Divided by a Common Language

Divided by a Common Language

When we moved to England from America, I didn’t expect any problems with the language.  After all, English is my mother tongue.  What a surprise then, when I found out that British English and American English can be very different, often using the same word to mean two different things.


Clothing is one area where this is apparent.  Let’s start with undergarments, something Americans visiting Britain often mention without meaning to:

Clothing - Divided by a Common Language

Americans wear underwear under their pants while Brits wear pants under their trousers.  It can be embarrassing for an American to mention that they got their new pants on sale and then to realise that people think they are talking about their underwear.

An American wears an undershirt under his shirt (hence the name) to keep him warm, while a Brit wears a vest under his shirt for added warmth.

An American prefers to wear his vest over his shirt to look sharp, but a Brit wears a waistcoat over his shirt to look smart.

An American woman might wear garters to hold up her stockings, but a British woman would use suspenders.

American men wear suspenders to hold up their pants but British men wear braces to hold up their trousers.

Americans put braces on their teeth to straighten them and Brits do too, but hopefully not the same ones that hold up their trousers.

An American baby wears diapers and has a pacifier in his mouth, but a British baby wears nappies and has a dummy in his mouth.

Buildings - Divided by a Common Language

Around the House

Even around the house there can be communication problems.  In one of the apartments (flats) we lived in, there was a leak in the kitchen and I called the landlord to report that water was leaking around the faucet.
-Just around the bottom of the faucet.
-And where is the faucet?
-Well, it is on the sink (where else would a faucet be?)
-Ohhh,  you must mean the tap.
-Well, yes, I guess so.

-An American gets water from the faucet, stores food in a cabinet, and cooks it on a burner on top of the stove.
-A Brit gets water from the tap, stores food in a cupboard, and cooks on a hob on the top of the cooker.

-An American enters a building on the first floor and walks upstairs to the second floor – unless, of course, he is really tired – then he takes the elevator.
-A Brit enters on the ground floor and walks upstairs to the first floor – unless he is really knackered – then he takes the lift.

-An American might go into the living room, sit on the sofa and watch the TV which is plugged into an electrical outlet.
-A Brit goes into the lounge, sits on the settee and watches the telly which is connected to a power point.

Cars - Divided by a Common Language

Automobiles / Motor Cars

Yes, cars are different too:

-An American might drive a 4 door sedan that has a hood at the front, a trunk at the back and runs on gas.
-A Brit drives a saloon with a bonnet at the front, a boot at the back and runs on petrol.

Some other interesting expressions:

I’m shocked (flabbergasted) = I’m gobsmacked.

I am so happy = I’m really chuffed (or chuffed to bits).

That’s another story = That’s a different kettle of fish.

Would you like a snack? = Do you fancy some nibbles?

Don’t get all worked up = Don’t get your knickers in a twist.

It is going well = It is tickety-boo.

And that’s it! (usually at the end of some instructions) = And Bob’s your uncle!

It all went wrong = It all went pear-shaped.

They are as different as night and day = They are like chalk and cheese.

Well, there are certainly more expressions than the ones I have listed here.  Do you know of some other differences between American and British English?  What are your favourites?     Until next time…

Cheers - Divided by a common language

Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England

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Margo Lestz
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  1. Fantastic…and this is going to all my Brit friends so that we can understand each other just a bit better. It is amazing how many of their phrases and words have worked their way into my speaking..funny how they just aren’t adopting mine! Well done

    1. Ciao Margaret, this is good, I can think of a few more as well, but one that does come to mind and brings a smile to my face, is when my cousin from Texas came to visit and we drove to London, there were some road works (Mmm not unusual), with some workmen peering into a hole and we had to drive around them, she wound down the window and shouted “get your *#@#* fanny in”!!!!( which of course we found out later, meant bottom in American), Ohh you can’t say that we said, it’s rude, I will leave the interpretation to your imagination.unless you already know.
      Ground floor/first floor..most confusing, but some estate agents do the same in Italy, also faucets. if an elevator is a lift, what do you call a moving staircase in America, a lift?? and you from Boston to, where the English landed, though they did speak funny then I suppose. Bast. B.

    2. Isn’t it amazing how sometimes we can understand each word individually, but fail to grasp the meaning of a phrase. It keeps life interesting 🙂

  2. Great article.
    In the USA Lorrie is a woman’s name but in England a lorrie lorry is a truck!
    In the USA a trolley is like a train, in the UK a trolley is what you use at a supermarket to get your groceries.

    I checked into a hotel this week & asked for a cart to get my luggage. The lady checking me in asked me “what are you talking about?”
    Margo quickly jumped in and said “he means a trolley”.
    Even after 10 years of living here in the UK & being a Britsh (dual) citizen I still speak American but I do love both languages.
    Margo, does this mean I am bilngual?

    1. Lorrie is a Ladies name..but a TRUCK in the UK is a LORRY, unless you are talking about a number of trucks, then they become LORRIE’S. You think that confusing, try living in Italy,with past ,present tence, masculine and femminine and to cap it all, they speak backwards, as in Royal Hotel, Hotel Royal, but don’t forget…the H is silent.

      1. Thanks for that. Not only do we have to learn to speak differently but to spell differently too. I know what you mean about Italian, I speak French and have taken some Italian courses and yes, the genders and word order are really difficult to get your head around. I had an Italian teacher once who was talking about the silent H and she said “This is why all Italians in England are APPY”. 🙂

    1. Yes, and not only in English speaking countries. Other languages have adopted English words, but often change the meaning. Example: The word “brushing” has entered the French language, but is a noun meaning “a blow dry” (for the hair). A “parking” = a parking garage. I find it all so interesting.

  3. Loved this! I’m an American who has been living in Leicestershire for almost 4 years now. I married a Brit so I’ve had a lot of guidance, otherwise I’m sure I would have made several blunders in public. I still say diaper instead of nappy and I’ve had a few chuckles over that one when I mention the “diaper bag” at my in law’s house 🙂 I’ll be blogging about some of my experiences as an American expat living in the UK at my blog as well. Feel free to check it out: threeladiesandtheirbabies.wordpress.com

    1. Hi there! Sounds like you are having a great adventure of your own. I am sure you are learning much more quickly than me, with your British husband and baby. All the best to you.

  4. Any Americans who come to the UK, please don’t say ‘tickety-boo’. NOBODY has said that since the 1950’s . Also, don’t use the word ‘knackered’ unless you’re in the company of friends or in a very informal situation. We also have ‘living rooms’ and ‘sofas’. Not many of us still watch ‘telly’ – we normally watch TV. Powerpoint is a Microsoft application. An ‘electrical outlet’ is a ‘plug socket’ (or simply ‘socket’).

    There are two words that can be VERY dangerous if used incorrectly. As johna666Brian rightly said, BE CAREFUL how you use the word ‘fanny’. In the UK, ‘fanny’ is vulgar slang for the intimate part of a woman’s body that can be found below the waist and around the front. Hence we find it very amusing when Americans refer to ‘fanny-packs’ (which to us are ‘bum-bags’).

    The other word is more dangerous for a Brit in the UK. If he/she asks for a ‘fag’, he simply wants a ‘cigarette’, NOT a ‘homosexual’.

  5. Hi Greg. Thanks for your comments. I agree that tickety-boo is not a word you hear everyday and may be outdated, but I have heard people use it. (And I wasn’t here in the 1950s 🙂 ) Anyway, there are lots of words like that in American English as well, old fashioned words that just pop out occasionally. But you have to admit, it is a fun word, it just tickles the ears of an American. I am sure there are also regional differences. Just like in the US some words are used in some parts of the country and not in others.
    As for “fanny”, I agree it should never be used. I actually left this one out because I didn’t want to define it, but you did a great job. Again thanks for your input. 🙂

    1. Hi Margo. I’ve been teaching English in Brazil for 6 years now and have to be aware of the linguistic differences between the USA and the UK, as my students visit both countries. Consequently I’ve developed a diplomatic way to describe certain words which could cause embarrassment. Explaining the difference in meaning of that particular word to a 23 year-old woman – and not causing major embarrassment to either of us – is a skill I’ve had to hone.

  6. Nice post Margo. I lived in London for 3 years, and was the one American in an office of 150. So you can imagine the grief I was given. And even though I was senior management, my staff didn’t cut me much slack. Luckily, because I was the boss, they usually did their corrections at the pub … which eased the pain somewhat.

    1. My husband is also an American who works mainly with Brits. I worked in the same office as him for a few years and we were always laughing at the misunderstandings or the “strange pronunciation” either American or British. And just when we thought we had it all figured out, we would make some big blunder. It keeps things interesting.

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