. The American brand Hunters (alo known in the UK) is used generically increasingly, and Hunters say they sell wellington boots. They also discuss Hunters wellies on their US website. In Britain we talk about the green wellie brigade. That is people who adopt rural garb such as Barbour jackets, long tweed skirts, corduroy trousers, tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, soft checked shirts and green wellies etc as a fashion choice. I once saw a rather snooty couple in green wellies and Barbours applying mud via an aerosol artfully to their Land Rover in a Chelsea car park. Note, it was a Land Rover as used by farmers, not a shiny Range Rover.
On shoes in general, what the British consider specialist shoe trade vocabulary is on general use in the USA. Just as the Eskimos allegedly had many so words for snow, so do Americans sub-divide the simple shoe. Linguists say the dozens of words for snow is an urban legend (but the Sami people of Lapland do have many words for snow.)
brogues, loafers, wingtips, Oxfords, monk straps, monk shoes, wholecuts are all somewhat arcane in Britain, where most British male friends could distinguish sandals and moccasins as different varieties of shoe, but would be content with shoe otherwise. With or without laces would serve for the rest. And anyway, most people wear trainers. moccasin would not just be a soft indoor shoe, but would cover an outdoor loafer too. We loaf about, but we don’t have loafers to loaf about in.
Talking of Oxfords, loafers and brogues in normal conversation would have people think of you as Bertie Wooster in 1922, another dedicated follower of fashion, or a shoe salesmen.
British babies stick (sometimes literally) to nappies. American babies wear diapers. This is an unusually rigid vocabulary divide, and people don’t cross it. In America nappy hair is kinky hair, which some African-Americans have.
When mothers stick a piece of nipple-shaped plastic in a baby’s mouth, they call it a dummy in Britain. This is not because it makes you look dumb, nor like a tailor’s dummy. It’s because it’s a ‘dummy nipple’ i.e. an imitation. It also might render the baby dumb in the older sense of mute, quiet. This is the effect Americans seek: peace. So baby gets a pacifier.
A shiny, sprung, large wheeled Silver Cross conveyance in America is grandly a baby carriage. In Britain, it’s a pram, short for perambulator, a word only used in full by professional nannies in the 1920s.
For many years, older infants travelled in a pushchair in Britain, and a stroller in America.Buggy was potentially more elaborate, covering prams, pushchairs and the early hybrids of both. It started as American but became Trans-Atlantic.
The issue is much less clear-cut now. Everyone has hybrid folding devices serving as pram, pushchair, car-seat, crib and portable baskets. They need to be put in cars. The Mothercare website calls them pram / pushchair. The Mamas and Papas website has the section heading pushchairs and calls them buggy / strollers. Whichever, they require a slash punctuation to emphasize their multi-role capability. One role is trapping adult fingers painfully.
After perambulating or strolling, British babies slumber in a cot. American babies sleep in a crib. The British use crib for expensive wooden cots for newborns too, and in Nativity plays, the baby Jesus is always in a crib.
For Americans a cot is a canvas bed on a folding metal frame. Soldiers sleep on cots. British soldiers, deceived into thinking war is a jolly camping expedition, sleep on camp beds.
curtains / drapes
The Oxford Photo Dictionary tells us that the word is curtains, (US: drapes). The Oxford Advanced Learners tells us that drape is a countable noun, usually plural and is US, meaning ‘long curtains.’
Back to an American mail order catalog(ue) from J.C. Penney. The word drapes doesn’t appear, though such catalogues need to be formal and exact in their wording. Anyway, they prefer draperies. We find:
window coverings (general heading)
lined pole-top draperies / loop top draperies / antique satin draperies / tab-top draperies / center-draw draperies / drapery width / damask draperies
window curtains (41 or 45 inches) / shower curtain / curtain rods / shower curtain rings / matching shower and window curtains
In Britain you used to buy your curtains at a drapers and British adverts feature floor length drapes more commonly than floor length curtains.
80% of American homes were built after 1945 (and 50% of the offices and malls date from post-1980). This might help to explain the difference. 1950s and 1960s houses had floor-to-ceiling windows, and therefore floor length drapes. The older British housing stock did not have so many floor-to-ceiling windows, and as below the window is the normal place for a radiator, the British had less use for floor length drapes. If drapes are longer than curtains (which is what I believe) then Americans had more drapes than curtains because of their architecture.
post / mail
The British have: postbox, post office, postman, mailbag, first class post, The Royal Mail, mail train, airmail, e-mail, to post a letter, to mail someone, mail order (catalogue), postal order (for sending money), post codes
British prisoners were always reputed to spend their time sewing mailbags, even though the word postbag also exists.
The Americans have: mailbox, mailman, mailbag, express mail, postcard, parcel post, The U.S. Post Office, postage stamp, postal service, postage meter, postage due, postage paid, e-mail, to mail a letter, to mail someone, ZIP codes. And who can forget that classic sixties American rock single by The Marvelettes, Please, Mr Postman (later covered by The Beatles.) Or Buddy Holly’s classic Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues. Or Elvis Presley’s Return to Sender which begins, ‘I gave a letter to the postman. He put it in his sack.’ Later in his career he recorded U.S. Male but perhaps the punning title is irrelevant. The non gender-marked version in the US is letter carrier, which is not known in Britain. In more recent years the term disgruntled postal worker in the USA suggests someone about to go on the rampage and committ mass murder.
The U.S. published Frommer’s Guide to Washington advises us to use the postal code or ZIP (Zone Improvement Plan) Code when sending mail from the main post office opposite Union Station.
My British web-server was called mailbox, and in many e-mail programs (no, both British and Americans use program for computers, though the British use programme for TV and radio) there is a mailbox.
rubber / eraser
We’re back to well-worn, over-used jokes. There was a long routine by the British comedian Jasper Carrot, who described his adventures when he tried to buy a rubber in California. This involved a series of problems, (You don’t need a stationer, you need a drugstore) exacerbated when he said, ‘I only want a little rubber. I’ve only got a small pencil.’
(British: rubber = eraser / American: rubber = condom). This joke was so widespread, probably due to endless TV repeats, as well as a hit comedy album, that everyone in Britain knows it. For example, in November 2010, the Graham Norton chat show in Britain (BBC1) had two Americans, Joan Rivers and Johnny Knoxville, as guests. Norton was asking the audience about mishaps, and a young lady said she’d once got a rubber stuck up her nose. Mild amusement from the British audience, we all know that children get pencil erasers stuck in extremities. Rivers and Knoxville were in paroxysms of shocked laughter. Rivers is never one to wait for a double entendre when a single will do the job, and I wouldn’t discount a set-up. Norton is funny, but crude. But the British audience immediately caught on. Everyone knew what they were laughing at, and the young lady immediately said she meant eraser. In fact the funniest bit wasn’t crude at all. She said her brother put it there and told her not to move it or she’d erase her memory.
A British mail order stationery catalogue (Viking Direct ) now advertises pencil erasers. They are the best-known make, Helix, and have eraser stamped on them. They also advertise refillable erasers, pencils with erasers, pencil cap erasers (made of rubber). In a British coursebook we had pictures of stationery items, and after visiting the best-known High Street stationers, W.H. Smith, we realised the word was now eraser not rubber. I suspect that Jasper Carrot more or less single-handedly removed the word rubber from the British vocabulary. Perhaps the verb rub out (1. to erase. 2. = murder) indicates a time when both used a rubber to erase things.
pop / soda / soft-drink
When I was a kid in England in the 1950s we used to buy pop to drink. This might have been Cream Soda or Cherryade or Orangeade or Lemonade, or by the early 1960s even Coca-Cola or Fanta. When I was ill, I was prescribed soda water (though goodness knows to what purpose). When I first went to Canada in the 1980s I was surprised to see pop on sale. It was a word I hadn’t used (or even heard very often) for more than twenty years. Although ‘American English’ usually encompasses both US and Canadian varieties, there are some significant British English survivals in Canadian speech and spelling. I’ve subsequently learned that the word pop crosses the U.S. border and is also known in the Mid-West areas bordering Canada. So pop / soda can be thought of as regional variations within North America. Where I’ve spent most time in the USA, in Florida and California, it’s always been soda. In Britain I would have described pop as an archaic word, confined to the conciously-retro pages of Beano and Dandy children’s comics. The best British everyday word is soft-drink. However some devilish entrepeneur invented alcopops or, variously, alchopops, that is alchoholic lemonade. The first brand, Hooch, hit Britain from Australia in 1995. The word alcopop now describes any alchoholic version of what used to be a soft drink. Alcopops have had considerable media coverage, as the government have been concerned that they encourage teenage drinking.
elevator / lift / escalator
This one is consistent. Both use escalator for a moving stairway. Americans call the box that goes up and down in a building (which is the safest form of transport in the world judging on miles covered) an elevator, the British call it a lift. In the USA, a lift is what vertically-challenged men place in their shoes. Elevator would always be understood in Britain.
petrol / gas
Our first video was A Weekend Away. In it, an American called Gary took a group of British people on a trip by minibus (van) to Oxford. One story concerned the minibus (van) running out of petrol (gas). Later, in Japan, I was asked by an American why a British actor had played Gary. I explained that the actor, Matt Zimmerman, was American and was from Chicago. They then asked why he’d talked about petrol in the video. Gary was living and working in England in the story. I asked Matt on location whether he would say petrol or gas when speaking to British people. Matt was absolutely clear. When he’s in Britain, he says petrol and so do all the other Americans he knows. He’s right. When I’m in America, I always say gas. It’s a natural adjustment and saves explanation or discussion.
But remember that the expression step on the gas is universally understood in Britain, and that driving instructors almost universally describe the right hand foot pedal in a car as a gas pedal rather than the perceived British English accelerator.
On the other hand, Americans get gas after a heavy meal. The British get wind.
lorry / van / truck / minibus / MPV / People Carrier
One of the best character names in Streamline English was the Dutchman Laurie van Truck. We were heavily influenced in our choice of names by Private Eye magazine.
Sign UK, 2010 … but not an official road sign
A small vehicle for goods delivery is a van in Britain, a truck in America.
A Renault Espace/ Ford Galaxy / VW Sharan / Chrysler Voyager / Pontiac TranSport is a people carrier or MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) in British motor magazines. In America it’s often a van or minivan, though we used to call our own people carrier ‘the van’ sometimes and ‘the minibus’ other times. We called it other things on other occasions too, though I won’t mention them here. A lot of British people would call it a minibus (though strictly speaking a people carrier has up to eight seats. You need extra insurance for more than eight seats, and I think it then becomes a minibus.)
Sign, Phoenix, Arizona. “Turn around” would be “turning” or “turn round” in the UK
They don’t mean ‘minivans’ which would have no problem turning (a)round.
A big delivery vehicle, especially one with more than two axles, is a truck in America. Unless it’s designed for furniture removal in which case it’s a moving van in the US, and a furniture van in Britain. Even if it’s very large.
But is the word lorry really dominant in Britain? It is according to the textbooks, though not according to the people who drive them. British lorry drivers prefer to call their vehicles trucks and prefer to call themselves truck drivers – just look at any HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle) magazines. I think this has something to do with mythology. American truckers built up a mythology in the 1970s with CB radio (Citizen’s Band Radio) and trucker’s songs like C.W. McCall’s Convoy. That myth appeals to British drivers, and lorry is beginning to sound quaint, like ‘a red lorry and a yellow lorry’ in a children’s first reader. Several low-level frequency counts for graded readers in the UK include lorry but not truck. I’d go for truck but not lorry.
4 x 4 / 4WD / SUV
Don’t take rented off-road SUVs off-road. Sedona, Arizona
Also known in England disparagingly as Chelsea Tractors (i.e. farm vehicles only seen on chic urban streets) or Off-Roaders. The British prefer the term Four by Four or Four Wheel Drive, always abbreviated in print, while the Americans prefer SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle). These are so ubiquitous that I counted 27 vehicles in an Arizona hotel parking lot (GB: car park) and 26 were either SUV’s or Pickups. I can’t see what’s sporty about them from a British mindset where sports bring to mind motor racing, football (soccer) and tennis, but to an American mindset sport probably conjours up hunting and fishing. When hiring (renting) an SUV off-roader in the USA, examine the small print in your rental contract. It usually excludes driving off-road vehicles off-road.
chips / crisps / French fries
Thin dry snacks made from potato are crisps in Britain, but chips in the USA. The British word chips refers to hot fried chipped potatoes, what the Americans call French fries. But look at supermarket freezer cabinets in Britain. Long thin chips are invariably labelled French fries, just as they are in MacDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken or Burger King outlets in Britain. You also see American fries, oven fries and oven-ready fries in your local Tesco or Sainsburys. The word chips is reserved for thicker, fatter chipped potatoes, such as Harry Ramsden’s chips (named after the chain of fish ’n’ chip restaurants) or Tesco’s steak chips or Young’s Fish ’n’ chip shop chips. So French Fries exist in Britain. If you order chips at MacDonald’s they will invariably say, ‘French fries?’ My kids order fries. More upmarket restaurants have never had chips or French fries on their menus, preferring French fried potatoes or chipped potatoes.
fries (left) chips (right)
crisps in Britain
In Britain, tomato ketchup is the choice to put on fries. Malt vinegar and salt is what fish ‘n’ chip shops provide for chips.
A sign that makes you look twice: Poole High Street, UK
On the other hand, Fish ’n’ Chips appear on Canadian fast food counters, and I’ve seen Fish ’n’ Chips in the USA as well, usually in food courts in malls. When linked with fish, this will mean British-style chips.
jam / jelly
This is another case where misunderstanding will only be very temporary. We’re talking about preserves. Let’s do Britain first. Preserves with fruit, pectin and sugar are jam. If it’s got more fruit content, it’s sold as extra jam and if it’s got lots and lots of fruit, it’s a preserve. Strawberry preserve costs a lot more than strawberry jam and comes with a fancier label on the jar. You can get apple jelly and mint jelly, and in both cases it’s smoother with no bits in it.
In the USA, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is popular and leads to the assumption that jam (UK) = jelly (US). Not really. The US Food & Drug Administration equates the word preserve and the word jam. Both contain fruit pulp and / or seeds. In legal terms, jelly doesn’t contain seeds and pulp. So there’s not much difference in meaning. Ah, but in US supermarkets you find lots of smooth jellies made from soft fruit on sale, with grape jelly a favourite / favorite. In British supermarkets nearly all these soft fruit concoctions contain bits of pulp and seed. So a lot of the stuff on sale in the USA is jelly, where nearly all of the similar flavoured (flavored) stuff on sale in Britain is a jam. Not meaning, but availability.
jelly in Britain
If you say jelly in Britain, you mean a wobbly set gelatine thing on a plate or in a dish as a dessert, usually for kids. In the USA it’s more commonly jello, or according to the manufacturers averse to generic use of their brand name, Jell-O. The Jell-O brand wasn’t important in Britain where Chivers and Rowntrees were the main jelly manufacturers, so the brand name never became generic. jelly beans are an American confection, rarely seen in Britain before the 1990s.Now they’re often called American jelly beans.
In the case of petroleum jelly, the brand name Vaseline is used in both generically.
A cake rolled with preserve is a Swiss roll in Britain, a jelly roll in America. A jelly roll to a blues singer is an altogether more interesting sexual activity.
In Britain, to be jammy is to be lucky, and I’d say there’s a hint of ‘undeservedly lucky.’ It probably dates back to where the poor ate bread. The slightly better-off had butter on their bread, and the more comfortable had jam on it.
So if your dumb pal wins the lottery, you might say ‘you jammy sod!’ (that’s friendly in the UK) or ‘you jammy bugger’ (also friendly … I don’t know why the British use sodomy and buggery as the basis for friendly terms, and it’s probably best not investigated too far.)
movie / film
This has caused problems. The everyday American word is movies, and that’s what you’d find in a movie guide. You usually see movies at a movie theater, in the USA but some like to call themselves by the British word cinema and the majority spell it theatre on their signs (see British & American English-2). The word film is by no means unknown, but would more likely be applied to foreign-language films or a few art-house films. You’d never see words like Western or Sci-Fi or Blockbuster linked with film. The British stick to film. Movies can be heard, but sounds consciously American. Except that Western does have a connection with movies (The Olympics had a 1960’s pop hit with Western Movies – ‘My baby likes Western movies …’).
garden / yard
There are cases where the difference is more fixed: garden / yard or backyard behind a domestic property is one. Yard and backyard are known in Britain, but a yard is downmarket. Terraced houses in Coronation Street have a backyard. Anything slightly greener, even if no larger, is a garden. There is a regional difference with yard more common in the north. A collocation with yard is builder’s yard on commercial premises. In the south of England certainly, a yard is likely to be concrete, not soil or grass.
On the other hand, garden is known and used in the US, but is either a limited area as in rose garden (I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden as the song has it, or as another song has it An English Country Garden) or a larger attraction, such as Busch Gardens in Florida. An English garden behind a small urban dwelling sounds slightly pretentious to an American who imagines something more cultivated and elaborate. A square of lawn behind an urban dwelling is a backyard. A garden is an area of cultivation (of flowers, vegetables, herbs or fruit) which may be contained within this. There is no difference in concept, only a difference in the perception of what merits the term garden. Websters considers that areas consisting of shrubbery and lawn around a domestic building are yards.
zuchinni/ courgette, eggplant / aubergine
It’s easy enough with these vegetables. Americans prefer the Italian term, zuchinni, the British prefer the French courgette. As this vegetable is a member of the marrow family it’s odd that the old English word is rejected by both. With the purple vegetable, the British love of culinary French asserts itself once more, while the Americans use the original English word eggplant. This can be found in old English recipe books (take twenty pounds of eggplants, a large shin of beef and three pounds of lard …) but as the vegetable was rare in Britain until the 1960s the French word aubergine was able to take over in normal use. It’s what you see on labels in supermarkets. In spite of the popularity of Italian recipes, the word zuchinni is rarely used in Britain. I have seen it on Italian menus. I don’t think the French terms have any currency in the USA beyond French restaurants.
cars and automobiles
Fender on the Chevy Bel-Air on the left, bumper on the Mini on the right? Or not?
The belief that Americans say automobiles and the British say cars is persistent. The British motoring organisations are the AA, or Automobile Association and the RAC or Royal Automobile Club. Car seems to be the everyday word in British and American English. Automobile is rare and archaic in Britain, but still used in the USA, though less frequently than car. Cars and trains were developed when Britain and the USA had long since lost their political ties, but when the Atlantic was still a six day crossing. New words were needed and evolved separately. Therefore we have bonnet / hood, silencer / muffler, boot / trunk, gear stick / gearshift, manual gears / stick shift, windscreen / windshield, jump leads / jumper cables. The words remain transparent. Headgear was the source of both bonnet and hood. The British habit of applying female pronouns to ships, and subsequently cars leads to the word for a woman’s hood being preferred. Both knew they wanted protection from the wind, though the British thought of it as a screen and the Americans a shield. The British optimistically hoped that they could silence an engine. The Americans more realistically thought the best you could do was muffle the noise. Some books quote bumper / fender as another divide, but my American photo dictionary calls the item a bumper too. A minor accident in the USA is a fender bender but Americans are fond of placing bumper stickers on their cars. In Britain you attach a number plate to a car. In the USA it’s a license plate.
Few of these differences would cause lack of comprehension, but if you said trunk the British would think of a large box for storing luggage, such as a cabin trunk. I also found that saying ‘Does this key open the boot as well?’ was mystifying to US car rental employees. Because of the effect of American movies, the British would be more likely to understand the American version than vice-versa.
If you park on private land, you might get clamped in Britain by clampers with a wheel clamp. This item is known as a Denver boot in the USA, after the city which first introduced it.
Toilets / Restrooms
Poole, UK & Disney California Experience, Anaheim
These are the bog standard (sorry) words in British and American English. Various snooty British writers in the 50s and 60s considered toilet to be a disliked lower middle-class euphemism for lavatory, but as both toilet and lavatory mean a place where you wash, I can’t see that one is any more euphemistic than the other. It all goes back to a dreadful book called Noblesse Oblige written by arch-snob Nancy Mitford in the 1950s. The terms “U” and “Non-U” were coined by linguist Alan Ross to mark upper class speech (what we now call advanced-RP) from standard English (RP). The terms were grabbed by Mitford, who thought of them as U for Us and Non-U for “them”. She listed U-terms such as lavatory, scent and napkin, as opposed to non-U terms like toilet, perfume or serviette. In general basic English or Latin-derived words were held to be U, while French-derived words like toilet , perfume and serviette were disliked. Don’t ask why. I never understood it either. But I’m definitely non-U.
Due to the complexities of British class perception, the aristocracy and working class often share the same vocabulary, such as pudding rather than the middle class dessert. When I was a kid (in a lower middle class / working class school), working class kids were told off for saying lavvy (lavatory) by middle-class teachers and made to say toilet. I know the aristocracy prefer lavatory. I don’t. I’ve been told off.
Whatever, the overwhelming majority of signs say toilet. It’s very rare to see a sign saying lavatory, and when you do it’s ancient, and it’s been replaced by a more modern one. The other pompous British municipal sign is public conveniences. Toilet signing is an area of ingenuity and originality in many places. Taking photos of signs attracts very funny looks. Just make sure no one is going in or coming out.
sign, Warminster, Wiltshire, UK
old sign, Bridport, Dorset, UK
plethora of modern signs, just around the corner, Bridport, Dorset, UK
In America the overwhelming majority is for restroom on signs, though in speech bathroom competes, followed a long way behind by washroom. I find bathroom confusing in British houses which often have a separate toilet and bathroom. “So which do you want? The bathroom or the toilet?” a British host might ask.
Internationally, if I was going to teach just one word for maximum recognition, I’d opt for restroom.
Christchurch, UK, but uncommon in Britain
The estate agent (US realtor) word in Britain is W.C. for water closet. That’s what you invariably see on a house plan. WC is favoured on street signs because of its economy of space. It has the advantage of being the same initials on signs in German-speaking countries.
WC sign, Bridport, UK, a mere 50 yards from the other signs
In the USA you will see men’s room and women’s room. In Britain, it will just be MEN and WOMEN. The preference for Ladies and Gentlemen , or Ladies and Gents is British.
Elaborate signs in Salisbury, UK
In genteel Bournemouth it was always Ladies and Gentlemen. I found the signs Men and Women impolite when I left!
sign, Norwich, UK
The sign in Norwich saying Male Toilets and Female Toilets is unusual, and sounds a bit too scientific.
sign, Los Angeles, USA & Kyoto, Japan
In informal use, American’s use the john. The British never do. The term loo was more likely to be used by British women than men thirty years ago. Nowadays I hear both sexes using it almost equally. Presumably it’s from l’eau for water, but possibly a joke on Waterloo.
Signs in Christchurch, UK. Boys and Girls look silly in an adult restaurant, and it’s unusual to see “loo” in print.
The archly euphemistic powder room for a ladies’ restroom is used more in the USA, though I’m just going to powder my nose is British (but definitely old-fashioned), as is I’m just going to wash my hands or the pre-decimal currency originated (i.e. pre-1970) female I’m just going to spend a penny. It’s exclusively female. Women’s toilets used to cost one penny, and men’s urinals were free, though closets cost a penny. Nowadays, the silver metal unisex individual toilets installed in town centre car parks cost 20p (or 45 old pennies). The little boys’ room or little girls’ room sounds arch from anyone over the age of ten.
The filthy fibreglass reeking boxes stuck in a field, which you might be forced to use in desperation at a rock festival, on a building site, or perhaps at the county agricultural show, depending on your social circle, is a Portaloo in Britain, but a porta potty in the USA. The infantilization implied by porta potty is presumably considered humorous. Portaloo is one of those trademark issues where the Portaloo company (part of Portakabin) is fighting a losing battle to stop generic use (cf. “to hoover”). Hence it should have a capital P and should not be used to refer to other makes. But it is.
Once we were filming at Glastonbury Tor. I arrived to park about 6 a.m. and a truck with the Portaloo for the video shoot crew trundled into the lay-by next to me. I was chatting to the driver, and we established that we had both driven up from Bournemouth. ‘Didn’t you know,’ he said, ‘That Bournemouth is the Portaloo capital of Southern England?’ A lot of people don’t know that.
Schoolkid English was usually the bog (see the first sentence!). In Dorset, a popular sign on pub toilets was Yere Tiz (Here it is). The jokey signs in bars ‘Knights and Damsels’ or ‘Lords and Ladies’ or ‘Cavaliers and Ladies’ are not the sign of a great pub in my experience. Possibly the worst was in Frome in Somerset, Maids and Lads Privies. Equally irritating are signs in French, Italian (beloved of pizza places) or Spanish (tapas bars.) Signs in Welsh, Gaelic or Cornish are political statements rather than necessary directions.
tramps, bums, hoboes, tarts, hookers and fannies
William & The Tramp by Richmal Crompton, children’s book, 1952
The British know the American sense of the words. The Lady Is A Tramp and Only a Hobo are well-known songs. A hobo (US) is a tramp in Britain, because they used to tramp (on foot) from place to place, sleeping rough. A tramp is quite particular. You wouldn’t call any beggar a tramp. Tramps in the old-fashioned sense aren’t seen much. Like the hobo, they’re really a character from the depression era. They were still a regular sight in the 1950s / early 1960s. There are a few traditional tramps left, but not many. Tramps had a system of signals chalked on gates to show the likelihood of getting food or a few hours work. Tramps didn’t stand in the street with their hands out, not did they sit on a blanket outside a shop with a mangy dog and a sign saying “hungry.”
A bum in Britain is the part of the body you sit on, the buttocks, hence the expression (and book) Does my bum look big in this? which is much used on female shopping exhibitions.
The American bum or panhandler is known enough for the British to talk about bumming a cigarette (asking for one free), which forty years ago would have been cadging a cigarette. When the Americans say fanny they mean buttocks. The British mean by fanny what comedian Dawn French euphemistically calls the “front bottom” for females. So that’s one best not confused. Words for ‘women of easy virtue’ are best not used at all, as they’re generally crudely pejorative rather than job descriptions. But a tart in England was originally a pastry enclosing sweetened fruit or jam (US jelly). Thinking of double meanings of jelly in blues song, it’s probable that tart applied to a woman in Britain is derived from the dessert item. It’s more general than a job description for a prostitute. People can talk about tarty eye-make up, and not necessarily with disapproval: I’ve just bought some really tarty eye shadow.
Hooker is a job description in the USA, but one not used in Britain until recent years. I knew its American use, but it wasn’t one that sprang to my mind until I Googled old friends who shared a surname with the philosopher Thomas Hooker, and was astonished at what websites turned up. In Britain, hooker is a playing position in rugby football.
All photographs of signs by Peter Viney