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Brits: Things not to say in the USA

Updated on November 06, 2014
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Some of the differences between the British and American languages

If you're British, and you're visiting the USA, then there are one or two language differences that you should know about. They can keep you out of trouble.

I speak from experience, believe me. And I'm not alone. Even the chap you see here, Sir Winston Churchill, got into bother when visiting the States.

By all accounts, he was at a tremendously snooty dinner party. The main course was roast chicken and Sir Winston was asked which part of the bird he preferred.

Just like many Englishman, his response was 'breast'. His American hostess was appalled. 'Sir Winston' she exclaimed ' we do not use that word in America. We refer to it as "white meat"'.

Embarrassed, but unabashed, Sir Winston decided to send the lady a corsage the following day. He enclosed a note requesting that she pin it on her 'white meat'.However, here are a few linguistic cock-ups that you can avoid.

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Of course, most people know this but I must mention it anyway.

In the UK, we call a cigarette a 'fag'. Now you Brits know what that means in America but it's easy to forget. We also have a habit of saying 'I could murder a [whatever]', simply meaning we'd really like one.

Therefore, if you want a cigarette saying 'I could murder a fag' will get you into trouble. Similarly - Americans please take note - 'I could murder an Indian' simply means that we'd like a curry.

It's easy to forget the misunderstandings that can be brought about by the humble potato.

I have lost count of the number of times that British people in American have ordered 'chips' and been surprised, when just where a pile of French Fries would be so very good alongside their burger, they have found a pile of crisps.

Loo, bog, toilet .... they just won't get it.

I was once in a K Mart in the Florida Keys and needed a (rhyming) pee. I asked a member of staff where the toilets were and she said 'Oh, we don't sell those'. Remember to ask for the men's room or the ladies' room.

If you wish,you can ask for the bathroom or the restroom, despite the fact that you don't want a bath or a rest...

Did your mum call you a cheeky monkey?

Mine did. It's a term of affection. 'Oh, you naughty but sweet little person', it means. To me, it trips off the tongue. If someone is being a bit of a tinker (also politically incorrect,I assume) then they are a cheeky monkey. I use it with my English granddaughters.

Take it from me. Don't.

Understand please that many Americans do not understand the 24 hour clock.

I once called an American secretary and told her what time her boss needed meeting at the airport. 'The plane arrives at 13.58' I said, Britishly. 'Oh' she said 'what time is that exactly?'

Oh, just be there at two in the afternoon....

There are some British people who love words and the English language (me, for instance).

If you want to describe a person who is miserly or small-minded, do not use the word 'niggardly'. You know why, if you think about it. All sorts of learned persons have been in serious trouble for using this old Chaucer-era word.

Mayhem will ensure.

Do not criticise Princess Diana.

Americans loved her much more than we did. Describe her as a shopaholic, slimaholic slapper and you'll be lynched. Suggest that the thousands of people who lined her funeral procession were the unemployed who had nothing better to do and you'll be vilified.

I was...

Do not use the word 'teatime'.

I know what that means - you know what that means - but no-one else will.

Ask an American to come to your house at teatime and they will have no idea what time to arrive.

Give them exact time to be clear.

When you buy cigarettes in the UK, saying 'twenty Marlboro' means one packet of twenty cigarettes.

But I remember an English bloke who, when he asked for this in the USA, being bewildered when the clerk (not shop assistant, note) started to assemble twenty cartons. That's 4,000 fags (cigarettes, rather).

Ask for a pack.

When I was a youngster at art college, there was an American student.

One person, who had just made a drawing error, asked the American if she had a rubber. Her reaction was interesting, to say the least. Here, a rubber is an anything-for-the-weekend-sir.

Say eraser instead.

Don't guffaw when you discover that a man is wearing suspenders.

He is merely wearing braces to keep his trousers up.(Or pants, as we would say here.

I know, that causes some funny confusions too,especially when bloke tells you that he likes to wear leather pants and wonders why you give him a funny look).

Getting back to faggots for a moment, my mum could out-malaprop Mrs Malaprop.

But it was a reasonable question, she thought, to ask an American lady 'do you eat faggots in the States?'

The lady's consternation can be imagined because she didn't know that a faggot is a traditional British food, somewhat like a meatball.

Probably the most famous difference in our languages is the word fanny.

Americans see nothing funny in the statement 'I hope your doughnuts turn out like fannies'. Or rather, Fanny's. (As in Cradock).

Of course, Americans in Britain need to be aware of this more than the other way around but Brits, don't be surprised by the way fannies are bandied about willy nilly.

Of course Brits know that Americans call biscuits cookies.

But do not make nasty yuk-yuk noises when you hear that Americans eat biscuits with gravy. These are not Hob Nobs. They are a savoury biscuit, somewhat like a fruitless (and I don't mean pointless) scone.

So if you're in an American supermarket (grocery store) ask for the cookies section if you could murder a Jammie Dodger.

Bum Bags and Fanny Packs: A British-American American-British Dictionary
Bum Bags and Fanny Packs: A British-American American-British Dictionary

Here's the famous fanny again. This time combined with the confusing bum.That sort of sums up the differences in the two languages really, doesn't it?Two languages?

Am I really saying that English and American are two different languages?After twenty years as a Brit living in America - yes!

 

© 2014 Jackie Jackson

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    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @RonELFran - you're lucky,I get into trouble using English words in the USA even after twenty years :)

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      This is just fun to read. In the times I've visited the UK, I never got into language trouble - I think. Or maybe they were just too polite to let me know.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Thanks Barbara - it's strange (and amusing) that there are so many differences. After all these years, I'm still finding new ones.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Thanks Stephanie - I'm pleased that you enjoyed it.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 2 years ago from USA

      At one time, I had a penpal from the UK. I'd read her letters and wonder what she meant many times. Since she was a proper lady, I knew half the time that some of the words didn't mean what I thought. Sometimes I wondered if anything I wrote, she couldn't understand either.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 2 years ago from USA

      Great hub! I've heard some of these British sayings from my English daughter-in-law and they never fail to surprise me. I enjoyed reading this and got quite a few laughs!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Haha - it's true! I once used to have a vinyl cutting machine and used to make stickers and decals (long story). One customer wanted the word 'bollocks' all across the back window of his car. He had no idea what it meant, he's just heard it somewhere. When it was installed, I told him that the sticker looked the dog's bollocks.

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 2 years ago from London UK

      What a laugh! Just a quick question: I've heard that Americans don't use the word 'bollocks' - is this true or is it just a load of cobblers!! Great Hub.

    • DreyaB profile image

      DreyaB 2 years ago from France

      Sorry - just laughing all over the place. Been to the States a couple of times and it is amazing the differences. Fantastic reminder. Thanks, this is wonderful. :0)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @junecampbell: Haha - true :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @writerkath: There are many more too :)

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 2 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I'm a Canadian, and we are caught in the middle. Some of our slang is based on the UK version and some on the US version. Here are a couple others to consider. When Canadians visit the UK, we may ask for directions to the drugstore. This can get us arrested. We should be asking for the Dispensing Chemist. And for Brits visiting the US or Canada, do not ask to be knocked up in the morning. It has a much different meaning here! LOL

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 2 years ago

      Fun read! I remember learning some of these during my time in New Zealand. Nonetheless, a few of these were new to me!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @lesliesinclair: I think it's more appropriate to the subject as it is :)

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 2 years ago

      Hoo hoo! My words, your words, sometimes they're all a-scranbke,

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 2 years ago

      how do I edit that last comment so the word scramble reads correctly, rather than as written!

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 3 years ago from So Cal

      Very cute and entertaining. As a reader I am aware of the differences and I find them fun. And, I need more dish soap!

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      Joan4 3 years ago

      And remember, the South Carolina state dance is called the shag! :)

    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 3 years ago

      @RoadMonkey: Actually, Road Monkey, Americans do use the term "dish detergent" here. You would get some weird looks if you asked for "dish soap" in a store in the U.S.

    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 3 years ago

      Very funny and very well written. I loved it!

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      Yes, I could never understand why the American's use the term "dish soap" for something that is detergent! Don't they know the difference?Very funny lens. I think bonnet and hood and trunk are a few other "misunderstood" terms. Was it Bernard Shaw that coined the phrase that the British and the Americans are divided by a common language?

    • Sir Daniel UK profile image

      Danny Gibson 3 years ago from Northampton

      Interesting, as ever, comrade!Don't Americans say, "You have a lot of spunk" or something? Not a phrase used here except between consenting couples and Fertility Clinics!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @christine-bubeck-5: Haha - good one Christine!

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      christine-bubeck-5 3 years ago

      Don't offer to "knock" someone up in the morning!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Nathanville: Very true! The spellchecker on my American computer drives me nuts when it won't accept commonplace words like 'amongst'. It even has a hard time with 'whilst'.

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      Arthur Russ 3 years ago from England

      Cool, well written and well presented. It is not just the words and their meanings; it is also the spelling and pronunciation of words that I sometimes find a little confusing. Whenever I hear maths being pronounced as math on an American program on TV, it distracts me momentarily from the following dialogue because it just does not sound right to us Brits; although I am sure maths does not sound right to the Americans either.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Lynn Klobuchar: Good to hear from you! Yes,there are SO many more. I'm thinking about writing about the differences in car terms too - hood/bonnet, trunk/boot etc.I think this subject could keep me busy for a long time!

    • Lynn Klobuchar profile image

      Lynn Klobuchar 3 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      I love this! As many others here on this side of the Pond (North America) I have somewhat honed my knowledge of British English through reading countless mystery novels. Tongue tied (mute/dumbfounded/at a loss for words) at the idea of ever trying to use that knowledge correctly in a conversation, however.....This is making me think about comparing the insane (daft) regional variety of words used in the States for common items. Sack? Bag? / Pop? Soda? Coke? / kitty corner? catacorner? kitty wampus? / painter? cougar? mountain loin? panther? / garage sale? yard sale? rummage sale? / frosting? icingI am certain there are regional differences in the British Isles as well.Anyway (anywho, anyhow, anyroad --whatever!) this is a day brightener and I am thinking someone needs to buy me a late Valentine's Day present / gift. Need to read that book!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @crystalwriter: Thank you - the biscuits and gravy thing really fooled me when I was first in the States!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @meggingmad: Haha - good one!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @TerriCarr: Thank you!

    • TerriCarr profile image

      TerriCarr 3 years ago

      Brilliant!

    • meggingmad profile image

      meggingmad 3 years ago

      Do not call an American a silly ass. Ass = arse in `murican.

    • crystalwriter profile image

      Crystal A Murray 3 years ago from Corydon, Indiana, USA

      This is a great lens, even for those of us who have never to rarely encountered those who speak British English. I really laughed about the biscuits and gravy, especially since I'm a southwestern girl who has always been a fan of them. But I don't think I could ever imagine a cookie under gravy unless the gravy was made with Cool Whip. Feel free to add more examples when you need to update this lens because it's enjoyable and informing at the same time.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Arachnea: What a lovely comment - thank you so much.I'm glad you had giggle :)

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 3 years ago from Texas USA

      I had to take a bit of a breather after reading this. I was too busy rolling on the floor laughing my keister off. Anyway, I thought I'd point out there are still places in the US - on the East Coast I believe - where the word rubber is still used to mean an eraser. I have always gathered the rest of the US just doesn't venture that far in to the remoter parts of the country. Excellent lens. Now I know which Squidder to turn to when I need a laugh.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Margaret Schindel: Thank you! P G Wodehouse is great example of daft British literature :)

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Like you, I'm a linguaphile, and having read a lot of British literature (British satire is the best, whether Wodehouse or Pratchett) I'm familiar with - and very fond of - most of the "Britishisms" (for lack of a better word). Load of fun, my friend! :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @John Dyhouse: That's it exactly.I bet this list is going to grow and grow!

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      Wonderful list but of course it goes on - and on - and on. Divide by a common language indeed

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @evelynsaenz1: They really are,aren't they? I'm from the north of England and people 200 miles away in the south couldn't understand me :)

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 3 years ago from Royalton

      Coming from Vermont I knew many of these vocabulary difference but not all. Language differences are fascinating.

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      Becksta 3 years ago

      Beware of Corn - an american in Britain might be shocked to get a plate of birdseed for a meal...

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @seahorse60: Good point!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Elsie Hagley: Haha - my mum (English) used to say 'pot plants' too :)

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      seahorse60 3 years ago

      What a fun lens! I'm British and always find 'fanny pack' hilarious lol Mind you, bum bag doesn't sound much better and I guess to an American it would mean a bag for a down and out?!

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      So very true, you need to be very careful. It's the same being a kiwi, I got into trouble for writing a lens and giving it the title "Pot Plant" which is what we called houseplants or indoor plants in New Zealand, Need less to say it got deleted. Enjoyed reading your lens. Thanks.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Joanne Reid: Haha - nice to have warning :)

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      Joanne Reid 3 years ago from Prince Edward Island/Arizona

      I enjoyed this!!! I remember a friend visiting England being told by her host that he would knock her up at eight a.m.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @David Stone1: Haha - probably so, Dave. Glad you enjoyed the article!

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      David Stone 3 years ago from New York City

      This was fun, and I had the experience the other way around. I remember befuddling a waitress by asking her for "the restrooms." She probably thought I needed a nap.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Merrci: Hi Merrci - in the 60s there was a famous TV cook called Fanny Cradock. As you know, 'fanny' means a more intimate part (female) part of the body in the UK. :)

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      This was so much fun! It is funny what differences there are. Tis puzzling though--what's a cradock anyway? Still laughing.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @fullofshoes: Haha - best way :)

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      fullofshoes 3 years ago

      That was hilarious. I dated a fellow years back whose home was Coventry and I was in Boston. I learned quite a bit about what to say and what not to say... Oh dear. Some of the words are on your list and others I will simply keep to myself :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @JohnTannahill: Haha, John :)

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      John Tannahill 3 years ago from Somewhere in England

      Do Americans use the expression (as of course we Brits do) "Do you feel like a shag on a rock?" when inquiring whether someone feels lonely and isolated because they've got nobody to talk to at a party. (A shag is of course a solitary seabird that can often be seen standing on a rock and drying its wings - similar to a cormorant.)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @SusanDeppner: Haha Susan. :) Florida is full of British people who are visiting the States for the first time and they can be SO funny!

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      Susan Deppner 3 years ago from Arkansas USA

      LOL Loved reading this! Haven't encountered the problem here in Arkansas. :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Brite-Ideas: Oh please do - it would be wonderful to get a really great list here. Thank you!

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Wish I could think of one! My 'Awentie' Rita (from London) probably has a long list - If I see her this summer I'll have to ask - love these by the way, lol

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