British Vs. American English

I decided that I need to start a list of words that I come across, so here we go.  I’ll update it from time to time.  If I’ve misunderstood a word, please let me know and I’ll correct it!


  • Hen party–bachelorette party
  • Leaving-do–going away party
  • Till–checkout counter
  • Tip–the dump
  • Petrol–gas
  • Biscuit–cookie
  • Nappy–diaper
  • Prawn–small shrimp
  • Courgette–zucchini
  • Coriander–cilantro
  • Trainers–tennis shoes
  • Dolly shoes–mary janes
  • Digger–bulldozer
  • Lorry–truck
  • Plaster–bandaid
  • Garden–yard   (and garden for garden)
  • Trolley–shopping cart
  • “The shops”–instead of saying “grocery store”
  • Gammon–ham
  • Uni/university–university but not college.  College is around age 16-18, before university.
  • Roadworks–road construction
  • Motorway–highway
  • Indicator–blinker, or turn signal
  • Chav–derogatory term.  “trailor trash”
  • Cinema–movie
  • Carrier bag–plastic bag from store
  • Proper–as in “We’ll get you a proper carry-on next weekend.”   or   “It’s a proppa sunny day innit.”    I don’t think there’s an American equivalent here; it’s a colloquial term.
  • Hoover–vaccuum

Note:  Julia has some great comments in the comment section about the variants of cookie/biscuit (how gooey center is, etc.), gammon (a cut of ham), and digger/bulldozers.

Some British words that I particularly like:

  • Wanker.  ”Yeah, it’s probably from the wankers over at Fox News.”
  • Moreish. Something that’s so good you want more of it.  Have only heard it used in relation to food so far.  Thai prawn crackers to be precise.  ”They’re rather moreish, aren’t they.”
  • Bloody.  No explanation necessary.
  • Sod.  (While we’re at it.)  ”S*d off.”
  • Lollipop man/woman. (see last driving piece for pic.)  This is a crossing guard.   Now what do you want to be when you grow up?
  • Sorted. This appears to be a favorite, and I can see why.  It’s just like the US “settled,” but fewer Little House on the Prairie connotations.
  • Dodgy.  Quite a variety of uses, but probably best US translation is “sketchy.”
  • Whingy. Whiny.  Very satisfying word.  Sounds just like an annoying, creaky gate.
  • Pants.  As in “This website is pants.”   Or “Oh, pants.  I forgot my keys.”
  • Torch.  This is a flashlight.
  • Beaker. Plastic cup.
  • Brilliant. I can’t do the accent for this at all, but it’s wonderful.  Tomato soup can be brilliant.  A crouton can be brilliant.  It’s also a good sarcastic word, like if a train is cancelled.   It’s sort of the British version of great.
  • Gorgeous.  Likewise, a salad can be gorgeous, even if it’s not pretty.  Sort of a synaesthesia kind of thing.

And some that I’m not used to yet:

  • Whilst.   This makes me feel like I’m in a Jane Austen novel wearing a corset, riding in a bumpy carriage, unable to breathe at the thought of my domestic plight.  Just sounds very formal.
  • Jumper.  This is a sweater, I think, but I’ve also heard it used for a sweatshirt or a hoodie.  I always think of a horrible, shapeless plaid dress, which is what jumpers are in the States.
  • Nice.  I’m not fond of this word anyway, unless it’s used for the weather or maybe a shirt.  But I’ve noticed that here it’s used for anything from a cookie to chicken salad.   Because so many Americans use nice as a euphemism (saying, for example, “Oh, she’s nice,” when really you don’t like the person and so you say that she’s nice), I always think that any time food is called nice, it’s sarcastic, even though I know that’s not the intended meaning.  Just one of those connotation issues.
  • One-off.  At first I heard this used as a one night stand, but then I heard it in other contexts, so I’m not entirely sure of the scope.
  • Bespoke.  This drives me insane.  I guess it means “custom,” as in “custom-made tires” or something.  It doesn’t seem to mean anything and just seems shoved in front of nouns with the notion that it will distinguish them, especially in terms of advertising.
  • Adding, “don’t they,” or “haven’t I,” to the end of a sentence.  Depending on the intonation it can sound quite snarky.  Maybe Brits feel similarly when Americans say, “you know?”

Added by readers:

  • Tosser–jerk, or maybe worse..?  I’m not sure if this is really impolite or just kind of.  Like would you say it around your grandma?  (Was notified that wanker is worse than tosser.)
  • Snog–make out
  • Shag–have sex
  • Postcode–zipcode
  • Subway–pedestrian underpass?
  • Roundabout–traffic circle
  • Single (ticket)–one-way
  • Return (ticket)–round-trip
  • Pavement–sidewalk (not sure we really have the equivalent of American “pavement” … maybe just “the road”)
  • Rubbish–trash
  • Bugger–“bugger off you bloody sod”
  • Spanner–wrench
  • Skirting–baseboards
  • Made redundant–laid-off
  • Skip–dumpster
  • Central reservation–median/median strip
  • The High Street–downtown
  • Aubergine–eggplant

Other notable words and phrases:

  • “Gone all pear-shaped”     This is when something’s gone wrong.
  • The big one:  trousers vs. pants.  Pants=underwear here.  Our pants are always trousers.  At some point, I’m going to embarrass myself, probably the first day on a new job, by telling someone that I like his or her pants.   Hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
  • Ginger ale=ginger beer.  I think.  But I still hear ginger ale sometimes, so I’m still a little confused by this one.
  • Cake.  Still figuring this one out.  I made cornbread for a family meal, and even though I kept telling C. it wasn’t cake,  it was cake to him.   He also calls cookies cakes sometimes, which confuses me.  It seems that a lot of things can be cake…?
  • Pudding.  This will require at least two more years of study.  Basically, pudding covers lots of desserts eaten at the holidays, some drenched in liquor to keep them moist and then sometimes lit on fire at the table.  They look like bundt cakes and the chocolate ones can be moist and delicious.   (Note:  Dan A. says that “Pudding is any type of dessert eaten after a main savoury course often with custard. For example bread pudding, queens pudding or the venerable spotted dick.”   This helps Dan!)
  • Tea.  Tea is tea, but it’s also dinner.  ”I’m eating my tea.”  Very confusing.  (Is your tea frozen??)    Nope, it’s just dinner in England, where you eat tea in the evening.

I know there are more that I’ve come across.  There are usually a few a week.  Add any others you can think of in comments and I’ll post ‘em to the list!

40 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mthew
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:43:39

    “Wanker” has been long been one of my favorites, too, especially when pronounced “wanka.”


    • taramoyle
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 16:04:26

      Yeah, don’t you love that? Really gives you something to chew on. Thanks for reading and commenting Matthew! 🙂 Hope things are good in NYC.


  2. David Halliday
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:49:27

    Isn’t it a beautiful language?

    There was an American comedian on TV a while ago talking about his love for the English language and our ability to use it. One point he made was that he found that some days after encountering a person he could come to the conclusion”…That man don’t like me!”. I have in the past been prone to outbursts of villainous sarcasm in the face of a previous employer (European man speaking English as a second language). I enjoyed that I could insult him to his face and that he would whole heartedly agree with me on occasions. Not something that I would normally do but this person did cause me a lot of grief.

    One that always get ms is that in America it isn’t socially acceptable to go up to a stranger and politely ask if you can “bum a fag”.

    “Americans use nice as a euphemism”
    Oh, do tell, this sounds delicious! An example please, I implore you!


  3. Julia
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:50:23


    Yes, and no. Cookies tend to have softer chewy middles, with a crispier outer, where as biscuits are drier and tend not to have the gooyness in the middle. The semantics of it are an interesting one that has resulted in court hearings (Brits are weird at times ;p).

    Digger is a machine that digs holes typically, other terms for it might include JCB. We also have Bulldozers, which have a big flat blade on the front for flattening things. Some diggers also have dozer plades… (English is great). All bulldozers can be diggers, but not all diggers are bulldozers…

    Gammon is a specific cut of the pig that has been cured. We also have Ham, which is the cured leg of a pig, except for where it’s a picnic ham which is the cured shoulder of a pig… Not to mention that generally any cured pork product is refered to as a ham. Still with me?

    Whilst some of these are to do with difference between English and what Americians speak, there are also differences within the UK. This is especially pronounced when it comes to the subject of Tea and pudding…

    both sum it up wonderfully.

    And a final thought, 1.2 million words in the English language, and we use S**t for how many uses? ;p



  4. Julia
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:52:21

    Wanker. ”Yeah, it’s probably from the wankers over at Fox News.”

    There is also the less polite version of tosser, which is more for yelling at the BMW that just cut you up on the roundabout…

    Teaching this to Dutch friends was amusing…



    • taramoyle
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:06:41

      Thanks Julia–forgot about tosser! So there’s a less polite version of tosser? Hmmm…can’t think of that one off the bat but have probably heard it….


      • David Halliday
        Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:10:34

        “WANKER!!!” is a less polite form of tosser. I use it regularly at BMW drivers, and those Audi drivers who clearly aspire to be BMW drivers.

  5. taramoyle
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 14:56:02

    Ok, will think of example and add! Love the idea of this as organic document.

    And I hear you about insults going unnoticed. I must admit that I’ve done the same. Once you realize that you can get away with it, it’s a bit frightening, like a little superpower.

    Yeah, I didn’t include the obvious ones–most people know about bumming a fag, and to not mention one’s “fanny pack.” 😉


    • Julia
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:11:07

      If you know your vocab you can actually get away with insulting Brits without them realising it too.

      “Kindly curtail the exuberance of your verbosity”

      “Rotund gentleman of questionable parentage”



    • Julia
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:14:16

      I always thought of it the other way round, wanker is more muttered or spoken normally, where as tosser is something you yell, with venom. A bit like how Whore is for shouting at someone, but slut is more for whispering… (cue tomatoe nation reference…)



      • David Halliday
        Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:26:19

        Whore = does it for money
        Slut = Selectively gives it away for free

        Tosser = Wanker, same thing. As for severity, I think id shock my mum less using tosser in front of her. Just did a straw poll in the office. Out of the two, tosser there are more times one is inclined to use it, WANKER! is the stronger.

        I don’t think America has the delights of “Snog” and “Shag” as regular words.

      • taramoyle
        Mar 21, 2011 @ 16:02:56

        We don’t, except we use shag to refer to a haircut, which caused all sorts of hilarity at the hair salon I go to in Chatham. This American said “My hairdresser gave me the BEST shag the last time I went in!”

        Our whore and slut are the same I think, but people may use whore in a cutting way, but it’s always in reference to a woman’s sexuality.

        Love snog, and will add. (Had actually mentioned the yogurt place Snog in London on a previous post. Gotta love it….)

        Glad to heard of differences in wanker. I’m not going to use any UK slang terms for quite some time! C. gets a kick out of making me say “Oh, bloody hell.”

      • Julia
        Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:31:08

        I was referring more to their use as insults. Whore is something more likely shouted at someone, where as slut is something you are more likely to mutter.

        The tosser/wanker difference I think might perhaps be regional, and in a way demonstrates nicely what I was saying about how different areas/people use terms differently.

        Now, how about Reading…


  6. Andrew
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:12:47

    Love this!

    A few others :

    Postcode = Zipcode
    Subway = pedestrian underpass?
    Roundabout = traffic circle
    Single (ticket) = one-way
    Return (ticket) = round-trip
    Pavement = sidewalk (not sure we really have the equivalent of American “pavement” … maybe just “the road”
    Rubbish = trash

    Was amused by an English guy telling a newly-arrived American resident to put her rubbish on the pavement for collection in the morning … Quizzical looks all round!

    Remember an American friend going into London with me on the train. She was fascinated at being able to look into people’s back gardens in the suburbs, and said in quite a loud voice, “I just love looking at people’s backsides”!!


    • Julia
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:18:07

      Postcode and Zipcode are similiar, but not quite the same in so far as the scope.

      Given the postcode and the house number, I can find any unique building in the UK. The same is not true with the zipcode, which is just a numerical representation of a town (or area of larger town)…

      This also differs within Europe where 1048tz gets you to a specific street in amstedam, and adding “3” tells you that is is house number 3. Where as in Belgium 1200 is all of Antwerp. France, Germany, and Denmark are all as bad. It makes using a satnav from belgium a pain, as you have to type out things like Burgemeester Röellstraat rather than just using 1064bp.

      So yes, postcode and zipcode can be the same, but in some cases have a much much larger scope…


    • taramoyle
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:57:35

      That’s hilarious Andrew. Will add your terms to the list–thnx! I wonder if rubbish is one of those regional words in the US, because I had a relative who always said rubbish instead of garbage.


  7. Tom
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 15:58:30

    Tosser = wanker – (someone who tosses one off).

    Cake and biscuit are the same thing except in one crucial aspect – when cakes are stale they dry out, when biscuits are stale they get soggy.


  8. dan
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 16:22:04

    Pudding doesn’t just refer to the christmas or plumb duff type. Pudding is any type of dessert eaten after a main savoury course often with custard. For example bread pudding, queens pudding or the venerable spotted dick.

    Also just to add to the confusion shrimp are small prawns whilst prawns are prawn sized prawns.

    And I can’t believe that ‘bugger’ hasn’t made it on the list particularly when used as -‘bugger off you bloody sod’


  9. David
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 18:57:45

    I just had a thought, Was going to say something on proper searing… Then realised that Id be quoting George Carlin (Well, seven words quoted by him), not exactly English.


  10. Eastendmom
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 22:44:00

    I love the phrase “come a cropper”. My British friends said it basically means to fall over, or to knock something over – a clumsy accident. One of those things I don’t think you can define exactly, but you know it when you see it! They also told me that in England they don’t proceed statements with the phrase “You know what?” … which, of course is not a real question at all, but just a way we start many informative sentences. I hadn’t really realized until they pointed it out that they don’t say that and I do …. errr, quite a lot!
    Also, on the homefront: spanner = wrench; skirting board = baseboards; hob = cooktop


  11. Eastendmom
    Mar 21, 2011 @ 22:50:07

    Just thought of another …. what the English call “shrimp scampi” is nothing like the American style. It’s basically what we’d call fried shrimp, instead of being in a lemon-butter-garlic sauce.
    Also, with the terrible economy many people have been “made redundant” – versus the US phrase “laid off”. Am still not sure if “on the dole” refers to unemployment payments or welfare-type payments. Can someone explain?


    • taramoyle
      Mar 21, 2011 @ 23:13:00

      Yep–thanks for those! You reminded me of hoover and vaccuum too. On the dole means unemployment benefit. “Being on the social” is a housing benefit, etc. like welfare. Will add “made redundant” too–certainly hear that a lot these days. 😦


  12. Derek
    Mar 22, 2011 @ 00:58:16

    If I asked for ginger beer and got ginger ale I’d be seriously upset. Ginger ale is much zestier and tangier. (Kind of like ordering a milkshake not knowing you should have asked for a thickshake, at one time–don’t know if that one is still valid.)

    If you’re going to have “tip”, you should append “skip” (dumpster).

    My favorite may be (Beth Orton fan) central reservation/median, median strip.

    And haven’t you left out a bunch of car terms?


  13. Jacqui
    Mar 22, 2011 @ 03:00:33

    You missed bin for trash/garbage can, windscreen for windshield, cooker for range/cook stove, serviette for paper napkin, shops for stores, the High Street for downtown, aubergine for eggplant and tea can mean supper, but not dinner (much lighter). I could get into all the aviation jargon, but that would be much too technical. Also, Americans call university (Uni) college, which in the UK means basically junior college or technical school.


    • taramoyle
      Mar 22, 2011 @ 13:04:18

      Will add those–thanks! I think I’ve gotten so used to some of them that I don’t notice anymore.


  14. Jacqui
    Mar 22, 2011 @ 03:02:06

    Forgot mobile for cell phone.


  15. dan
    Mar 22, 2011 @ 08:03:24

    Ginger ale=ginger beer. Ginger Ale and ginger beer are two different things. You’ll more often see ginger ale as a mixer whilst ginger beer is drunk on it’s own.

    And lorry= truck. This is splitting hairs perhaps but a truck is a really a particular type of lorry. A truck will have an open top or back such as tipper truck or rubbish truck. You can also have a dumper truck that isn’t a lorry at all. Other trucks that aren’t lorries are a collection of train bogeeys or a small hand cart.


  16. Erika
    Mar 23, 2011 @ 21:51:53

    Love this post. What a fantastic list! A couple of other ones I’ve learned: “The dog’s breakfast” – as in, “She looked like the dog’s breakfast,” meaning – ‘mess’. I heard it in reference to a woman wearing about fifteen different mismatched colors. 🙂 My other favorite is when a ‘do’ is put on the end of a sentence – such as, “You could do” instead of “You could.” Oh, and rubber for eraser! That one cracks me up every time. I also had a ten minute debate with a friend today about the difference between asking where the ‘bathroom’ is vs. the ‘toilet’. She said, “Why on earth do you say bathroom? There is no bath there!” And I shared just how awful I felt every time I asked for “the toilet”. It just seems too gross/intimate! We settled on ‘the ladies’ or the ‘loo’ as appropriate compromises!


    • Julia
      Mar 23, 2011 @ 22:00:01

      Related to “the dogs breakfast” is the opposite: “the dogs bollocks”. The exact origins of which I am not sure of, but it is generally used to imply something is very good.

      On a related trivia there used to be a beer called “The Dogs Bollocks”, but they changed the name because to many family pubs didn’t want to stock it.

      That’s another word that some of my American friends seem confused by: Bollocks, but I shall stop there before I have steered to far down the roads of crude language.



    • taramoyle
      Mar 24, 2011 @ 14:58:26


      Love “the dog’s breakfast.” Am going to have to try that one out. And yes–the “do” thing gets me every time. “Could do.” The English major in me immediately starts diagramming that in my head. Something similar is “ones,” as in “your ones” and “my ones.” Cannot for the life of me feel ok saying toilet either. I’ve said “restroom” a few times but then wondered if they thought it I wanted to take a nap in there. Oh, just remembered that a going-away party is “leaving do,” and a bachelorette party is a hen party.


  17. Eastendmom
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 03:50:07

    “Dog’s breakfast” reminded me of another favorite – ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ for someone trying to look much younger than they are – not that you have to look like a granny once you reach a certain age, but we all know women who just don’t know when to give it up & start dressing a little more age-appropriate.


    • taramoyle
      Mar 27, 2011 @ 15:50:18

      That’s a good one too. And yep, sad but true about dressing age-appropriate. The one fad I’ve seen here that amazes me is the eyebrow/bridge of nose/lip piercing for folks over the age of fifty, or maybe even sixty. Especially when otherwise dressed “normal,” or mainstream. Bright hair dye too for all ages. The punk rock look seems to be appropriated by anyone at any age, which is interesting. So watch out kids, cause grandma might be rockin’ a pink mohawk next time you come over for pudding.


  18. luke
    Apr 14, 2011 @ 06:59:03

    one-off, generally means a one-time thing.
    The closest thing to proper/proppa is “really” i.e. “It was proper freezing outside the other day”
    boot instead of trunk
    car boot sale instead of garage sale
    trainers for sneakers/tennis shoes
    welly as in “give it some welly” (more regional) would mean to – give a bit more/put your back into it


  19. luke
    Apr 14, 2011 @ 07:05:48

    on the dogs bollocks issue, i saw a movie poster that used the phrase “it’s the mutts nuts” now if that term is actually used in the US then it’s virtually a verbatim translation. Otherwise, the closest i could think of would be “it’s the bees knees” except you’d not use bollocks in anything remotely resembling polite conversation


  20. luke
    Apr 14, 2011 @ 07:19:09

    one more,
    it’s all gone pear-shaped/tits up means it’s all gone a bit wrong or not according to plan

    decent – has an entire spectrum of meanings ranging from meh to absolutely freaking awesome but the reserved nature of the english means “decent” is all you’ll get and the meaning has to be inferred from the inflection, context or just facial expressions. You could say “how was the food at that restaurant?” “it was decent” meaning “just ok” or you could recommend it as in “i know a decent little restaurant” meaning “i know this lovely little restaurant”


    • taramoyle
      Apr 14, 2011 @ 20:51:05

      Thanks Luke! Days after I wrote that post I realized I’d forgotten so many words and phrases, like knackered. I do love that one. Oh boy, I hadn’t even encountered decent yet, but now I’ll be ready! “Give it some welly” is a great one–hadn’t heard that one yet either.


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