Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Variations on a Theme of English : More US and UK-isms

Last month we started looking at some quirky differences between UK English (written English used in the UK and countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) and US or North American English used in the US, Canada, and countries that do a lot of written communication in US English (such as India, Singapore, Hong Kong).

Here are some examples that you shared with us:

Pants: NA = trousers; UK = underwear

Rubber: UK = eraser!

Fit: UK = slang for sexy or attractive; NA = in good physical condition

Specialty (NA) vs Speciality (UK)

Artefact (UK) vs Artifact (NA)

A fanny in American means your bottom but in England that means a lady's private parts.

"Color" and "colour"

Jon Gibbs
When I first moved to the US, I got a strange look from a builder when I told him his partner had popped out for a fag.

In England that means you've stepped outside for a cigarette. Apparently it means something quite different over here :)

menopausaloldbag (MOB)
got - NA's say gotten

F. M. Meredith
Knocked up: Meaning pregnant in NA--and I think going to someone's house and knocking on their door or visiting in the UK.

JD (The Engine Room)
Americans don't tend to use 'gone missing' to mean 'disappeared', and that they also don't use the verb 'to busk' (perform in the street for money).

I always assumed that the American English 'I could care less' was an elision of 'As if I could care less', which would be acceptable in British English too.

And here are some more of my favourites:
Puttering around (NA)
Pottering around (UK)
Funnily enough, if you told an Australian you were "puttering" they might think you were in a tinny (a small motor boat). More Aussie vernacular coming up in this series.

Shopping cart (NA)
Shopping trolley (UK)
(also known as a "trundler" in New Zealand and a "buggy" in some US states)

Program (NA/UK)
Programme (UK)
In UK terminology "program" refers to computer programs, whereas "programme" is anything non-computer related such as a programme for a play, a TV show, etc.

Snicker (NA)
Snigger (UK)
(Although I can understand why this has been changed in the US.)

Cooperate (NA)
Co-operate (UK)

Trunk (NA)
Boot (UK)

Trash can (NA)
Rubbish bin (UK)

Love on / hate on / beat up on someone (NA)
Love / hate / beat someone up (UK)

Period (NA)
Full stop (UK)

Exclamation point (NA)
Exclamation mark (UK)

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. When I was in college, I worked for a magazine in London that drilled the UKisms and spellings into me. To this day, I still get messed up with certain words....

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Ref Jon's point about fags/cigarettes. There's also faggots, which can refer to a type of meatball.

    And "pants" is slang for something which is sub-standard or "rubbish"

  3. Can you imagine how confused I was after I had learned five years of British English at my German school and then went on a high school-year to the US? It seemed to me that EVERYTHING was different! And people sniggered (snickered) when I spoke with my British accent. No, it wasn`t German, they assured me, it was the funny BRITISH! "Say "tomaaato" again! And waaater! hahaha!" In school I did not know what a "period" was - a period of time? And when we had to write a paragraph - did that have a legal meaning? I also got a B instead of an A once (in Germany it would have been a 2 instead of a 1), because I spelled the word exploited with a d (exploided), because that`s exactly how the teacher had pronounced it!

  4. No wonder English is such a difficult language. It varies so much from country to country!

    Straight From Hel

  5. Elizabeth:
    Yes, it can really mess up your spelling skills.

    That's true. It's amazing that something fairly polite in one vernacular can be really very rude and crude in another.

    That really must have been hard to try to fit in. I can't imagine the teacher would've accepted her pronunciation as an excuse for your spelling. I remember someone introducing me to a "darder" once. It took a few moments before I twigged: "daughter".

    It's a wonder we understand each other.

  6. When I get confused I still ask my kids "How do you say that in American?" But it's not just the words that confuse me; it's the assumptions too. "Have your essay ready by the end of term" couldn't possibly have meant by October before we moved here.

  7. Couldn't leave a message via the OpenID, so I thought I'd try 'anonymous'

    Pissed in American means angry, but in England it means extremely drunk.

    After five years of living in the US, I'm used to the fact that our two cultures have different meanings and spellings for similar words.

    The trouble is, now I can't remember which is the British and which the American :(

    Jon Gibbs

  8. You generalize American English as "North American English." That is not accurate. Canadian English is not the same as American English! Canadian English is like a merger of American and British spellings, although we lean more towards the British style.

    For instance, Canadians use the U for words like honour, colour, etc. And spell centre with the 're'. However, the American influence comes in with things like spelling theorize with ize instead of ise. And Canadians use American slang. Just thought I'd give you the heads up.

  9. Thanks for the clarification Mo. The (small number of) Canadians I've chatted to have mostly used US spellings; I should've asked them if that was the norm. It sounds like even more of a recipe for confusion than Australian English! ;-)

  10. How's this for odd. I grew up in the 'burbs of Philadelphia. We called the sidewalk the pavement (like the British) and we used to "knock up" for our friends when we wanted them to come out and play. And my father often called an umbrella a brolly.


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