They say that Britain and America are separated by a common language. While they are essentially the same, British and American English also differ a great deal, with some words holding completely different meanings depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.
British English borrows plenty of words and phrases from American English, and vice versa, and this helps to create an even richer array of words and phrases for us to liven up our conversations and writing with. It’s fascinating to see American words travel from some of the most unexpected places, and into the mainstream use of people on the other side of the ocean.
Here we take a look at some of our favourite typical American words and explore their meanings.
No word is more American than cool, and the word has come a long way. It’s said to have first appeared in 1930s America as a Black English slang word for fashionable. The tenor saxophonist Lester Young is credited with making the word popular in jazz circles, and by the 1950s it was in wide circulation thanks to the success of jazz stars like Miles Davis and his Birth of the Cool. Back then it meant a laid back style, or something that was great – even then the word cool was incredibly flexible, and had several meanings. Similar words that were popular at the time, like groovy, rad or fly are no longer around in mainstream conversation in the same way, but for some reason cool survived. Today it has even more meanings – a person or thing that’s hip or trendy, to be aloof or stand-offish with someone, to be socially adept, to be highly skilled or clever. It’s a word that has intrigued linguists for decades, and even today articles appear trying to get to grips with all of the word’s meanings and its rich history.
Here’s another word whose meaning has changed a great deal over the years. Originally this word meant to cause awe or terror, to inspire wonder or excitement. Nowadays it has been accepted into American and British English slang as a word that means excellent, exciting or remarkable. You’ll hear this word used a lot in teen movies, where it became increasingly popular in the 80s and 90s along with words like excellent, radical, and totally extreme.
EF English Live
Gosh is an exclamation that’s surprisingly old, and a great example of one of the most popular euphemisms in English. As it is a euphemism, the word gosh has no real meaning – it’s not supposed to. Euphemisms are invented words that are used in place of words that are taboo, that should not be said. In this case, Gosh is a common euphemism for the word God in phrases such as Oh My Gosh or By Gosh or just Gosh. Because it was considered blasphemous to say the Lord’s name in vain, people avoided using the word God and invented many substitute words, or euphemisms, to use in its place in order to be polite and not offend God. It seems people have been trying to keep on the right side of God for a long time, as the Oxford English Dictionary lists the earliest known use of the word Gosh as 1757. Some other similar examples that you’ll still hear all over America are Golly and Gee, which is a euphemism for Jesus.
Here’s another informal American English word you’re bound to have come across. No one knows precisely where and when this word first appeared, but we do know it’s American. Originally the word dude was used to describe man who was overly concerned with his clothes, fashion and appearance, and also in the Western US as a term for a rich man from the city who vacations on a ranch – so originally it was used as a put-down, to make fun of a certain type of gentleman. But today the meaning is almost reversed, describing a man you think is cool, or great. As Bill and Ted do a great job of explaining, it’s also used all the time as a greeting – “Hi dude, how’s it going?” But women can and do call each other dude now too. It’s also used as an exclamation, to show shock or surprise – “Dude! That’s really expensive!”
In American bathrooms and kitchens you’ll find plenty of faucets. A faucet is ‘a device by which a flow of liquid or gas from a pipe or container can be controlled’, or, you’ll know it more simply as a tap. This word has been around since the 19th century and can be traced back to a late Middle English word given to a bung for the vent-hole of a cask, or a tap for drawing liquor from a container, and in turn from the Old French fausset meaning to bore. So this is an example of the wide array of words that have been incorporated into the American language from all over the world, in this case, French settlers.
You won’t ever hear of people changing their baby’s nappy in America, you’ll hear about them changing their baby’s diaper. This word for a nappy has a surprisingly romantic origin too! Diaper has been around since the 12th century and comes from the Middle English word diapre meaning made of diaper. This doesn’t help us understand too much, but when we trace that Middle English word back to its Ancient Greek origin it all becomes clear: di means of, and aspros means white. This became diaspros, and then diaper, meaning pure white (at least they are until a baby has worn them for a while…!)
This is an unusual one, and it shows you just how different American and British English can be. In British English, bangs would be used to describe a load sound, like a gun going off. In American English, however, bangs are a fringe of hair that’s cut straight across the forehead. This use of the word comes from one meaning of the word ‘bang’ which means ‘abrupt’, as a full fringe cuts across the forehead quite abruptly, creating a strong line.
This is an American word for what the British would more often call a bogey – a piece of nasal mucus. It turns out people have been picking their noses for boogers for a long time, as the word has been traced all the way back to 1866! But the term can also be used as a name for a bogeyman, a spook, hobgoblin or scary apparition. It most likely comes from the Old English word boggard meaning goblin – which is another slimy green thing!
EF English Live
Ever feel agitated? Impatient? Restless? Then you’ve definitely been antsy. This word originated in North America and can be traced back to the mid-19th century. It’s believed to have come from the popular phrase ‘to have ants in your pants’ – something that would understandably make you feel very agitated!
Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Money makes the world go round?’ Then you’ll definitely understand the phrase ‘All about the Benjamins’. This Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. hit helped popularise this word outside of American hip-hop and street culture. A ‘Benjamin’ is a slang term for an American $100 dollar bill, because these bills feature the face of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of America. So if something is all about the Benjamins, it’s all about the money.