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.