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English Beyond Books: Common English Vocabulary Not Found in Textbooks

Updated on February 1, 2016

Why brand names catch on.

By the time she got her aspirin, he had a headache too.
By the time she got her aspirin, he had a headache too. | Source

Double Meanings and Common Usage in English

English, as a language, has a long history. Words change meaning or take on new meaning. This is normal for all living languages. Languages evolve. What does this mean for the English learner? That depends. Do you really want to be able to enjoy Shakespeare or Sherlock Holmes? Even native English speakers often read them with a dictionary at their elbow. I might know ‘florid’ means ‘flowery’ but I had no idea that in Victorian England a ‘florid face’ is a red one. That said, it probably doesn’t matter if you know the word ‘florid’. It’s a good vocabulary word, but not an important one. But what about the word ‘gay’?

There are some words where it matters very much if you learn their definition. These are words that have two meanings; their old meaning and a new one. A good example is the word ‘gay’. If you have a really old textbook or dictionary, it will tell you that ‘gay’ means ‘happy’ or ‘joyful’. If your dictionary is up to date, it will tell you that ‘gay’ means ‘homosexual’. Both definitions are correct. Of the two, the second definition is the more useful to learn. That said, the first is also good to know. Why? Because it’s still around. In old texts, songs, and idioms, the word ‘gay’ continues to mean ‘happy’. But you wouldn’t want to only learn that definition.

Gay is an example that most people probably already know. It would be a very out of date textbook that would teach it as ‘happy’. Other words may have slipped through. Still other words may never have been taught in the first place. Why? Because they are brand names that have been used so often that everyone forgot the name they replaced. A good example of this is a Band-aide. In America, this is the word every child learns to mean the object you put over a cut. To British children, and likely in English textbooks (particularly older ones), the item is a 'plaster'. But if you were to go up to people in America and ask for a sticking plaster, you would probably get blank stares in return. The brand name has overtaken the original name.

Below, I have created a few charts detailing the differences you might find between what is in your textbook and what is actually spoken.

Alternate Words used in America

Original Word
Current Word
adhesive bandage, plaster
Band-Aid
(facial) tissue
Kleenex
acetylsalicylic acid
aspirin (generic name in US but trade name elsewhere)
ballpoint pen
Biro (British)
inflated cushioning
Bubble Wrap
lip balm
ChapStick
bleach
Clorax
slow cooker
Crock-Pot
large front loading garbage container
Dumpster
flying disc
Frisbee
internet search engine
Google
vacuum cleaner (still used in America)
Hoover (British)
hot tub or whirlpool bath
Jacuzzi
compact sporty utility vehicle (SUV)
Jeep
Photo manipulation
PhotoShop
table tennis
Ping Pong
soft modelling material
Play-Doh
ice pop, ice lolly (UK)
Popsicle
sticky note
Post-it
cotton swabs
Q-tips
real estate agent
Realtor
inline skates
Rollerblades
plastic wrap
Saran Wrap
clear adhesive tape
Scotch Tape (American), Sellotape (UK)
permanent marker
Sharpie
stun gun
Taser
plastic storage containers
Tupperware
hook and loop fastener
Velcro
petroleum jelly
Vaseline
white editing fluid
Wite-Out
to photocopy/photocopier
Xerox
Ice rink smoother
Zamboni
Note that when using a brand name, the first letter should be capitalized.

United States VS United Kingdom

British English and American English is different. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. You will probably be understood just as well whether you say ‘mom’ or ‘mum’, or spell a word ‘theater’ or ‘theatre’. That said, there are times where it makes a big difference.

Below is a list of words that show the differences between American English and British English. Some of these words are merely useful to know. Others can save you a lot of embarrassment.

American vs British

Source
Word
U.S. Definition
U.K. Definition
Fanny
A person's bottom. It is not crude. Also an old fashioned woman's name.
A ruder word than 'a person's bottom'. If you really want to know, Google it.
Bum
A homeless person. Also a lazy person.
A person’s bottom. It can also be used as a mixture of beg/borrow, particularly in the case of a cigarette. If you ever hear the phrase ‘bum a fag’, it probably means ‘borrow a cigarette’. That doesn’t stop the phrase from sounding dirty, particularly to Americans.
Fanny pack
a bag worn on a belt.
Never ever refer to a fanny pack in the UK.
Bum bag
Not really used, but likely interpreted as a bag owned by a homeless person.
a bag worn on a belt.
Boot
A type of shoe worn for dirty or rough conditions.
A storage space at the back of one's car. Also, a type of shoe.
Fag
The older definition would be bore, pain, bother. The modern usage is crude.
A cigarette. Also a tiring or unwelcome task.
Trunk
A storage space at the back of a car. Also a large suitcase. Also an elephant's nose.
A large suitcase. An elephant's nose.
Pants
A type of clothing with two legs covering one's lower body.
A type of clothing covering one's bottom worn beneath one's outer clothes.
Trousers
A seldom used word for pants.
A type of clothing with two legs covering one's lower body.
Subway
An underground urban train. Also a sandwich shop.
A pedestrian street crossing that goes under the street. Also a sandwich shop.
bangs
the bit of hair cut short over a person's forehead. Also the plural for the noise made by explosions.
The plural for the noise made by explosions.
fringe
edge
the bit of hair cut short over a person's forehead. Also, edge.
chips
thin crispy snack, usually made from potato or corn.
potatoes cut into strips and fried.
crisps
A British word for chips.
thin crispy snack, usually made from potato or corn.
French fries
potatoes cut into strips and fried.
An American word for chips.
dummy
Someone who is dumb.
a rubber nipple babies suck on for comfort.
pacifier
a rubber nipple babies suck on for comfort.
Someone or something that calms a situation.
biscuit
a sort of circular mini bread often had with butter or gravy
a small, sweet baked good, usually crunchy
cookie
a small, sweet baked good, usually crunchy
an American word for biscuit.
dustbin
not really said, but a bin is a small container
container for trash
trashcan
container for trash
American word for dustbin
eraser
an item used to erase, particularly pencil or chalk markings
a person who is erasing
rubber
not an eraser. Do not ever use 'rubber' for eraser in the US. It's slang for condom.
an item used to erase, particularly pencil markings
elevator
a small room that carries people up or down inside a building.
something or someone that elevates?
lift
to raise up. Also to get a ride with someone.
a small room that carries people up or down inside a building.
first floor
The ground floor
The floor above the ground floor
ground floor
the ground floor
the ground floor
second floor
the floor above the ground floor
two floors above the ground floor
gas
gasoline, a combustible liquid used in cars. also a form of matter that is not a solid or liquid.
a form of matter that is not a solid or liquid
petrol
the British word for gas
petroleum, a combustible liquid used in cars
sidewalk
the paved bit beside a road where pedestrians walk.
An American word for pavement.
pavement
the surface of any paved road or sidewalk.
the paved bit beside a road where pedestrians walk.
private school
a school one pays for to attend
a free, public school
public school
a free, public school
a school one pays for to attend
jumper
a person who is jumping
a knitted, warm shirt
sweater
a knitted, warm shirt
a person who is sweating
torch
a stick with fire on its end, a medieval light source.
a handheld lantern that runs on batteries.
flashlight
a handheld lantern that runs on batteries
An American word for torch.

Slang

This final list might save you some confusion if you meet any teenagers. Many of these words aren't necessary to understanding English. On the other hand, some of these words are so mainstream their 'slang' definition will probably show up first in a dictionary. No one will be shocked if you don't understand 'sick' to mean 'awesome', but if you've never heard the word 'cool' outside of the weather, your English class is letting you down.

I've included with each word whether the original definition is still in use or whether the slang definition has completely taken it over so that only a few people even know where the word came from.

Talk Like a Teen

Word
Original Definition
Slang Definition
Gay
happy or joyful (Mostly no longer used except in old texts, songs, or as an older woman's name)
When used respectfully it means homosexual. When used disrespectfully it is an insulting way to say ‘unpleasant’ or ‘uncool’.
Sick
Unwell (still in use)
awesome (note: fairly recent slang generally confined to teenagers)
Cool
A little cold, not warm (still in use)
popular and awesome
Hip
A body part below one's torso on both sides. (still in current use)
Current, popular (a slightly dated word, but still used)
Fine
Not unwell. Very thin. (still in use)
Good looking (referring to a woman, slightly crude.)
Man
A male person. (still in use)
An exclamation expressing disappointment or trepidation. Often preceded by 'oh', as in 'oh, man!'
Boy
A young male person. (still in use)
An exclamation expressing trepidation or excitment. Often preceded by 'oh', as in 'oh boy!'
Tight
Close fitting, taut. (still in use)
stylish. Cool. Also refers to sharing a close friendship.

Conclusion

So what can you take away from this lesson? Hopefully, many new vocabulary words! But also, that there is more to learning a language than reading a textbook. Read books, watch movies, talk to people and you may find a whole new realm of English words to explore!

Like Mir Foote's writing? Why not try her books!

Eleanor Rosaline Kidnaps a Dragon
Eleanor Rosaline Kidnaps a Dragon

Sometimes life has dragons. That doesn't mean you need a knight.

 

© 2015 Mir Foote

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    • Prawa Chalue profile image

      Prewa Chalue 

      3 years ago from Bangkok,Thailand

      Knowledge exists around us.

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