Whilst the UK and the US may share English as an official native language, there are some words which just don’t make the journey across the Atlantic. If you are learning English, you’ll no doubt also want to get to know some of the regional variations and peculiarities of this global language.
Britain, with the longer history of English, has some phrases that have survived from medieval time (not all of them pleasant, actually: most of them are swear words!); but the US also has its traditional phrases whose specificity make no sense to the British.
Here we’ll run down a few choice British English words which baffle and bamboozle the American ear:
Food is a recurring topic of confusion for the US and UK. In Britain, chips refer to potatoes, cut into thick strips or wedges, usually at least 1-2cm thick, and fried in oil. Usually served wrapped in newspaper with salt and vinegar. In the US, chips are what the Brits call crisps: tiny, thin slices of potato friend or over-baked until they are slim and crunchy.
In the US, your pants are your trousers: what you wear over your legs. In the UK, pants are what you wear under your trousers (your knickers or underwear!). Also, ‘pants’ used colloquially can mean that something is a bit disappointing or dull: ‘that film was pants’ = that film was pretty bad.
A muppet – and here refer to any cockney gangster film from London – is not a furry, talking puppet made by Jim Henson. No, that is the US version. In the UK (no doubt as a way of also making fun of the US version) a ‘muppet’ is a fool or an idiot – i.e. “don’t put your hand in the oven, you muppet!”
A blinder is very positive, despite how it sounds. It is often used to refer to sport or performance – “he played a blinder”, “what a blinder”.
In British English, a quid is slang for a pound sterling – the British currency. Like the US, the UK has plenty of terms for money – but none of them are the same as the US. Dosh, cash, quid, bunce, bangers and mash (cockney rhyming slang = cash) all mean money.
Another foodie confusion: an aubergine is what the British call a large purple vegetable affectionately known in the US as an eggplant.
Banger is another fantastically British English word. It is perhaps best known for referring to a sausage – bangers and mash, a British classic dish, means sausages with mashed potato. But a banger can also be anything good, or particularly rousing. This is used especially in reference to songs – “that is a club banger!” means ‘this song gets a club bouncing/it’s a huge tune!’
More food-related foolishness. Biscuits in the US refer to a Southern foodstuff, usually made with corn and served with something called ‘gravy’ – a sloppy whitish sauce. In the UK, biscuits refer to everything US English calls cookies. From Rich Tea (a quite bland, smooth biscuit) to Pink Wafers (….they’re pink wafers) to Hobnobs (oaty, rough biscuits covered with chocolate), the British biscuit is to be loved and adored. Dunked in tea is the classic way to eat.
Another tricky word; in the US a bum usually refers to a homeless person or vagabond, someone with no fixed abode or job who is judged to be drifting. In the UK a ‘bum’ is slang for your bottom (!). We think it best not to confuse them!
In British English, hard is a word with many meanings. It can refer, as its primary dictionary meaning, to a material which is solid and rigid – i.e. a hard brick wall. However, following this meaning it has also become popular slang. ‘Hard’ or ‘solid’ is used to refer to work which is difficult – i.e. ‘this maths homework is solid’; or it can also be used to refer to a person who is tough, not to be messed with – ‘that Vinnie Jones is hard’. One thing is for sure: don’t get in a fight with a ‘hard’ person.
Two meanings here: if you use ‘fancy’ as an adjective (i.e. ‘that car is fancy’) it means posh, flashy. But if you use it as a verb in British English it is totally different: to fancy someone means to take a shine to them, to be interested in them romantically (i.e. “ooh I really fancy Brad Pitt”).
In British English ‘knackered’ is slang for being tired. The origin of this phrase is not very nice – it comes from castrating horses, whose chopped-off testicles were known as ‘knackers’. Urgh! It’s a wonder this phrase has become so popular!
In the US grass is a noun. In the UK it is also a verb: to ‘grass’ on someone, or to ‘grass someone up’, means to tell on them, usually to an authority figure. And the person who ‘grasses’ is usually a friend – or at least someone you know. So, a friend in primary school can ‘grass’ on you to a teacher (“it was her who stole the chalk from the blackboard!!”); but it can also be very serious – a ‘supergrass’ can also be a politician, soldier or rebel who reveals secrets about a colleague for political gain.
In the UK, a mug has traditionally meant two things: a cup for your tea or hot drunk; or an idiot, a fool, someone who has been made to look stupid. In the US, a mug is usually a thug or hoodlum. In the US, to be mugged is to be robbed (by a mug, one assumes). In the UK, to be mugged is to be fooled. Yet the US meaning is also more common in Britain now – be careful of confusion!