Friday, May 10, 2013

America versus Britain

We all know that US and UK English often have different words for the same thing (gasoline v petrol, sidewalk v pavement, etc). The global presence of American entertainment means that people in the UK are familiar with most of them, and some American words are commonly used in the UK nowadays (so 'movie' seems to co-exist quite happily with 'film'). Others, such as 'furlough', didn't survive the Atlantic crossing, while many Britons have never even heard of 'maven' or 'hazing'.

But there is a more select group of words that mean one thing in Britain and another in America. It's as well to be on your guard if you don't want to be misunderstood.

First floor

Walk into an American building and you're already on the first floor. In the UK, that's called the ground floor: you have to take the stairs to get to the first floor. I've been told that for superstitious reasons American buildings sometimes missed out the 13th floor, so by the 14th floor the British would be two floors behind. Be that as it may, if you were to jump from the 14th floor of a building, the result would be pretty much the same whichever side of the Atlantic you were on. 

If you really want to get onto a different plane, I recommend the 13th Floor Lifts … sorry, Elevators.

Speaking of heights, if your captain announces that you'll be taking off "momentarily", you'd better pray you're on an American airline. The people unbuckling their seatbelts and scrambling for the exits will be British, for whom 'momentarily' doesn't mean 'in a moment', it means 'for a moment'.

This is a slightly different distinction, but one that journalists especially need to be aware of. You need to know if you're reading a British or American source, because an Imperial gallon is 20% bigger than an American one. They're both eight pints, but that's because Imperial pints are also 20% bigger. 

There's no point me listing all the conversions; you won't bookmark this page just for that. Just bookmark ConvertMe instead. It gives you every conversion at once, so if you read a suspiciously accurate-looking number, say 24.2 gallons, you'll immediately see that that's 100 litres, so it's a good guess that you're dealing with American gallons (and that 24.2 gallons is misleadingly precise for what was probably only an estimate in the first place). 

It's about two decades since Britain's most conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, bowed to the inevitable and adopted the US billion (1,000 million) instead of the British billion (a million million, now generally known as a trillion). If you're more conservative than the Daily Telegraph, then the 21st Century really isn't for you.

The only reason for bringing this up is that you'll occasionally come across 'milliard', which is the old-fashioned word for what (nearly) everyone now calls a billion and is still used in many European countries. This is because Europeans take great delight in being incomprehensible to the British and Americans, going so far as pretending to have their own languages just to annoy tourists. 

Shipping and transportation
I work in the shipping industry. Being British, that means I'm involved with maritime transport (not transportation: that's the carriage of convicts to the colonies). It's an annoyance, because a web search for my industry turns up all sorts of American retailers, because for them 'shipping' simply means what the British usually call 'delivery'. This seems odd, since ships are highly unlikely to be used for delivering anything in the US, given the geography of the place and the dead hand of the Jones Act, but Americans don't have a monopoly on illogical terms, as anyone who has been to a British public (i.e. private) school will attest.

Public Schools
English public schoolboys smoking, 1980.
I often wonder what happened to Nigel Farage (left)
This seems simple, but British public schools are anything but public. These are the bastions of privilege where rich parents can send their kids in the hope that one day they'll run the country without ever having had to rub shoulders with the lower orders, all of whom go to government-run schools ("public" means that the schools are run by members of the public, not the state). 

State-run schools are called 'comprehensives'; the idea being that everyone gets a comprehensive education in everything that this week's minister of education thinks is important, based either on his experiences at a public school (if he's a Tory) or his experiences in the National Union of Students (if he's Labour, having vigorously rejected everything he learned at his own public school).

For a brief period in the 1960s and 70s, the government paid for less well-off kids to go to public schools, which is how I ended up knowing a bit of Latin, while also getting the chance to take the sort of photo (above) whose blackmail value I have never properly exploited. 

If you're going to be strict about it, one of the two uses of this word is correct and the other isn't. If you're American, you might be irritated to find that the popular American usage is technically wrong.

A 'moot point' is a point that is open to further discussion. In Anglo-Saxon England, the 'moot' was the meeting of elders and wise men (the word has the same origin as the modern English 'meet'), so a 'moot point' was a point that was to be decided at a later date. So, in British English a moot point is a matter that is undecided.

In American English, a moot point is one that is unworthy of further discussion. This developed from the moots of law societies, whose meetings never decided anything. In this sense, it mirrors the difference between the British and American uses of the verb 'table'…

In Britain, an issue that has been tabled has been put on the table for discussion. Effectively, it's a live topic. In the USA, an issue that has been tabled has been put aside, so it's a dead topic. The meanings are the complete opposite of each other. An English reader seeing the word 'tabled' in a US publication should substitute the word 'shelved', replacing one piece of furniture with another. 

Both continents use "pissed off", meaning unhappy and disillusioned. The shorter "pissed" has the same meaning in America but is quite different in Britain, where it means inebriated. This probably causes more amusement in Britain than America. For an American, getting pissed with your lawyer is the normal state of affairs. To British ears, it sounds like the entire plot of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas.

Follow the signs into a subway in London and all you're likely to find is a tramp (or bum: see below). You might also stumble across an underground railway, but that would be a happy coincidence because a subway is just an underground road crossing.

This is a meatball, or a bundle of sticks for lighting a fire, although most Britons understand that it means something quite different in America. It is not to be confused with 'fag', which as everyone knows is a cigarette. Despite the growing intolerance shown towards cigarette smokers in the UK, smoking fags is far more anti-social in the USA.

Since this post is rapidly degenerating into a carnival of crude slang, it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore the fact that a 'fanny' is roughly the American equivalent of the British 'bum'. What Americans call a bum, the British would call a tramp. What  Americans call a tramp, the British would probably call a slut (if they were ill-mannered enough to use the word at all). 

As for the British 'fanny' … well, how can I put this delicately? If you touched an American fanny without permission, you'd probably get a slap. If you did the same to a British fanny, you'd probably get three years.

Moral: Know your audience


  1. You're a little mislead in your arguments... Most people who have watched American tv programmes, like the generations who grew up on Friends, will be perfectly capable of deciphering the differentiation between different meanings. As for the argument about the faggots, it has exactly the same meaning intercontinentally -- ask any gay man, or read EM Forster. What point always seems to missed with anyone who writes on this subject is that irrespective of which continent or country the language exists it is still English -- more pertinent in this point is that the predominant settlers in America were English, and as America is a country founded on immigration, then it seems plausible that words would shift slightly in ontological terms. To be honest, the Anglophilia which occurs in English speakers is pathetic and dull.

    Cole, Scotland

    1. Where did you get the idea that I disapprove of American usage, or that Britons don't understand American variants? I thought I'd made that last point quite clearly in the first paragraph and later in the section about 'faggot'. Perhaps in Scotland you hear 'faggot' as slang for a gay man; if so, I won't argue with you, but I have seldom if ever heard it in England.

      I completely agree with you about the unjustified snobbery some British people show toward(s) American English. Don't be misled (note spelling) into thinking I'm one of them.

    2. I'm Scottish, we definitely don't use "faggot" for gay men. We all know Americans use it though.

  2. I came to your blog from The Grauniad.

    The one American phrase that doesn't make sense to me is "I could care less" because that implies they care a little and, if they tried really hard, how little they care might be reduced further. "I couldn't care less" on the other hand properly conveys the notion that you really do not care at all; it is not possible to care any less.

    Language is a funny thing.

    1. To be fair, although "I could care less" is more common in the US, language experts there are just as irritated by it as we are. I'd categorise it under "mis-heard phrases whose users aren't thinking", along with the similarly meaningless "could of".

  3. One thing this colonial must concede. My English forefathers are masters par excellence of dry wit, a legacy bequeathed to New England's Yankees. Anyone reading the above droll essay will readily grasp my point. My compliments.

  4. As Prince George said of Dr S Johnson's first-ever English language dictionary, "It's a cracking good read!"

    Some of my favo(u)rite Mid-Westernisms ... (well, actually I used to find them quite irritating!!):

    * "Oh, you're going to San Francisco? Nice! Can I go with?"

    * "Winnipeg is a nice town. Have you been?"

    * "You mean I must write a term paper irregardless of what grade I am getting?"

    * Particularly in North Dakota ... "Will you borrow me your pen for a minute?"

  5. One that's always confused me was "you lucked out", it sounds like it means you're 'out of luck' but I think it means the opposite 'luck gave you an out' (of something?)

  6. Your use of 'America' is erroneous. It refers to neither the country (the United States of America) nor either of the two continents - North/South America.

  7. This is a well written article but as other commenters have pointed out most british people know bout Americanisms- USAisms if we are being THAT pedantic. However there is an increasing number of Americans (Statesidians?) who think that the British are getting their language wrong. for example I have participated in a discussion where an American language proffessor was convinced that a British author was wrong to use "it was as if he wasn't entirely there" instead of "it were as if he wasn't entirely there".

  8. I'd hesitate to say a language professor is wrong, but I think he is. The use 'were' with a singular pronoun would surely be subjunctive, but the sentence is explaining a past situation, so the simple indicative is called for.

    That's my view, but I'd be interested to hear more.

  9. Yeah, that's wrong. There's nothing that would call for the subjunctive in that case. The really weird thing is that I wouldn't be surprised if someone said it should be "it was as if he weren't entirely there" (even though that would still be wrong), because some people hypercorrect and always use the subjunctive in clauses beginning with "if".

    But the subjunctive pretty much never appears in main clauses outside of a few fixed phrases (like "as it were"), unless that clause uses inversion ("Had he only known how to use the subjunctive . . ."). Using "it were" in a main clause in English is just ungrammatical.

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  11. There are so many words in English language those are different in Britain and American. A good English speaker can easily differentiate these words. Thanks for writing this impressive post. english editing and proofreading services

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