Isn’t it funny how two people can be speaking the same language but not understand each other? Or that they know the words the other person is saying but have no idea what they mean in a given context? If you’re a Brit who’s visited the US or an American who’s visited England and you’ve felt like you were on a different planet, you’re not alone. British and Americans both speak English, but use very different slang and expressions that non-locals would have a hard time wrapping their head around. Furthermore, Brits and Americans often use different words to describe the same thing or the same word to describe different things. Let’s take a look at some of these differences so that you’re not totally confused during your next trip across the pond.
10 British Phrases that Americans Might Not Understand
- Bob’s your uncle!
Americans might be thinking, “I don’t have an Uncle Bob!” or “You must have me confused with someone else.” What Brits mean when they use this expression is something along the lines of “That’s it!” or “Voila!”
- Right old knees up
This expression means to dance, party, or just have a good time.
- Knock up
Americans—no need to be alarmed when you hear the Brits use this expression. When the British knock someone up, they’re simply waking them up. Brits—use caution when saying this in America. Americans use the term “knock up” to mean to get a woman pregnant.
- You look smart.
Rather than complimenting you on your intelligence, as an American might understand this phrase, the British use this phrase to compliment you on your looks. “You look smart” is the British way of saying “You’re dressed nicely.”
- Dog’s bollocks
On its own, the word “bollocks” is not a very nice British word—one that is typically used when a Brit is angry or annoyed. But add the word “dog’s” at the beginning and you get something that’s “fantastic” or “the best.” Because dogs make everything better!
- Horses for courses
The British use this expression the way Americans would say “to each their own” or “different strokes for different folks.” Essentially it means everyone has their own preferences and tastes.
- Chin wagging
You’ll find the Brits chin wagging when they’re gossiping.
- Bits and bobs
This expression refers to miscellaneous things—what Americans might call “odds and ends” or “bits and pieces.”
- Feeling chuffed
This is a British phrase to express feeling pleased or glad. A Brit feeling chuffed is similar to an American feeling “tickled pink.”
- I’m skint.
Don’t have any money? In America, you’re broke. In England, you’re skint.
10 American Phrases that Brits Might Not Understand
- Bachelor/Bachelorette Party
In America, an unmarried man is called a bachelor and an unmarried women a bachelorette. Just before getting married, many American men have bachelor parties and American women bachelorette parties to celebrate their final few days of being single. Bachelor/bachelorette parties might involve drinking, strip clubs, or anything else naughty that one wouldn’t do once one is married. Across the pond, a bachelor party is called a “stag do,” and a bachelorette party a “hen do.”
- I call shotgun!
A reference to old Western movies, this is an expression that Americans use when they want to ride in the front passenger seat of a car.
- Can I take a rain check?
Want to make plans with someone but they’re not free? They might respond by saying, “Sorry, I can’t tonight. Can I take a rain check?” What Americans mean when they use this expression is something along the lines of “Let’s reschedule or postpone for when I’m free.”
- Spill the beans
This is an American expression that refers to revealing sensitive information, usually accidentally. Another phrase that means the same thing is “let the cat out of the bag.”
- Piece of cake
When a task or assignment is so easy that it requires almost no effort, it’s a piece of cake.
You might hear Americans use the phrase, “Can I crash with you tonight?” which is their way of asking “Can I stay at your place tonight?” Crash can also mean to show up uninvited to an event or party.
- Screw up
This American expression means to mess up or make a mistake.
- Give the cold shoulder
If someone is deliberately ignoring you or not talking to you, they’re giving you the cold shoulder.
- Pig out
This expression means to binge eat, overeat, or over-indulge in food.
- Couch potato
A couch potato is a lazy, inactive person who spends most of their time just sitting on a couch or sofa.
The British and Americans also use different words and phrases to describe the same thing, and some of the same words and phrases to mean different things. Here are a few examples.
Pants vs. Trousers
In the UK, the piece of clothing that you wear to cover your legs is called “trousers.” In the US, they’re called “pants.” On the other hand, pants in the UK is understood as underwear.
Biscuit vs. Cookie
In America, a sweet baked good usually enjoyed for dessert or a snack is called a cookie. That same tasty treat in England is called a biscuit. But if you ask for a biscuit in America, you’ll probably get a more savory piece of bread that’s typically served with gravy or fried chicken.
Chips vs. French Fries
In England, strings of potato fried in grease are called chips. In America they’re called French fries (even though they’re not from France. In this context, the term “French” actually means “sliced”). The word chips in America is what the British called “crisps”—usually a salty crispy snack or appetizer.
Jumper vs. Sweatshirt
Feeling chilly? In England, you might put a jumper over your regular shirt, whereas in America, you’d put on a sweatshirt.
Aubergine vs. Eggplant
The chunky purple vegetable is called an aubergine in England and an eggplant in America.
Flat vs. Apartment
A living space within a larger building comprising multiple other living spaces (usually spread across multiple stories) where residents often share common amenities is called a flat in England and an apartment in America. In Britain, the whole collection of flats is called a block of flats. In America, it’s called an apartment building.
Ground Floor vs. First Floor vs. Second Floor
You enter into a multi-level building. In the US, you could be entering the ground floor or the first floor—the two mean the same thing. One level up is the second floor. In Britain, the floor that you enter on is the ground floor. One level up is the first floor—what Americans would call the second floor. Be careful that you understand exactly where you’re supposed to go, lest you end up in the wrong office or flat/apartment!
Chemist vs. Drugstore/Pharmacy
If you’re feeling sick and your doctor prescribes you some medicine, you’ll pick it up from the chemist in Britain and from the drugstore/pharmacy in America. For many Americans, the term “chemist” brings to mind a scientist in an obscure lab doing esoteric experiments.
Mad vs. Crazy
Someone who’s not completely in touch with their mental faculties or is just a little strange would be called crazy in America and mad in Britain. But in America, the term mad usually means angry.
Queue vs. Line
When you’re waiting your turn to pay at the grocery store or coffee shop, you’re standing in a queue if you’re in Britain. If you’re in America, you’re standing in line.
Bonnet vs. Hood
In England, the front part of your car that opens is called the bonnet. In America, it’s called the hood.
Boot vs. Trunk
The back part of the car where you store things is called a boot in England. In America, it’s called the trunk.
Windscreen vs. Windshield
In Britain, the window directly in front of the driver is called the windscreen. It’s called the windshield in America.
Indicator vs. Blinker
The light that you turn on to indicate that you’re making a turn is called an indicator in Britain and a blinker (or turn signal) in America.
Takeaway vs. Takeout
Let’s say you’re not in the mood for cooking, but you don’t feel like eating at a restaurant either. You might call the restaurant ahead of time and place an order that you can pick up and eat at home, or you can just walk into the restaurant and order your food to take home there. In England, you’re ordering takeaway. In the US, you’re ordering takeout.
Post vs. Mail
The system of sending letters and packages is referred to as the post in England. In America it’s called the mail. The box that said letters and packages come in could be called the postbox or the letterbox in England. In America, it’s simply the mailbox.
Holiday vs. Vacation
Going away from home for an extended period of time? If you’re English, you’re going on (a) holiday. If you’re American, you’re going on (a) vacation. Have fun!
Lift vs. Elevator
A mechanism for going up and down between floors or stories without walking is called a lift in Britain and an elevator in America.
Torch vs. Flashlight
If the electricity is out and you need an alternate source of light (typically powered by battery), you’ll probably use a torch if you’re in England and a flashlight if you’re in the US.
Litterbin vs. Trashcan
Unwanted junk, refuse, or dirty things to be disposed of are collectively called rubbish in Britain and garbage in America. In Britain, you dispose of your rubbish in a litterbin. In America, you throw your garbage (or trash) in a trashcan.
Marks vs. Grades
When you’ve completed an assignment or assessment in school, your mark tells you how you’ve done if you’re in England. Your grade tells you how you’ve done if you’re in the US.
Read vs. Study
At the end of the term, you read for your exams if you’re in Britain and you study for exams if you’re in the US.
What are your favorite British and American expressions? Share them with us in the comments below. Or better yet, share them on Konversai. Konversai is a knowledge-sharing social conversation platform that allows for one-on-one live video conversations between anyone, anywhere, about anything. Whether you’re planning a week-long trip and want to know the best places to, you want to learn a new language, you want to make some extra cash teaching others to make your favorite dishes, or you want to offer your math skills to help struggling students, Konversai is the place to be. All knowledge, skills, and experiences have value on Konversai, whether you’re a novice or an expert, and there is sure to be someone somewhere else in the world who’s willing to pay you to teach them what they want to learn and can teach you what you want to learn. Those teaching or offering conversations are referred to on Konversai as providers, while those learning are referred to as seekers. Users are encouraged to be both providers and seekers on Konversai on any and as many topics as they wish. Providers are also encouraged to charge money for their time. They also have the option of holding free sessions or donating their earnings to a charity of their choice. The best way to learn about anything is to talk to someone who has lived it. When you join Konversai, you’re taking a step towards improving your life and the lives of others through meaningful and life-changing conversations. Get started now!
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- Wulff, Alexia. (2017). 15 British Words & Phrases Which Confuse Americans. The Culture Trip.