An American Traveling to the UK? Learn a Little Vocabulary

by John Unger

To most Americans, traveling to the UK is such an easy thing. After all, there will not be any language barrier – English is English, right? Not so fast. If, as an American, you believe that the King’s English and American English are interchangeable, you are in for a bit of an awakening. There are actually thousands of words and idiomatic phrases that have wholly different meanings in the two countries, and they can be the source of great humor when an American tries to communicate in England and vice versa. It might be a good idea if both Brits and Americans were to educate themselves a bit on the meanings of some pretty common terms. Here is a list of some of those words and phrases that you might find humorous but also useful, especially if you were to be writing for the other English-speakers in the world.

1. Trainer: In the U.S., a trainer is a person who works with an athlete; in the UK, it is a tennis shoe.

More about US and UK shoe names:

2. Bird: If you hear a Brit say something like, “That’s a great looking bird,” you may find yourself looking into the sky. Actually, in slang, “bird” can mean a woman. (But it also means an actual bird too).

3. Rubber: Americans use this word to refer to a condom. In the UK, it is an eraser.

4. Braces: We think of braces as those devices put on children’s teeth or other orthopedic devices that are used to support backs, knees, etc. In the UK, braces are suspenders.

5. Pants: In America, pants are outer clothing worn by both men and women. In the UK, pants are underpants.

6. Chips: Of course, this means snack items in the U.S. – potato chips, Doritos, and such. In the UK, these are thicker potato chunks, sort of like our fries.

See also:

7. First Floor: In the UK, this is actually the 2nd floor of a building; it is our ground floor. Note from Omniglot: the ground level floor is the ground floor in the UK, and the next floor up is the 1st floor.

8. Trolley: this is a U.S. term for an old form of transportation, only used now in a few cities like San Francisco. In the UK a trolley is a shopping cart.

9. Jumper: We have a couple of meaning for this term in the U.S. first, it is a dress that is worn by girls, particularly as a uniform for some parochial schools. In slang, it also means someone who commits suicide by jumping off of a high building or bridge. In the UK, it is a knitted sweater.

10. Bog: Americans usually define bog as a marshy area, often covered with fog; in the UK, it is a toilet. And, by the way, a “bog roll” means toilet paper.

11. Biscuit: Americans love those buttery hot flaky rolls fresh out of the oven; in the UK it’s cookies that are coming out of the oven.

See also:

12. Dummy: Something no American ever wants to be called, because it means someone thinks he’s stupid. Babies in the UK love their dummies, however – their pacifiers.

13. Boot: Americans wear these in the cold weather or when they ride horses. A boot in England, though, is the trunk of a car.

14. Fag: If a Brit asked someone for a fag in the U.S., he might get some odd stares, for it is a very derogatory term for a homosexual. Because he’s a Brit, however, he really would be asking for a cigarette.

15. Pissed: If someone is “pissed” in America, he is really angry; in the UK, however, he would be drunk.

16. Muffler: Americans put mufflers on their cars to reduce noise; In England a muffler is used to warm a woman’s hands. That makes sense, because Americans do use ear muffs in the cold weather.

17. Silencer: Now this is what Brits put on their cars to reduce noise; Americans use silencers too, but they are to muffle the noise of a gunshot – quite a difference.

18. Know Your Onions: Many Americans know their onions – red, yellow, and purple. In the UK, “knowing your onions” means you are knowledgeable, and not just about onions. This is just one of hundreds of phrases that endear Brits to others in the English-speaking world.

19. Give You a Bell: If someone gives you a bell in America, it might be Christmas and you might be ringing it to celebrate. In the UK, though you would be getting a phone call.

When Vocabulary Becomes Important

The differences in the meanings of words can be a humorous study, but it can also be serious, especially for the freelance writer who may be producing content for readers on both sides of the pond. Learning these differences in words and expressions will mean that there won’t be mis-understandings and that one’s writing will not look foolish. After all, a British writer would not want to be penning a story in which a small child went to the store for a rubber, if the audience is American.

More on differences between UK and US English

About the writer

John is a UK native writer and idea maker, who is interested in education and business. So, mostly, he covers these topics in his articles. He hopes that his writing inspires and helps his readers. Currently, he is an an editor at the educational service GetAcademicHelp. You can get in touch with him via Twitter, or Google+


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