More than skin-deep

Posted on Sun 29 Jun 2014 @ 7.10pm UTC

british vs american

What does it feel like to be a British English speaker in the midst of American English speakers?

In other words, what British English words and phrases are not understood by American English speakers, and vice versa?

Psychologist Jeremy Miles offers a flavour of the confusion of the Anglo-American language divide that still exists even today.

(Note:— Original spelling and punctuation retained to the extent possible. Some text amended to fit in with the format of this blog. Square brackets indicate Editor’s clarifications.)

up yours british vs american

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

— Marcus Aurelius

I’M British, and I’ve lived in the USA for seven years. I’m amazed how often I’m still not understood (or how often I don’t understand). I’ve tried to talk about the less obvious examples here, or where nuance matters.

The biggest source of confusion is that British people tend to understate things, and Americans take that literally.

The classic example is the response to “How are you?” A typical American response is “Great!” or “Good.” If someone responded like that to me in the UK I’d have been surprised and considered them arrogant. An appropriate British response is “Oh, surviving” or “They haven’t killed me yet.”

When I first moved to the US and responded like that, people would be genuinely concerned.

“Hey Jeremy, how’s it going?”
“Well, it’s been worse.”
“Oh, are you OK? Anything I can do to help?”

Similarly, one understates how bad things are.

“So, I hear your house burnt down?”
“Yes, it’s a bit boring.”


“Your wife left you, took the kids and the dog?”
“Yes, boring isn’t it.”

Americans (tend to) respond with something like “It’s more than boring, it’s terrible!

It’s slightly frowned upon to request a lot of something if you’re British. If I’m offered some beer, I might say “Yes, I could drink a little,” or, holding out my glass, “You could put a drop in there.” Then someone does give me a little, or puts a drop in there. I didn’t want a little, I wanted a lot. But I didn’t ask for that, because it’s not polite. If a British person asks you for a drop of beer, give them a pint.

Then there are the words.

There are lots of words out there (including other answers to this question). These are some of the less obvious ones.


Pants in the USA means, well, pants [trousers]. In the UK, it means underwear. It dawned on me yesterday that “Liar, liar, pants on fire” is used in both places, and therefore has a different meaning. And sometimes it means ‘no good’ — “That’s completely pants.”


The word merry is used as a euphemism for being drunk in the UK. This is not the case in the USA. [It means happy over there.—Editor]


Bollocks means testicles [balls] in the UK. It is a reasonably offensive word in the UK. Newcastle Brown Ale uses it in a radio ad in the US and that would not be possible in the UK. Bollocks can also be used as an exclamation, as a description of something that is not very good or not true (bullshit):—

Bollocks! (UK) = Bullshit! (US)

Confusingly, if something is the dog’s bollocks, it is excellent — the absolute apex of quality — this is then abbreviated to “the bollocks.” Therefore in the UK—

bollocks = poor, untrue
the bollocks = very, very good

James Gordon Bennett JrGordon Bennett

Another UK exclamation is “Gordon Bennett!” (Say it, out loud. Go on. Feels good, doesn’t it?)

American: “You’ve dropped sauce on your shirt.”
Me: “Oh, Gordon Bennett! Again!”
American: “What? Who’s Gordon Bennett?”

[James Gordon Bennett Jr (photo), 1841–1918, who allegedly had a reputation for painting the town red, was the model for the exclamation.— Editor.]


A yard in the USA is a garden in the UK. (In the UK, it would be a yard if it had no soil or grass). A vegetable garden is a garden (at least I think that’s what it is). So in the USA one does yardwork when one mows the lawn, cuts the hedge, etc, but if you pay someone to mow the lawn, cut the hedge, etc, they’re a gardener.


I haven’t quite got all the subtleties of stores and shops yet. In the US, you go shopping in stores, not in shops (for the most part). [In the UK, it’s the reverse.—Editor.] A supermarket is a grocery store or a market. Maybe it’s a supermarket sometimes. A convenience store might also be a market.

off licence

An off licence in the UK is a liquor store in the USA. I think that varies from state to state.


In the USA, school often means university or college [as in business school, law school, etc]. [College in the USA often means university.] So if someone talks about their ‘school’ in the US, they’re talking about the place they went after they were at school. I’m not sure how they distinguish their school from their school — maybe it’s obvious from the context.

[In the UK, school means school — secondary school and anything below. College often means senior secondary school (a.k.a. sixth-form college) although some universities have ‘university colleges,’ which are degree-studying institutions of the university. In the UK, a university is always a university.—Editor.]


Graft is an interesting one. Graft, in the UK, is a good thing — it refers to hard work [e.g. the hard graft of making a living]. To describe someone as a grafter means that they work hard, and long hours. In the US, it refers to bribery and corruption.

washing up

Washing up, in Britain, means to wash dishes. You don’t wash up anything except dishes. To an American, one washes up before dinner, meaning to wash your hands. So washing-up liquid is the stuff you use for washing up (i.e. washing dishes), but if you ask an American for washing-up liquid, they’re confused. I still don’t know what it’s called. I’ve tried asking for “dish-washing soap” or “dish-washing detergent,” but then I get the stuff you use in the dishwasher, not the stuff you use in the sink.


In the USA, you cook on a stove, not a cooker [UK].


A grill is a large griddle-type thing, which we call something for frying on in the UK. You can grill on a barbecue. What we call a grill is a broiler in the USA, and broiling (grilling) is very rarely done [in the UK]. I’ve known people who didn’t know how to turn on the grill (broiler) on their cooker (stove). A frying pan [UK] is a skillet [US]. [A skillet in the UK is a different thing].

The worst place in the USA for not being understood is Home Depot.

Lots of things have different names. Everyone knows that a spanner [UK] is a wrench. But putty [UK] (or what I think of as putty), which is stuff for holding glass in windows, is not putty — it’s got another name (which I’ve forgotten). And what Americans think of as putty is something different. What is plumber’s putty [US]? Why do plumbers need to hold glass in windows? I don’t know.

British masking tape is American painter’s tape.
British plasterboard is American drywall.
British white spirit is American mineral spirit.

I don’t know what British woodstain is — the kind made by Ronseal, which does exactly what it say on the can [UK: tin] — it’s not what’s sold as woodstain in the US.

British breeze blocks are American cinder blocks.
British silicon sealant is American caulk.

On one occasion I wanted a threaded rod from Home Depot. There’s no way I was going through the procedure of finding someone to ask, and then trying to explain what I wanted. (I had enough trouble when I wanted a “rubbish bin” — eventually I gave up and just looked [US: browsed]. But after wandering the aisles of Home Depot for quite some time, it turned out that the American for threaded rod is … threaded rod.

Acme threaded rod


Jeremy Miles is a British research psychologist with the RAND Corporation in Los Angeles, USA. This article was originally an entry in a thread on Quora on 21 Dec 2013.



More Anglo-American language confusions


Images: James Gordon Bennett Jr via The Phrase Finder ♦ Acme threaded rod via Woodworking Online ♦ All else via c4c.

© Learn English or Starve, 2014. (B14187)

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