Written Rambles

British Words That Mean Something Different in America (Part 2)

In January, I wrote an article on HelloGiggles that chronicled some of the slang differences I immediately noticed upon arriving in the UK for my study abroad program. However, after living in a “flat” with British students and taking classes at “uni” for the past few months, I’ve come across a couple of differences in language that are a bit more subtle. Misuse just one of these terms and you’ll be ousted as an American on the spot, before you even have the chance to explain the SATs, decry Miley Cyrus, or say anything that would otherwise peg you as an exchange students “from the States.”


In the US: an expression used in celebration, usually when clinking glasses together

In the UK: an expression of gratitude

“How exactly do you use ‘cheers’ here?” This was the question my friend and I asked our British flatmate after returning from a shopping trip and hearing every single bus passenger mumble this word to the driver as they entered and left the vehicle. While, in the US, a person might yell cheers right before they tumble off of their bar stool, in the UK, cheers is meant more as a way of saying “thank you.” Though it doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to get behind, I still find myself saying “thank you” as I get off the bus or occasionally “OW” when they close the door on me on my way out.


In the US: an inquisitive gesture

In the UK: a greeting

It only takes one misunderstood slang word to make you question your emotional state of mind. Unlike in America, where hearing someone ask “are you alright” is an indication that you failed to put on enough makeup to hide your natural disdain for people, the word “alright” in England is more of a casual greeting (i.e. “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”). This can initially be very confusing, especially when everyone is suddenly asking “alright?” and you begin to wonder if you look pale or unwelcoming, even though you thought you were in a good mood. Suddenly, you fall into an existential crisis as you start questioning whether or not you’ve always looked sick and no one has told you until now, or if British people are hyper-aware of sadness and can pick up on it before you even have the chance to recognize it yourself. Moral of the story: “Alright?” is the British equivalent of the rest of the world’s “How are you?” which means you should give a short and meaningless “Good, you?” and move on without waiting for a response.


In the US: disrespectful in speech or behavior

In the UK: behaving in a bold or rude manner, but in a funny way

Cheeky is a tough word to define. Even British students find the slightly altered definition hard to describe, often suggesting anything from “flirty” to “playfully bratty.” The best example I can come up with might be when you say something sarcastic to your mom or dad and they let out a slight chuckle before telling you to “Stop being so fresh!” They’re recognizing your boldness while also acknowledging that it wasn’t offensive. It seems that cheeky has a similar connotation. So next time some guy tells you that you’re acting a bit “cheeky,” don’t run to your room and cry into a box of Thin Mints because you think you insulted him. (In fact, don’t do that even if he was insulted. You don’t need no man to make you happy.) In reality, he was probably just trying to be flirtatious, and an emotional breakdown would probably not be the best response.


In the US: someone who helps you with your homework

In the UK: a formal instructor

I sent an email to one of my teachers last week to ask about the upcoming essay that was due. I began the email with “Hi Professor _____,” thinking that the adults spewing information at us in our seminars every week are surely considered our professors. As it turns out, “tutors” are not exactly professors, which I learned when the teacher kindly thanked me for the career upgrade but pointed out that he wasn’t a professor quite yet. In the educator hierarchy, tutors are apparently one notch below professor and are usually graduate students on their way to completing a Masters or PHD. In the US, unless they are employed by some big name company, tutors are usually only qualified enough to critique your essay outline or help you figure out why Tommy bought 50 watermelons at a local fair at 5 pounds each with each melon costing 10 dollars per pounds without considering how exorbitant the price would be ahead of time.

Everyone says that the UK is the best place to study abroad if you want to avoid culture shock because it is so similar to the US. While that is certainly true, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the few differences they do have. If you didn’t answer the question on my original article, then riddle me this: what other British words have you found that have a different meaning in the US?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=598245881 Amy Louise Wright

    By all means, you can say “thank you” when getting off the bus. Partly because “cheers” sounds so odd in an American accent. 😛

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1208847996 Danielle Kinnaird

    We do use alright? As a question towards someone’s well being as well as a greeting. And we do say cheers when clinking glasses as well .
    I think we just tend to have more multiple uses of words then the US :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=27904191 Cait Rielly

    PANTS! In the UK pants are underwear. Trousers are pants. As an american working in a British clothing store for 6 months, this was quite often a mis-communication that I encountered. Oops! :)
    Also…Fanny. Hint. It’s not your butt, and boys don’t have them!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003766005739 Jan Cross

      As a British person living in the UK for all of my 47 years, pants are NOT underwear. We do not need to be corrected. And as previously stated, the word itself comes from the French word ‘pantalons’ which means, (wait for it) pants! I can see where the melange of language might happen, with our youth being exposed to a myriad of US television and internet streaming, and a few of us may have adopted the Americanism ‘pants’ to mean underwear. When I buy my underwear, the packaging is invariably labelled ‘briefs’. Yes, I am fed up, but it is very annoying to be preached at about my own language as it is spoken in my home country!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003766005739 Jan Cross

    I differ on pants. Pants and trousers are trousers. Underwear are knickers or y-fronts, boxers or underpants – big clue, they go Under the Pants!. I think we may have ‘caught’ the American interpretation from TV soaps etc. Pants are not underwear.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1337735995 James Alexander Kerr

      Pants is from the French word ‘Pantaloons’, meaning trousers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001300465904 Theo No-hands Stevens

    As an Englishman, I have to point out that in the UK, all of these words bear both the “US” and “UK” meanings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=40309510 Sarah Regalado

    The one that I would have to get used to, if you’ll pardon my language, is “pissed.” In the UK it means “drunk” (though I’m not sure what level of drunk, either woozy or hammered), while in the US it means angry, or irritated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=540313198 Emma Jones

    ‘ “Alright?” is the British equivalent of the rest of the world’s “How are you?” which means you should give a short and meaningless “Good, you?” and move on without waiting for a response.’ LMAO!!!

    What part of old Blighty (Britain 😉 ) are you? Because if you were further North you’d need to learn a load more new words! 😀

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1209739930 Sophia Boniface

    The title of Professor is actually above that of Phd, only the more senior members of staff would be addressed as Prof. Most lecturers at university would be Dr.

    So you’re giving your tutor a double promotion! At my university they’re more helpfully called GTA’S (graduate teaching assistants), they also can be a great source of information not only there to coach you with essays.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659458771 Stuart Mackintosh

    I so love it when someone lazy, or stupid writes ” everyone says” anywhere in an article…..it makes the rest of the article unnecessary to read, saves a lot of time. It’s right up there with “apparently” just before a quote or statistic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1083885165 Susan Elizabeth-Marsh Tanabe

    Hmmmm . . . “the rest of the world. . . ” . . . ??? So, the US of A is the REST OF THE WORLD? The USA is not even the rest of the English-speaking world! This statement . . . smh. Also agree with Stuart Mackintosh (loving the name) in shaking my head at “Everyone says”. Too cocky, to be sure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=577488077 Melissa Thompson

    We had an exchange student from the UK and he freaked out about “khaki pants” – he said it took him weeks to figure out we were referring to “tan trousers”. Apparently (for him) khaki pants meant dirty underwear. I always got a good laugh out of that one!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003175669127 Megan Brady

      That would be because of the way people in the US pronounce khaki. In aus, and I’m pretty sure in the uk, we say it car-key. You say it cack-ki. Something that is cacky is yucky or soiled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506511801 Nicola Kay

    Calling underwear pants is a southern thing. Up North, we say pants instead of trousers (only posh people say trousers) and underwear is called either knickers or boxies, depending on gender. Of course those soft southerners would assume the whole country uses the same words but no :-p Southerners get really confused when I say ta instead of cheers. My favourite is the look of confusion when I greet them by saying ey up!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742082246 Rebecca Adrienne Adam

      I live in the South of England and genuinely everyone I know, knows what “Ta” means and uses it often. Along with ey up. Usually followed by pet. So there’s that. The one that confused me was watching Easy A, Emma Stone calls a girl an abominable twat, but she pronounces it “twot” and for ages I had no idea what she was on about!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=633190191 Gabriela A. Treviño

    I studied abroad in England via Wheaton College too!! Cheers :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=554006843 Paul Songer

    Whatever happens DO NOT EVER tell anyone you have a sore fanny. It means something very different indeed….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504552161 Kirsty Moffat

    The “You alright?” thing caused me an existential crisis every time for ages, so I feel your pain! I actually earned myself a nickname with one particular word. Here, they call a “zipper” a “zip.” So now I am stuck with the nickname “Zipper.” And calling underwear “pants” is not entirely southern. I am in Scotland, and most people I have encountered here, both in Edinburgh and Glasgow, refer to underwear as pants, and pants as “trousers” or “troosers”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003662526789 John Navarro

    i think the english has a fun time with their currency , but if you want a good laugh the country that is a arms length and a contentin by itself is australia, i have no ideal what they say or it’s like learning english all over again..whew that is all i can say is whew…i had made a call to a place in the country to look-up a part, it had taken me three tries to get a operator i could understand

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36917541 Lorisa Dubuc

    As a Canadian living in the south of England for the past 10 years, thought I would contribute the following, as I haven’t seen them mentioned in the comments to either Pt 1 or 2 of this article:

    snog (Br.) -> kiss (Am)
    pull (Br.) -> make out (or more…) with someone (Am)
    – as in “I pulled so-and-so last night”

    braces (Br) -> suspenders (Am)
    suspenders (Br) -> garters – as in women’s lingerie (Am)

    dodgy (Br) -> sketchy, questionable (Am)
    garden (Br) -> backyard (Am)

    Finally, bird names! Even after years of being here, I still can’t help giggling *every time* someone (namely my husband) tells me:

    “We have Great Tits in our garden.”

    I could go on… :-)

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