British Words That Mean Something Different In America

Studying abroad is a very unsettling experience, not only because you are displaced from everything you have ever known (your family, your school, your TV show schedule) but also because you must equip yourself with an entirely new set of slang terms that you must remember in order to avoid ousting yourself as a tourist. Having arrived at my temporary school in the United Kingdom just a few days ago, I’m still in the process of learning the linguistic quirks of my new homeland. While I have yet to make some of these mistakes (luckily, one of my best friends just returned from Europe and gave me the low-down on the lingo), it doesn’t hurt to make a guide in case I suddenly develop amnesia and forget them in the future. Other people can use it too, I guess.


Definition in Britain: Eraser

Definition in America: Condom

In America, if you asked to borrow someone’s rubber during an exam, I suspect they would give you a concerned look and promptly move to another desk. That’s because in the US, rubber is often a synonym for condom. In contrast, the British use the word rubber to refer to erasers, so when your cute neighbor stops by asking to borrow a rubber, you can relax. He’s likely just doing his homework.


Definition in Britain: Apartment

Definition in America: Smooth (or also an apartment)

When the aforementioned friend returned from her adventures in Scotland, I noticed that she had adopted parts of the Scottish vocabulary, including the word flat. I’ve heard this word used before in America to describe fancy studio apartments but only on rare occasions. Apparently, flat is the go-to word for the British when referring to an apartment and roommates are even known as flatmates. Shocker, I know.

Fish & Chips

Definition in Britain: Fried Fish and French Fries

Definition in America: Fish and Potato Chips

I never understood why fish and chips would be the unofficial food combo for an entire country. At least, I didn’t understand it up until I realized that the fish and chips they were referring to didn’t involve a platter of salmon and potato chips. In reality, the typical fish and chips dinner includes deep fried fish and fries, a mix that still seems weird to me, despite the fact that I live in a country where bacon on ice cream is considered a serious dessert.


Definition in Britain: Television

Definition in America: Teletubbies?

No matter how many magical things Barney would pull out of his magic bag, I was always a bigger fan of Teletubbies. According to my mom, I would often sit in front of the TV for hours, entranced by the little aliens and their strangely delicious-looking Tubby Toast. Therefore, it only makes sense that my brain associates the word “tele” with the colorful creatures of my childhood and not what it actually is in Britain: a slang term for television.


Definition in Britain: University

Definition in America: A prefix meaning “one” or the start of the word “unicorn”

When asked what they’re doing once they graduate, most 18-year-olds will utter the same old phrase: “I’m going to college.” Or, if you’re from Boston: “I’m goin’ to cahlege.” In the UK, however, most students declare that they’re going to “uni,” meaning, university. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop myself from silently finishing the word “uni” with “corn” whenever I hear it. Sorry that I’m secretly five-years-old.


Definition in Britain: Pharmacist

Definition in America: Scientist specializing in chemistry

If you happen to overhear your friend discussing her new chemist neighbor, don’t automatically assume that Walter White has moved in nearby. In Britain, a chemist doesn’t refer to a master of the periodic table but rather, a worker at a pharmacy. Long story short, just be aware that saying “I went to pick up some drugs from my chemist today” can easily categorize you as either a regular person that needs medication or a druggie.


Definition in Britain: Elevator

Definition in America: Machine used to lift heavy objects

Technically, these two definitions are not that far apart. Elevators do, in fact, pick up heavy objects. The difference in my mind comes from the image that springs up when someone says lift. Though a forklift, which is what I instantly imagine, may be helpful in raising individual people a few feet in the air, I don’t suspect that groups of people would be able to use them without killing one another. Just a theory.


Definition in Britain: Sweater

Definition in America: Someone standing on the edge of a building prepared to jump

In Britain, jumpers are not a cause for concern, unless they are somehow infested with bed bugs or fabric-hungry moths. (I’m not a bug expert; moths eat clothes, right?) In America, on the other hand, one mention of a “jumper” launches a frenzy of police activity and worried onlookers.

Having been in the UK for only a few days, it’s entirely possible all of these slang terms are not as popular as I think they are or that the meanings used above are now obscure or obsolete. If that’s the case, I’ll likely figure it out in a few days when I accidentally misuse one of my own supposedly correct words. In the meantime, if anyone knows of any other slang words I should know about, let me know! The more I learn, the less likely I will be to embarrass myself later on.

Image via Shutterstock.

  • David Syphers

    I’m by no means an expert, but these are a few that I picked up on a UK visit. These aren’t hard rules because usage does vary – in particular, I don’t know what American English gets up to in the Northeast.

    Coriander. In Britain this is the leaves (what we call cilantro in America). In America it’s the seeds (usually, not always). Good to know, whether you love or hate cilantro.

    Spring roll. In Britain this is what Americans would call an egg roll (it’s fried and served in Chinese restaurants). In America it’s (usually) a fresh Vietnamese spring roll (not fried, served cold).

    Cheers. In Britain this is the correct response to almost everything. Thank you, you’re welcome, goodbye, whatever. (Can you say “cheers” in response to “cheers”? Probably!) In America, the use of this word by itself is largely restricted to expressing good wishes before drinking.

    • David Syphers

      Oh, and less relevant to daily life, but one of my favorites. Public schools. In Britain this refers to a select group of elite schools that cost money (i.e., what in America we’d call private schools, and the most snobby ones at that). E.g., Eton. In America public schools are what we unwashed masses went to, with no student fees.

      • Rhona Tennant

        The public school thing varies because many in Scotland call the elite high cost schools private schools with public schools being the government paid free to all schools or state school. It kind of depends on where in Britain you are :)

  • Tricia McReynolds

    If you ask for a ride, someone in the States might pick you up in their car. In the UK, it’s a bit more sexual. Ask your friends for a lift (rather than being picked up, you get lifted, which always made me think of being carried by a giant).

    Don’t forget my favorite (favourite?) faux pas: PANTS.
    In the States, those things that cover your legs. In the UK… underwear. Can lead to embarrassing conversations with your coworkers when you come in from the rain and complain of wet pants!

  • Amanda Lindsey

    Clot is one of my favorites. In America, it almost exclusively refers to a blood clot. In Britain, it’s a synonym for idiot or moron.

    Also an important one to remember: Fag. In Britain, a cigarette. In America, a highly derogatory term for a homosexual.

  • Angie Fowler

    You also forgot fag which means a cigarette over there and of course is a derogatory term here.

  • Ronni Blackford

    Don’t forget zuchinni and eggplant – what the hell are those!?

  • Ronni Blackford

    Also, what the heck is a zuchinni or an eggplant?!

  • Hannah Smith

    From the British side of things there are a few perplexing ones:

    Fanny – this does not mean bum! It is a lady part. Or a wimp (wuss?). A fanny pack is called a ‘bum bag’ here.
    Zucchini – corgette (I think).
    Eggplant – aubergine.
    Wine with orange juice is bucks fizz here but I have no idea what a yam is…maybe sweet potato?
    Fag is cigarette but we also use it in a derogatory sense like you do. Some people say ‘ciggie’ for cigarette instead.

  • Suheiry Feliciano

    The “unicorn” thing made me laugh out loud (not lol, because sometimes people type lol when they just mean smiled or chuckled).

    My friend from Northern Ireland went to a Catholic university here in the states, and she asked a professor for a “rubber”. Her classmates all laughed, and he kicked her out of class.

  • Andrea Sampedro

    Here in México a Jumper is like a dress…. like this

    I don’t know if it’s very common but that’s how they called my school dress, I mean uniform. Haha.

    • John MacNatius

      I’m from Southern California (Los Angeles to be specific) and also grew up calling that type of dress a ‘jumper’. Not too surprising, though. We have a much closer relationship with Mexico than with our (more) British influenced brothers to the far north. I’d be remiss to mention, however, the huge impact Canadians have made in the entertainment industry. Entertainment carries a lot of weight around here for sure, but it also gradually influences all those who consume it, so it’s very possible that much of the world is becoming slightly more Canadian over time (Canucks are advised at this point to begin rubbing their hands together and laughing maniacally).

  • Jill Mayo

    I like trolley. Here in America, I think of trolley cars in San Fransisco. British use it for a shopping cart. So it was weird to here someone say that they were pushing a trolley.

    • Catherine Alekna

      Trolley is one of my favourite English/American words. My poor American friend was very worried once when i asked her to grab a trolley for us at the supermarket.

  • Margherita Alletto

    Uk pants –> underwear;
    uk trousers –> pants 😛
    A lot of people don’t know what a restroom is.
    I can’t think about something else… also because I’m not an English mother tongue.
    Oh and in a lot of chippies (fish & chips shops) here in Scotland you wont find french fries but just sliced potatoes.

  • Sara Marsden

    In Australia these are all common words as they are in England. As for Eggplant and Zucchini we say that instead of aubergine and corgrette. We also say Thongs for flip flops in NZ it is something different again. Yams took me ages to figure out as we have sweet potato and there is a particular type which is called NZ Yams but they don’t get much bigger than a inch in length here. There is also a native yam I think but I think the American one is a particular type. We also don’t have 3 types of schools before university, we only have 2 – primary school (ages 5/6 – 11/12 school years kindergarten to year 6) and high school (ages 12/13 – 17/18 school years 7-12) ages depending on when your birthday is in the year. We also don’t have corn syrup in our breakfast cereals or sell it in a bottle and fish and chips are all the rage here to as are deep fried battered prawns, crab sticks and sometimes mars bars. We also don’t have kangaroos roaming the street or Koalas in every tree. We do have possums and bats flying around at night and we do eat Kangaroos and some Emus too. Kangaroo for those who want to try it tastes like a gamier version of vension. We also apologise for our new prime minister (president) to everyone a lot of us didn’t want him and the ones that did are probably regretting it now – we know that he is not the brightest of sparks. Also voting is compulsory in Australia unlike America.

  • Jodie Deignan

    There are part of the US where Fish and Chips means Fish and French Fries. That’s how I always heard it referred to growing up on Cape Cod.

  • Sylke Neal-Finnegan

    Here are more UK to US translations:
    nappies = diapers
    knickers = panties
    pram = stroller
    boot = trunk
    biscuit= cookie

    I lived in England as a tot, and when we moved back to the US, my extended family had no idea what I was saying half the time (my then-English accent notwithstanding).

  • Lisa Carratt

    It’s great in Australia, thanks to TV we get the best of both worlds! Can lead to a few misunderstandings, and giggles from middle-school-aged children when someone asks them to ‘pass the rubber’ !

  • Melissa Natalie Dawn Lottering

    I’m a South African in China with mostly Americans, we’ve already been through all of those since we use British English back home! But it’s even worse for me, we have an Africanized English so I often get blank stares when I say something that is apparently unintelligible to Americans/Europeans/Chinese. But the flip side is I always know what everybody else is saying :)

    • Zozette Balsaras

      Saying that I am stopped at a red robot always gets me funny looks! 😀

  • Bec Cushway

    Just so you know American kidlets, this is the norm for most english speaking countries that aren’t America. America is the exception when it comes to slang. Panties are not a thing outside America.

  • Jane Man

    My boyfriend’s British. I’m Canadian. We have a fun time making sure we don’t understand each other, or purposefully saying things/incorporating words that the other will point out as “not a word”.

    To add to the lists (British –> North American):
    Crisps –> Chips
    Hired car –> Car rental
    Great shout –> Good idea
    Taking the piss –> (…I actually don’t even know how to translate this. I just know how to interpret it contextually.)

    They pronounce pastel: pass-tel VS. pas-tell
    Oh, and Norwich is actually pronounced ‘norridge’. Which means I’m going to start saying sandwich ‘sandridge’.

    • Sam Hilton

      No we say “nor-rich” not “nor-ridge” it’s the W that is silent and other than that there’s no weird pronunciation.

    • ManiacScone

      To take the piss is to say something one does not mean, usually with humorous intent.

      “Hey, you want to rob a bank later?”
      “Relax, I’m taking the piss.”

    • ManiacScone

      To take the piss is to say something one does not mean, usually with humorous intent.

      “Hey, you want to rob a bank later?”
      “Relax, I’m taking the piss.”

  • Valen Hamlin

    One word: Fanny

  • Milena Skalicky

    French Fries are not chips – french fries are the anorexic version of good old potato chips. Potato chips are not as thick as wedges, but not as stupidly thin as french fries.

    BTW – these also all work in Australia as well. We’re much closer to both British spelling and slang than we are to American.

    A couple of others for you

    Cookies vs Biscuits.
    Jam vs Jelly
    Jelly vs Jello

    All have different meanings in UK/Aus

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