Common Pitfalls in British versus American English

As the old saying goes, the Great Britain and the United States are "two countries separated by a common language." It's not enough that we simply don't understand one another's vocabulary sometimes. No, it's much worse; some of our words sound the same and look the same but have very different meanings. Here are a few of the simple words that divide us as surely as the Atlantic Ocean.

  1. Redundant - In the United States, the news at work that one is redundant may be the opening to a critique of one's speaking or writing skills. If the same thing is said at the London office, however, the recipient of the remark might burst into tears. That's because the fairly innocuous American "redundant," which means one is repeating oneself, becomes the much more sinister "laid off" in British English.
  2. Call - If an English friend says they will "call round" in the afternoon, the American friend might merrily set out from her house to do her errands, safe in the knowledge that the cell phone will keep her connected. But she won't hear from her friend at all, and when she does, the friend might be livid. "Call round" has nothing to do with the telephone and everything to do with physically going to a place.
  3. Pants - What could be more innocent than musing about whether to wear pants or a skirt to the picnic? Nothing, for an American, but a Brit who overhears these may be inclined to tell the speaker that both should be worn. That's because "pants" in American English is underwear in British English, and the American's "pants" are the "trousers" of the British.
  4. Rubber - British people may want to be aware that asking an American friend for a rubber is likely to be seen as overly familiar, inappropriate, vulgar or all three. Americans should calm down and realize that they've simply been asked if they have an eraser handy; Brits may appreciate knowing that they've just asked their American friend for a spare condom. These are such simple words, yet so many potential disasters lurk behind each of them. Even among acquaintances and friends, misunderstandings await when assumptions are made. With humor and an attitude of good faith, though, even the great divide of our common language can be overcome!

About the author

Monta the mother of three children serves as an Expert Advisor on multiple household help issues to many Organizations and groups, and is a mentor for other "Mom-preneurs" seeking guidance. She is a regular contributor of "nanny jobs". You can get in touch with her at montafleming6[at]gmail[dot]com.


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