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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham


UNITED KINGDOM | Thursday, 11 February 2016 | Views [679]

England does not feel very strange to me, maybe because I've been there a few times before, or because of our shared cultural roots, or because of our common language. In cultures that feel different, and especially when you do not speak the language, all of your senses are alert, trying to capture signals and patterns, trying to piece the cultural framework into tidy packages that you can understand. However, when another culture feels familiar, your senses are dulled. You become nearly blinded by the percieved normalcy, and it takes some time and effort to tease out the differences. Such was my experience coming from Portugal and Spain to England. Once I acclimated to the drop in temperature and the opposite flow of traffic, I mostly settled into a comfortableness that did not lend itself to much analysis.

After a few days, I even started to concede that the entire nation may not, after all, be faking an English accent. I think I represent most Americans in feeling that British accents sound either hilarious, as if the whole population is a character in a Monty Python production, or else very formal and strict. One minute, I was giggling at the way my friends' two-year-old said, "Oh dear, Mummy," and the next minute, I was nervous that I had made an etiquette blunder with my soup spoon when the waitress asked, "And how are we getting on over here?" Of course, speaking the language does make things much easier, but there are some jolting moments when you wonder if you do actually speak the same language. As George Bernard Shaw said, "England and America are two countries separated by the same language." Accents aside, I find British word choices to be fascinating and more creative than American word choices. Some of them are words Americans understand but would never think to use, which makes me wonder why we even know the meaning at all. Others are words Americans know, but in an entirely different context, or with a different meaning. And still other words completely baffle Americans. I can't begin to give a comprehensive review of differences between British and American English, but below is a list of some of my favorites. 

Tea the drink vs tea the food

  • British tea = sometimes American hot tea
  • British tea = sometimes American pre-dinner food snack (with no tea involved!)

Biscuit vs cookie vs scone

  • British biscuit = American cookie
  • American biscuit = British scone
  • American scone (dense, triangular, sweet thing) = no British equivalent that I could find

Jelly vs jello vs jam

  • British jelly = American jello (My host related how, for years, he thought Americans were putting British jelly = American jello on pb&j sandwiches. Ew!)
  • American jelly = British marmalade or jam

Chips vs fries vs crisps

  • British chips = American fries
  • American chips = British crisps

Pudding vs dessert vs sausage

  • British pudding = American dessert (general term)
  • American pudding = specific type of dessert
  • British black pudding = American blood sausage (NOT dessert!)

Other food

  • British crumpet = American English muffin
  • British aubergine = American eggplant
  • British courgettes = American zucchini

Pissed vs drunk vs angry

  • British pissed = American drunk
  • American pissed = British pissed off (angry)

Telling time

  • British half five = American 5:30
  • (Sidenote: German half five, or halb fünf = American 4:30, just to make it more confusing)

Bathroom vs toilet vs restroom

  • British toilet or WC (from water closet) or loo = American restroom or bathroom
  • American toilet = specifies the porcelain seat in the bathroom
  • British restroom = a room in which you rest, no toilet involved

Brand names as common names

  • British Hoover = American vacuum
  • British plaster = American Bandaid

Car parts

  • British boot = American trunk
  • British bonnet = American hood


  • British wellies = American rainboots
  • British nappy = American diaper
  • British bin or rubbish = American trash or garbage
  • British bit(s) = American piece(s)
  • British swish = American fancy or swanky or very nice
  • British cracking = American awesome
  • British fag = American cigarette
  • British fetch = not just something a dog does; a human can also go fetch the car or any number of other things (no running or panting implied)
  • Lots of British sentences end in a rhetorical question that doesn't have the intonation of a question, but rather sounds like the speaker is politely demandng the listener to recognize the truth of the statement, for example, "A comes before B, doesn't it," or "Earth is a planet, isn't it." 


I've casually gathered the above examples over the years, but I don't claim to be an expert by any means. If I've gotten any of it wrong, please (politely) let me know. Thanks! 


Tags: american, british, culture, english, sabbatical, travel


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