On July 4, 1776, the United States issued the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Though it took until the 1783 Treaty of Paris for the Brits to acknowledge their former colony as an independent and sovereign nation. Since then, the two countries have forged their own paths and eventually became friends and allies again. One area where they still differ, though, is in their use of the English language. Consider these 40 words, for instance. Some of them have entirely different significance in the U.S. than in the U.K. And then there are some sayings that you’d only hear from a Brit with equally as surprising meanings to them, too.
What’s your potato preference? Make sure you know to say it in British English before popping over to the U.K. Because there, if you order chips, you’ll get a basket of chunky cut fries, as opposed to the crunchy, circular potatoes you’d get in the U.S. If you want the latter, you’ll have to ask for crisps.
Grabbing the hamper has much more exciting implications in Britain than in America. At home, of course, you’d use this kind of container as a receptacle for your dirty clothes before you wash them. Across the pond, though, they refer to a picnic basket as a hamper. And who doesn’t like to have a meal in the park?
To become a chemist, you need plenty of schooling whether you’re in Britain or the U.S. Though such a career path will lead you in different directions – depending on the country in which you obtain such a title. An American chemist typically works with chemicals in a science lab, while their British counterparts are pharmacists.
Want to get in shape? You’ll need trainers – definitely the British kind, and perhaps the American version, too. In the U.K., people use this word in place of sneakers or tennis shoes, which are a must-have for any sort of athletic endeavor. Across the Atlantic, trainers are the experts we hire to get us fit with customized workouts.
You need to have functioning blinkers to be a safe driver – in the U.S. at least. Americans use the word to refer to their turn signals, the flashing lights that indicate when they plan to veer off of a road. Yet in the United Kingdom, blinkers have to do with a different form of transportation. Horses wear them: they’re flaps that hang from the sides of their faces so the animal can only see ahead.
Many an American woman will remember wearing a jumper as a child. The collarless, sleeveless frocks went over shirts or blouses. Though Brits refer to these as pinafore dresses. As such, they use the word “jumper” to mean something else. If you wear one in the U.K., you’ve got on a sweater – not a schoolgirl’s uniform.
It’s not nice to call someone in a dummy in America, where the phrase is synonymous with idiot. But in the United Kingdom, the same word has a much sweeter connotation. People there use it for that little parental lifesaver that stops a baby from crying. We’re talking about a pacifier here, of course.
Looking to treat yourself with your morning meal in the states? If so, you might order a waffle: the fluffy, batter-born breakfast made in a notched iron. Yet in the U.K., the same word means something far less pleasant. When someone drones on endlessly without saying anything of value, they say the person is talking “waffle” or “waffling.”
A fancy, sleeveless overshirt in the United States is a vest. You might wear a knitted one over a button-down shirt, or layer one beneath a suit jacket for an even more polished look. The same cannot be said for a vest in the U.K. There, they use the word for the wardrobe item that Americans would call a tank top.
American tourists in the U.K., beware: ordering flapjacks won’t get you a plate of fluffy pancakes, as it would at home. No, the British version of a flapjack is a flat, tray-baked snack that typically consists of oats, butter, sugar and golden syrup – a sun-colored liquid sweetener. The bars go swimmingly as a solo snack or as a treat with tea or coffee.
30. Bob’s your uncle
The phrase “Bob’s your uncle” doesn’t have a meaning in the U.S. unless, of course, someone in your family is introducing you to your uncle Bob for the first time. In the United Kingdom, though, this phrase has nothing to do with a relative’s place in the family tree. Instead, it means “presto” or “voila.” Usually, people use it to cap off a description of something that seems complicated, but is actually very easy. “Mix the ingredients, pour it in cake mold and pop it in the oven. Bob’s your uncle – you’ve made yourself a cake.”
Feeling nervy before a big test or interview? That could bode well or ill for you – it depends which side of the ocean you’re on. Stateside, the word means that you’re confident or bold – a great pair of traits. Meanwhile, Brits describe themselves as such when they’re nervous. Expect a bit of anxious fidgeting to go with all of those nervy emotions, too.
If you ask for biscuits in the United Kingdom, you’re going to receive a sweet, snappy treat – a cookie, as Americans call it. Now, U.S. ones are also made in the oven, but that’s about the only similarity they have to the British version. In the United States your biscuit will be unsweetened, fluffy and buttery – with a consistency similar to a scone.
Another English word with wildly different meanings is boot. Both Americans and Brits think of boots and see footwear of some kind. Yet there’s a secondary U.K. meaning that people wouldn’t get stateside. Boot also refers to a car’s rear storage area, which those in the U.S. would call the trunk.
26. First floor
If someone instructs you go to the first floor in Britain or the U.S., well, you’d end up in two different places. Americans consider the first floor to be the ground floor of a building. Though their U.K. counterparts use the same descriptor for the level that’s one above the ground.
25. Wind your neck in
If you tell an American to wind their neck in, they might not know what you mean. But the phrase is a common one in Britain, and it’s a word of the wise to those who are being a bit nosy. Most of the time, those who deploy the phrase do so when someone gives an unwarranted opinion on a topic that has nothing to do with them.
The meaning of mortal covers a spectrum of situations – some fun and others not so much. In the U.K., for one, you can use the word to describe someone who drinks way too much and maybe gets a bit sloppy. Though in America, the word only goes by its dictionary definition. And it means fatal – wounds can be mortal, for example.
23. Take the biscuit
Let’s say your neighbor has an all-night party with music blaring and people screaming. And you barely sleep because of it. Then as you finally start to drift off in the early morning hours, their dog starts barking. In America, that final detail would “take the cake.” The phrase shows your exasperation with rude or otherwise selfish behavior. For their part, Brits use “take the biscuit” to mean the same.
Of course, slipping into a flannel as an American means you’re cozying up. The soft, thick fabric – often with a plaid print – keeps its wearers warm. You can’t quite dress yourself in the British version of a flannel, though. Across the pond, the word is used in place of washcloth.
Narrow shoulders, wide hips – in the U.S. someone with this build might be described as “pear-shaped.” You wouldn’t use the same descriptor for a curvy person in Britain, though. Instead, they use it when a situation digresses quickly and appears to be on the cusp of causing an accident. That type of scenario might be said to have gone pear-shaped. According to The Independent, it derived from the Royal Air Force and was used to describe a mission or flight which hadn’t gone to plan.
Do you get your sweat on regularly? Are you in a good headspace? Then, in American terms, you’d be called fit – an adjective that describes those who have solid physical or mental health. Brits call each other fit not for their fitness levels – they use in reference to someone who’s attractive. It’s interchangeable for “hot,” the way Americans use it.
19. Fancy dress
Someone has invited you to a fancy dress party, but what are you going to wear? Well, Americans would probably show up in formal attire – such as tuxedos and ball gowns. But their British counterparts would receive a different memo. In the United Kingdom it means costumes, so you might see a few Halloween getups at a fancy dress party across the pond.
Regardless of whether you’re in Britain or the United States, it doesn’t feel good to be shattered. Americans might use the word to describe themselves when they’re emotionally destroyed. Think hurt or heartbroken. Brits, on the other hand, will use the word to describe being tired – after a long day at work, for instance.
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ride on a trolley – the streetcar which zips up and down the city’s famously hilly streets. Now, if you visit the U.K., you won’t want to make a trolley journey a part of your to-do list. That’s because Brits use the term for their shopping carts instead.
On a nippy day, you might want to grab your hat and coat, as the temperature will be pretty chilly. That’s the word’s meaning in the U.S., though – Brits understand the word differently. In the 1920s waitresses in London’s J. Lyons & Co tea shops became well-known for their propensity to move quickly – or nip – around the restaurants. Soon enough, customers began calling the ladies “nippies,” and the word became a colloquialism for female servers.
If someone in the U.S. talks to you about pulling, well, they probably mean the literal physical act. The Brits have a cheekier meaning of the word, though. If you go on a night out and kiss a stranger, you’ve pulled. Before that happens – and you are on the lookout for someone to smooch – they say you’re “on the pull.”
Americans, you might not have heard this one before. This is a decidedly UK saying, but it’s one that’s worth learning nonetheless. But Brits use tickety-boo when everything’s in order and going as it should. According to The Independent, the phrase is thought to derive from the Hindu phrase ṭhīk hai, bābū, which means, “It’s alright, sir.”
Do you have a crooked smile? In the United States, an orthodontist might be able to fix it with a series of wires and brackets called braces. But don’t expect a dental pro to give you braces in the U.K. There, they use the word to describe the accessory that holds up droopy pants. Yes, braces means suspenders across the pond.
Imagine an old man making his way down the street – clopping along with the aid of a walker. Americans might deem this senior a geezer. And, if they were overheard by Brits, they’d be left scratching their heads. That’s because the word means something completely different in the United Kingdom. They call gang members or all-around tough guys “geezers,” which doesn’t quite fit the above description of a US one. Brits also sometimes refer to men in general using the term.
Americans and Brits alike know that bird is an encompassing term for all of the winged, feathered creatures roaming the skies. But those in the U.K. have a second, colloquial usage of the biological term. They use it as slang for a woman, although it has lost popularity in recent years.
10. Pop your clogs
Americans may certainly own a pair of clogs, but would they ever use the phrase pop your clogs? Well, it’s doubtful. The Independent notes that this entirely British saying apparently originated in the country’s factories around the Industrial Revolution era. At that time, workers had to wear heavy shoes to protect their feet. And, if they suffered a fatal accident on the floor, they would perish on their backs with their shoes pointing up in the air. As such, popping your clogs became another way of saying someone had died.
When Americans think of fringe, they see a line of thread hanging from the edge of another piece of fabric. Brits picture something far different – they see that bit of hair that hangs over your forehead. Interestingly, though, the American word for such strands – bangs – is thought to come from a Briticism. Those in the U.K. would say that their hairdresser cut their tresses “bang off,” and this saying influenced Americans’ styling vocabulary.
If someone tells you to put on your pants, you’d be at different stages of undress in the U.S. and Britain. Americans would take such a directive and slip into a pair of trousers, jeans, sweats, or any other type of long leg-wear. Yet those across the Atlantic would reach for a pair of underwear – a much different look, for sure.
It is not a compliment to be called homely by an American. People deploy the adjective when describing someone who’s plain – or worse yet, someone who’s ugly. In the U.K., though, calling something homely isn’t anywhere near as bad. Instead, it’s used to describe houses that have that comfy, cozy feel.
Americans carry rubbers around them for a particular activity in the bedroom. The word, of course, is a colloquialism for condoms. But don’t expect to ask a British shop owner for rubbers and get a pack of protection in return. Instead, you’ll get a school supply – an eraser, to be exact.
5. Getting pissed
Americans who get pissed tend to get pissed off. The phrase means irritated or mad in the states. Though Brits who get pissed have a completely different vibe. The term actually means drunk over there. As such, Reader’s Digest quipped, “In the U.S., ‘getting pissed’ on the road is more acceptable than it is in the U.K.”
4. Full of beans
If an American tells you you’re full of beans, well, they’re not giving you a compliment. Instead, the phrase is used to describe someone who’s not correct or telling the truth – a liar, so to speak. Brits also describe people as being full of beans, but, there, the saying applies to those with boundless energy and enthusiasm. It’s unconfirmed, but the U.K. version may have stemmed from the effect that coffee beans can have on a person, according to The Independent.
An American pictures something completely different than a Brit when they hear the word chaps. In the states, they’re a tough-looking pair of pants – often made of leather and worn by motorcyclists, cowboys and others. Yet U.K. residents use the term as a collective for all of their male friends.
Americans might use the word butcher as a verb to describe a grisly slaying. Or, they might say they’re going to the butchers to grab a few cuts of meat. Not so in the U.K., though. The term is one of many Cockney rhyming slangs – words and phrases which come from the capital of London. It’s a strange concept to outsiders – they swap out a common word for a rhyming phrase or term. So, butcher’s hook rhymes with look, and that’s what butchers means. “Will you have a butchers?” is a Londoner’s way of asking, “Will you look at this?”
Where’s the bog? An American would point you to a marshland, swamp or any kind of water-logged stretch of land. And a Brit would direct you to the bathroom, as they use the word as a replacement for toilet. Don’t forget to make sure there’s a bog roll, which is, of course, toilet paper.