Graffiti art of face on side of building Street art in Camden Town, London, how I feel sometimes about British English

An American’s guide to British English or how to not feel like an idiot in London

Not all English speakers use the same terms and slang, just like how in many places where people speak Spanish there are differences. There are a few embarrassing ones, and a few that make your head tilt sideways and go “huh.” This is for thos people asking what’s the difference between American and British English.

I’ll try to add to this list as I go along, but here are the main ones that I’ve discovered in the last year.

The list follows this format: [British word or phrase] = [what it means in American] with my personal notes in italics.

Day to day phrases

You alright? = How are you?/How’s it going?
It took me a few months to realize that they weren’t questioning my mental or physical state or making fun of me, but were just opening up the conversation with a general greeting.

Pulling birds (i.e. To pull a bird) = When guys are talking about getting a girl or hooking up with a girl
The term “bird” in reference to a woman is a bit derogatory. I felt this as an instinct but it has been confirmed by 1 British woman.

mate = informal way of referring to someone
two a penny = common
bloke = dude
few bob = some money
bobby = police officer

The embarrassing ones

pants = underwear or panties
trousers = pants
braces = suspenders
suspenders in British English refer to something like garters that hold up stockings
rubber = eraser (in American slang, rubber can refer to a condom. British slang sometimes uses it this way too.)
fanny = vagina (in American usage, fanny is the butt e.g. fanny packs aka bum bags in British English)

Food

chips = fries
fries = thin cut fries
crisps = potato chips
aubergine = eggplant
rocket = arugula
pronunciation of fillet as the noun is “fill” + “et”
pronunciation of scone is with the “o” like in “on”
washing up liquid = dishwashing soap
fairy cake = cupcake
rasher = a strip of bacon
cob = some kind of sandwich/bread roll (this is frome a friend who says they used this word when he went somewhere in the Midlands)

Activities

fancy dress = costume party
pub quiz = trivia night

Others

flat = apartment
flatmates or housemates = roommates
In the context of knitting and crocheting, wool = yarn
jumper = sweater
garden = backyard (a garden in British English doesn’t necessarily have plants or grass)
torch = flashlight
refuse sacks or bin liners = garbage bags
subway = underpass

The confusing differences in language use or convention

In British English, they use the “t” form more often instead of “ed” for past tense of verbs. For example, “I learnt about British English on this blog post.”

The ground floor is not equal to 1, i.e. first floor is not the first story, the first floor is the second story. So in the lift (elevator), you have to look for G if you want the ground floor, and 1 is the floor just above that floor.

In general, I don’t understand why Brits choose to say things with the double s sound, in words or phrases like crisps, or refuse sack. I find it very annoying to have to pronounce them, and it takes so much more effort.

I’ve listed the ones that I found most confusing in the time I’ve lived here, so hopefully these are the most helpful for you if you are planning on visiting or moving to the UK!

Have I missed any crucial ones? Let me know in the comments!

For more exhaustive lists, you can check out these pages:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_American_and_British_English
http://projectbritain.com/americanbritish.html

  • And never say “fanny”…

    • OH YES, good one. I will add that…

      Also, I noticed people sometimes talk as if Europe doesn’t include the UK, like “I’m going to Europe for holidays” or something like that.

      • ah, that’s a classic UK move. Europe is only the continent of Europe, even though you can see France from the tip of the British Isles. It’s not like the UK is some remote destination.

        • I’ve also met South or other North American people who note how they dislike how the term American refers pretty much solely to people from the USA. As in, South Americans are also Americans because they are from the Americas. But that is so conventional, I think it’d be hard to change.

  • there are so many of these! I’ve lived in the UK now for going on 2.5 years and STILL I am surprised by the many differences in language. It’s hilarious most of the time – or I have to google it. One of my other favourites is that in the US we use the word ‘line’ to mean – the shape of a line, a line of products, go stand in that line. in the UK these are three words: line, range, queue.

    • Yeah, I didn’t expect so many differences! I knew there were lots of different slang, though not as much as the Australians, but didn’t expect so many differences in straight up word usage.

      I agree it is really funny most of the time, and only sometimes I feel truly confused. Nice example! I guess it makes it clearer to have specific words for things!