British Words That Mean Something Different In America Tyler Vendetti

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.

Rubber

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.

Flat

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.

Telly

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.

Uni

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.

Chemist

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.

Lift

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.

Jumper

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.

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  1. I’m glad these weren’t the typical biscuit/bun definitions. I never realised Americans didn’t use some of these words!

  2. Wait until you get embroiled in the lunch/dinner, dinner/tea, tea/dinner/supper debate. Always a fun way to get a bunch of Northerners and Southerners arguing- particularly if you through in some Welsh, Scottish or Irish folk!

  3. If you are in Scotland, you will also need this:

    http://www.slideshare.net/nicolaswankie/50-weird-scottish-words

    Some terminology can be quite different from England, especially the further north you go xx

  4. How about quid, taking the piss, brilliant, or biscuit?

  5. Not sure where you’re ordering your fish and chips here in the colonies but pretty much every major chain restaurant in America with “fish and chips” on the menu is going to give you a basket of fried fish filets and french fries. Not sure anyone anywhere sells a platter of salmon with potato chips and presumes to call it “fish and chips.”

    On a side note, potato chips in the UK are called crisps, cookies are biscuits and suggest putting jelly on your toast to a Brit and see how they react.

  6. Another really important one is funky. In the Uk it means your looking trendy, cool, or music can be funky. I’ve heard it used in the US to mean a bad smell? That could cause a real misunderstanding! Also we pronounce the H in herb. It always drives me crazy when I hear erb on an Aamerican TV programme! Lol

  7. I learned many of these terms by watching British TV shows on PBS. Here are a few more:

    Mobile=cell phone
    Carriage=subway car
    Boot=car trunk
    Crisps=potato chips? Or biscuits?
    Biscuits=cookies

  8. This is a fun one: a popsicle is an ice lolly!

  9. Don’t forget “ring.”
    In the U.S. it used as a verb – the phone is ringing, or a noun – bought her a ring; whilst in Britain and parts of HK/SP it means “to call someone.”

  10. Whilst pants means underwear down in the South of England, us Northerners use it to refer to our trousers, much like they do in the States. Another example of regional variations in Britain.

  11. When I was in London some time ago .I had a girlfriend named Maria.After our first date I took her home.She asked me”Will you knock me up tomorrow?
    Meaning will you knock on my door.Not the meaning in America.

  12. If you think the chips thing is hard to grasp (chips are the chunky kind, fries are skinny chips) wait until you start knowing people from different parts of the country! We’ve got separate words and dialects for everything. I often end up arguing with my northern flatmates at uni (no corn I’m afraid) about whether a bread roll is a bap, or a barm, whether when you honk your car horn it’s a beep or a pip. And don’t even get me started on dinner/tea. Or how to say scones… you could lose your head over THAT argument.

    Oh and bangers-and-mash? Sausages and mashed potato.

  13. purse is a wallet
    handbag is a purse

  14. Can I bum a fag, mate? No, I’m not talking about benders…

    Also, trainers are sneakers, pants are underpants and trousers are pants.

  15. The Simpsons often makes me chuckle ‘kiss my fanny / fannypack’ it does not mean the same in the UK, as many below have mentioned.

    The only comments I have on your lists are:

    1) Chips are not the same as French Fries, in-fact I don’t think I’ve heard ‘fries’ referred to as French Fries in a very long time; but chips are thickly cut potato usually deep fried.

    2) A lot of your alternate meanings are the same in the UK as well, eg. flat can still mean an even smooth surface (oh we still have roommates over here … if we’re sharing a room as opposed to sharing a flat / apartment) Uni is a prefix which can mean one eg. unicorn, it’s just it gets abbreviated for University. A lift can be a mechanical liftfor goods as opposed to an elevator and a chemist can be someone who works in the field of chemistry..

  16. Hi

    I think you may have forgotten Spunk…. in the US meaning courage and the UK meaning Sperm. So to say someone has loads of Spunk takes on a completely different meaning.

  17. Please stop calling it your ‘fanny’. Believe me, it doesn’t mean ‘ass’ in the UK.

  18. A fag is NOT a gay person, but a cigarette. Do not be confused if your friend says they’re going outside for a fag :)

  19. Also pants are trousers in USA. Worse is fanny is bum lol but ruder in the uk! I learned this by Sabrina the teenage witch singing “shake your wammy fanny, funky song, funky song!” lol

  20. very important! PANTS in USA are slacks, jeans etc. Pants in Britain is underwear! so dont go telling people youd love to show them your new pants, in Britain. it sounds so wrong!!!

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