Same words but opposites

Posted on Tue 01 Aug 2017 @ 12.00pm UTC


What words, phrases or idioms mean the opposite in British and American English?

There are numerous examples to draw on.

The classic one is to table, a verb that has two contradictory meanings particularly in the context of parliamentary or legislative procedure.

In the English-speaking world except the USA, to table means to put a motion on the agenda for consideration or reconsideration.

In the USA, however, to table means to postpone or to suspend consideration of a pending motion — in short, to shelve it.

Try these common ones too:—

bomb vs. the bomb

Bomb means failure in both American and British English, but the bomb is only in British English and means a success (or “better than the rest”).

The mid-1970s was probably the last time I heard the bomb used in the USA to mean a success, and it was among surfers. Having said that, the expression’s ‘success’ meaning is still going strong in some parts of California (among surfers probably) to mean a great and cool thing — including updated forms such as bomb dot com” (ca. 2009) and “bomb diggity” (ca. 2004).

Many of us will recall the bomb being popular enough in the 1990s even in the USA to describe music — some might have said so-and-so band “is the bomb” (meaning better than the rest).

The bomb as ‘success’ lives on in American English but sounds a little bit dated.


Chuffed means pleased. It’s a British idiom or slang (can’t remember which) and was made famous in 1964 by British author Harold Pinter:— “chuffed to the bollocks” (immensely pleased; happy as a clam).

Not really a word in American English generally, but most Americans seem to think chuffed means “upset,” which it doesn’t.


This word discursive is often used for describing essay or writing structure or otherwise in literary analysis. The American and British meanings are complete opposites:—

  • American — rambling or freeform
  • British — strictly structured

The real question is, why can’t they just spell it out and say “rambling,” “freeform” or “strictly structured,” right? Make a sincere effort to avoid ambiguity.


Throughout North America, homely is usually applied to a person and means unattractive, unappealing or even ugly. In short, unprepossessing. The opposite is comely (pleasing or attractive to the eye).

However, homely in British English and most of the English-speaking world means pleasantly comfortable or cosy. It’s often applied to surroundings and places instead of people (as in property listings:— “a homely townhouse in bustling West End London”).

But homely is great fun in British English because it can have several contradictory meanings depending on what it’s applied to:—


Positive/neutral connotations — plain and unpretentious

  • homely truths
  • homely advice
  • homely fare/meals

Positive/neutral connotations — without artificial refinement or elegance

  • plain homely furniture
  • homely manners

Negative connotations — unprepossessing and without beauty

  • some of the buildings were downright homely


Positive connotations — unpretentious, kind, gracious and cordial

  • a homely, marriageable woman

Neutral/negative connotations — lacking (or still lacking) in physical beauty or proportion

  • a homely child

Negative connotations — unsophisticated and domestic

  • a homely girl with a freckled face and rube comportment

Just like in North America, the opposite to homely for a person is comely.


Fun to watch the wordniks bicker over this one.

The meanings are the same in British and American English, but the meanings vary according to the TENSE.

momentarilyPast and Present tenses only (British and American)

  • for a brief moment
  • for a short duration
  • only briefly (only for a brief time)

momentarilyFuture tenses only (British and American)

  • in a short while
  • shortly or soon in Americanspeak
  • presently or soon or almost immediately in Britishspeak

In good, clean, crisp English, we would NOT use momentarily in any Future tenses to mean “for a short duration.”


Past tenses

We listened momentarily to him droning on about the policy. (Only briefly)

We ate momentarily at that restaurant. (For a brief duration)

Present tenses

He listens momentarily to the radio. (Only briefly)

They are momentarily reordering the parcels. (For a brief time)

Future tenses

We will be taking off momentarily. (Shortly, presently)

Not:— We will momentarily be taking off.

We will arrive at the destination momentarily. (Shortly, presently)

Not:— We will arrive momentarily at the destination.

Not:— We will momentarily arrive at the destination.

We will stay at the Casa Blanca for a short while before moving on.

Not:— We will stay at the Casa Blanca momentarily before moving on.

In all Future tenses, the correct placement of momentarily is away from the verb as far as the sentence structure allows. In practice, it’s nearly always at the end of the sentence, and the sentence is also nearly always a short one.

The wordniks love to assert that momentarily can only mean “for a short period of time” — and to use it to mean ‘shortly’ or ‘soon’ is an argument for teaching English properly. They couldn’t be more wrong if they tried — a case for their learning English properly.

Question is, how does one determine what’s present and what’s future in real life?


Nonplussed actually means bewildered or perplexed, but many Americans mistakenly use it to mean ‘unfazed.’ The word is never hyphenated.

The traditional English pronunciation is “non-ploozd” to stick closer to its Latin original nōn plūs (no more, no further) from the 1600s. This still remains the one taught in the better English-medium schools worldwide.

The UK pronunciation since at least the 1970s has become “non-plŭst” (/nɒnˈplʌst/) with the “ŭ” sounding like run, enough or up (click here for sound of the open midback unrounded vowel). This is the correct modern pronunciation there.

The correct American pronunciation has always been “non-plast” (/ˈnɑnˈpləst/) with the schwa ‘ə’ rhyming with about (click here for schwa sound).


Generally speaking, quite in American English means completely.

In British, it’s often in the sense of slightly (quite tolerable).

The trouble is that British English has more shades of meaning for most words than American English has, so quite could just as well mean slightly, significantly, substantially or even completely (quite stupid: ‘noticeably stupid’) depending on the surrounding context.

It’s never a 100% match. Two countries separated by a common language, as the saying goes.


The use of shopping shows up a very old-fashioned difference between the older and younger generations.

To nearly everyone around the world, shopping takes on the predominant American sense — buying things in shops (and usually slightly more expensive than the groceries).

In pre-World War Two British usage and for some really old British people, shopping meant going to the shops and browsing there — buying stuff is only an incidental byproduct of that activity. “We went shopping” meant looking around various shops rather than to buy things. It’s a bit like window-shopping, if that helps.

That difference is worth knowing (especially for reading ‘dated’ material), though we have to pragmatic and accept shopping just means buying things in shops in any form of modern English.


In British English for general usage, torrid has two meanings:—

Physical conditionsvery hot and dry (the torrid heat of the place)

Non-physical conditionsvery bad or full of difficulty (Wall Street will be in for a torrid time)

In American English for general usage, torrid means very intense (a torrid love affair).

Most British English speakers tend to limit their usage of torrid for most things except to describe a very intense love affair.

© Learn English or Starve, 01 Aug 2017. (B17119)

Original text 29 Jul 2014. (1,249 words)

04 Aug 2017 (minor edits for improved readability)

Featured image via Facilitate.

Posted in: Colour Section