Going to the UK soon? Although both countries speak some flavor of English, you’ll find that the Brits have a very different vocabulary than the average American. Not to worry though – this handy glossary should help you out.
If you’d like to see the original version of this page (from my old site), which has additional information about British currency and a pronunciation guide to British place names, click here.
AA – Stands for “Automobile Association”, a club that provides roadside services to members. It’s the British equivalent of America’s AAA. In the US “AA” is associated with “Alcoholic Anonymous”, a substance abuse organization.
Abbatoir – Although it sounds like a place to buy fancy lingerie, this is just the British term for slaughterhouse. Some Brits find the American word to be “amusingly direct”.
Administration – In British English, “administration” is the equivalent of “bankruptcy”. So while Blockbuster Video might “declare bankruptcy” in the US, Blockbuster’s British wing might “enter administration”.
Advert – The general British term for any type of advertisement, whether it be a magazine or newspaper ad or a commercial on TV. They’re all adverts.
Aerial – The British term for antenna, as in a TV antenna or the radio antenna on your car.
Agony Aunt – An advice column, like “Dear Abby” in the United States. In the beginning, such columns were presented as being written by a kindly older woman, hence “aunt”, and the writers were usually in some form of agony, hence “agony aunt”.
Alcopops – This is a general British term for flavored malt beverages like wine coolers, Zima, Smirnoff Ice and other carbonated alcoholic beverages that aren’t beer.
Anorak – The British term for a windbreaker or parka. Anorak is also the British equivalent of the American term “nerd”. Why? One of the geekiest hobbies in the UK is trainspotting which is hanging out in train stations and writing down the registration numbers of the trains that pass through. Because it’s often windy and rainy in the UK, trainspotters usually wear anoraks… hence, anorak = nerd.
Answerphone – This is the British term for “voicemail” or “answering machine”, as in “I called you, but it went to answerphone”. From what I see on British TV, the term is falling out of favor for the American “voicemail”.
Anti-clockwise – The British equivalent of “counter-clockwise”.
Arcade – This was (and still is) an architectural term meaning a “covered passageway with arches on one or both sides”. Many moons ago, some enterprising person in the UK covered an alleyway between a bunch of shops, creating an all-weather shopping experience. Such places are called shopping arcades in the UK, which was in time shortened to just arcade. In the US, the term usually refers to places where the public can play video games (shortened from video arcade), or is sometimes used to convey an “upscale” (pretentious) image for a shopping mall.
Arse – The British version of “ass”, and usually used with other words based on it, such as arsehole. I’ve always heard that “arse” was coined to prevent confusion with “ass” (donkey), although I don’t know if that’s true or not. And how you actually say the word seems to be regional: in southern England, you rarely detect any R at all, so it sounds just like “asshole” to me. However, people in Ireland and northern England seem to emphasize the R, so it sounds like it’s spelled: arsehole. This is another one of those words that sounds silly when Americans or Canadians say it.
Asian – In the UK, Asian refers only to people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, or their descendants. If you need to refer to a group of Chinese or Japanese people, you should probably use the term “Orientals”, as it’s not considered offensive in the UK.
Athletics – In Britain, this refers specifically to “track and field” type events, like cross country running. In the US, it’s a much more general term that applies to sports in general, like “college athletics”.
Aubergine – The British word for eggplant. Aubergine is a French word, which came into French from the Catalan albergina, which itself came from the Arabic al-bethinjan. So why do Americans and Australians call it an “eggplant”? It’s a bit of a mystery – a surprisingly deep mystery, in fact. The word “eggplant” dates from around 1767 and might be connected to the first version of the fruit to arrive in Britain, which was white, and therefore did look like something like an egg. Whether “eggplant” came first and was displaced by the more poncey aubergine at some point after the American Revolution is up for debate.
Autocue – A more generic term for the public speaking tool Americans would refer to by the brand name TelePrompTer.
Baby Minder – The preferred British term for baby sitter.
Backhander – An illicit bribe or kickback.
Bacon – English bacon is exactly the same as Canadian bacon. If you want American-style bacon, ask for “streaky bacon”. An individual piece of bacon is called a rasher, so if you’d like some more bacon, ask for “another rasher” instead of “another piece”.
Bank Holiday – Bank holidays are days in which banks and government offices are closed. Much like Memorial Day or Labor Day in the US, most typical office workers have the day off too, but not retail workers. Bank holidays come from the Bank of England, which from its founding in 1694 until 1834 closed for 33 religious holidays or festivals each year. Since other banks couldn’t do business with the Bank of England closed, they closed, too. In 1834, the number of holidays was reduced to four: May Day, All Saints Day, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 shifted some of the holidays around (and included other holidays which had always been holidays but were not hitherto “official” holidays, like New Year’s Day). In 2014, the official bank holidays in England and Wales are New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Early May bank holiday (May 5), Spring bank holiday (May 26), Summer bank holiday (August 25), Christmas Day and Boxing Day (December 26).
Bap – Slang for a soft roll, or a sandwich made from such a roll. Be careful when using this, as “baps” (note the plural) is also slang for “breasts”. So if you see a woman holding two delicious-looking sandwiches, it’s best not to say “nice baps!” to her unless you want to get slapped.
Barmcake – Also slang for a sandwich, although I’ve never actually heard this one before.
Beaker – Although “beaker” can be used to refer a specific type of glassware in a science lab on both sides of the Atlantic, the average Brit uses this to refer to the plastic drinking device for children Americans would call a “sippy cup”.
Bed and Breakfast – In the US, a “bed and breakfast” is a usually an upscale hotel, almost always of the “quaint and cozy” variety, usually located in an older, historic house. It’s the kind of place that American couples go to for romantic weekend getaways. In the UK, a “bed and breakfast” is simply a small hotel that offers rooms and breakfasts. They are almost always of the “budget traveler” variety and come with varying degrees of “quaint” and “cozy”. There are certainly many wonderful “bed and breakfasts” in Britain, however, there are just as many nasty ones too. In general, American “bed and breakfast” hotels are of a much higher caliber than British ones, so keep that in mind whilst making lodging arrangements.
(The) Beeb (slang) – This is a slang term for the BBC. It’s sometimes called Auntie Beeb, too.
Beer – Beer is beer on either side of the Atlantic, but British pubs and bars generally serve two types of beer: bitter, which is generally similar to Bass Ale, and lager, the golden, American style beers you’re probably familiar with. In America, you’d go to a bar and ask for a “beer”, and the bartender would ask what brand you’d like; in the UK, you’d generally go to a pub and ask for a “bitter” or “lager” instead. See also alcopops.
Beer mat – In the UK, “beer mats” are the free paper coasters pubs use. They generally have an ad for a beer company on them. Incidentally, if you need to go to the restroom and want to save your seat, put a beer mat on top of your (not empty) glass. This is the international “someone’s sitting here and they’ll be back soon” sign. A surprising number of Americans are clueless about this.
Bent – While this word has the expected meaning of “something curved”, like a bent pipe or bent road, in the UK it’s also a common term for “corrupt” as well, as in “bent cops”.
Bespoke – This British word originally referred to custom made clothing. In the US, one would normally call this “tailor made” or “custom made” clothing. In recent years, however, the term has been applied to all sorts of other industries, like furniture, high-end cars, software, jewelry, cake decoration, and even firearms. Because guns are not nearly as prevalent in the UK as the US, the few remaining British gunsmiths often use exotic woods and custom metalwork for their wealthy clientele.
Big Ben – Although many tourists (and quite a few Britons) refer to the tower which houses the clock at the Houses of Parliament as “Big Ben”, the nickname actually refers to the largest bell in the tower (which is properly known as the Great Bell). The tower which holds the clock is now known as the Elizabeth Tower, after Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Before that, it was known as the Clock Tower.
Bint (slang) – A condescending term for a woman, from the Arabic for “girl”. In usage, it’s meaning can vary from “bitch” to “silly”, depending on context and the comfort level between people, just as “bitch” can be deeply offensive if spoken by a stranger, but a term of endearment if spoken by a close female friend.
Biro – A ballpoint pen. The ballpoint pen was invented by a Hungarian named László Bíró, and outside the United States it’s supposedly common to hear natives call a pen a “Biro” in honor of its creator. Although pretty much every British English glossary (including this one) mentions this word, I’ve never actually heard this term in my British travels. “Pen” works just fine, so there’s no need to use this word yourself.
Biscuits – Biscuit is the traditional English word for “cookie”, although you will probably find that most cookies of an American origin (like chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies) are sold as “cookies” or “American-style cookies” and not biscuits. Sadly, you will probably not find American-style biscuits in the UK; the closest thing I’ve seen to biscuits are scones.
Blag (slang) – to get something for free, usually by persuasion (“I blagged that bird into buying me a drink”) but also perhaps by robbery (“They blagged that bank for £100,000”).
Blimey (informal) – An expression of surprise, as in “Blimey! I didn’t expect to see you here!”. The word (allegedly) comes from gor blimey, a very old English term meaning “God blind me”.
Bloke (informal) – A man, such as “John’s a good bloke”.
Boardies – Long shorts used for swimming, commonly called “board shorts” in the US.
Bobby – A police officer. This is in honor of Sir Robert Peel, the man who organized London’s Metropolitan Police, the world’s first organized police force.
Bob’s your uncle (slang) – A term meaning “there you go”, as in “mix the batter well, pour into a cake pan, bake for 30 minutes and Bob’s your uncle”.
Bodge (slang) – To mess something up, used where Americans would say “botch”, as in “you really bodged up that drywall fix, didn’t you?”
Boffin – A scientist, inventor or engineer. It’s used in the same way “egghead” is used in North America.
Bog (slang) – This is a slang term for a toilet, and has spun off several related terms, such as bog brush (toilet brush) and bog roll (toilet paper).
Bog-standard – To be plain, or run-of-the-mill. We’d probably call it vanilla or plain vanilla in the US.
Boiled Sweets – This is the British term for hard candy, like mints, lemon drops, etc.
Bollocks (slang) – Bollocks originally referred to testicles. However in the past century the word has become a popular slang term for anything unpleasant (“That movie was bollocks!”) or as an exclamation of anger, defiance or disbelief (“Bollocks to this!”). However, if something is referred to as the bullocks (or “the dog’s bollocks”), it means something good, as in “I just won the lottery! Isn’t that the dog’s bollocks!”. Why dog testicles came to represent something good is a mystery to me. UPDATE: jimcofer.com reader Duncan sent me an email offering a possible origin of the phrase “the dog’s bollocks”: because dogs seem to always be licking their private parts, they must be good.
Bonnet – The hood of a car.
Boob tube (slang) – An amusing example of the differences between American and British slang terms, a “boob tube” is a low-cut halter top in the UK and a television in the US.
(to) book – Most any situation that would call for a “reservation” in the US would call for a “booking” in the UK. For instance, you’ll need to book a hotel room for your stay in the UK and you might also want to get a booking for a nice restaurant.
Boot – The trunk of a car.
Braces – In the UK, it’s the word for two straps of fabric worn over the shoulders that keep your pants from falling down. In the US, the generic term is suspenders. However, the “everything British is sophisticated” trope comes in to play here, too. In America “suspenders” have “teeth hooks” that can connect to any pair of pants. But high-end men’s clothing stores that sell suspenders with button holes on the ends (that can only be worn if the trousers have the required buttons on the inside) often call those braces to be more “sophisticated”. Note that the word suspenders means “garter belt” in the UK; although the term technically applies to both male and female varieties of garter, the fact that men hardly wear them these days means that for the most part, “suspenders” means “female garter belt” in the UK… so you might get odd looks asking for suspenders in the men’s section of a department store. Also, in both Britain and the US, the word braces can also refer to orthodontic devices used to straighten teeth.
Breeze Block – a type of masonry commonly called a “cinder block” in the US and Canada. Although a cinder block technically requires ash (cinder) to be a cinder block, the term has become generic in the US whether the brick was made with ash or not. In the UK, “breeze” is a synonym for ash.
Brekkie (slang) – Breakfast.
Brolly – A slangy term for an umbrella.
“Brown Sauce”– A ubiquitous British condiment found on the tables of almost every pub, diner and chip shop. It’s used on chips (fries), sandwiches and just about anywhere else an American would use ketchup. This may anger some Brits, but I think brown sauce is almost identical to America’s A1 Original steak sauce. I actually threw out a two year-old bottle of Marks and Spencer brown sauce, because A1 is readily available and “close enough” to not notice much of a difference. Unlike HP Curry Sauce, which has a unique taste and is hard to find here in the States.
Bucks Fizz – A drink made from champagne and orange juice, commonly called a “mimosa” in the US. It’s also the name of an 80s pop group.
Building Society – A building society is similar to, but not exactly the same as, a credit union in the United States.
Busker – A busker is a street performer of some kind, usually a musician. Busking is the act of performing on the street or a Tube station. Look for “No Busking” signs at Tube stations or near tourist attractions.
Butty – A sandwich, especially one made with either bacon (bacon butty) or the thick French fries we’d call “steak fries” in America (chip butty).
Candy Floss – The British term for “cotton candy”.
Canteen – This is what the British call a “cafeteria”, especially if it’s located in a workplace.
Caravan – A recreational vehicle that is towed by a car. It’s commonly called a trailer in the US, or an RV (for “recreational vehicle”) if it’s big enough to come with its own steering wheel. You might remember the many caravan scenes from Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch.
Car Park – A parking lot or deck.
Cashier – The people in banks that give you money or handle your deposit. We call them tellers in America.
Cashpoint – Also “cash point”. This is the most common term for an ATM (automated teller machine). You might also hear ATMs referred to as “cash machines”.
Casualty – This is the traditional British word for “emergency room”, although A&E (Accident and Emergency) is more common these days.
Chav (slang) -A derogatory term used in the UK for young men who are fixated on fashions such as lots of imitation gold, poorly made and ostentatious jewelry, counterfeit fashions (especially Burberry, as well as expensive sneakers and tracksuits. Chavs are similar to, but slightly different than, the American “wigger” stereotype. For a more complete explanation, see this article at Wikipedia.
Cheers – In addition to being a toast, cheers is also the generic term for “goodbye” or “thanks”, especially when dealing with strangers in informal situations. When you complete a transaction at a shop or let a stranger borrow your lighter, they’ll probably thank you with a “cheers”. Do not use this word if you deeply mean your thanks, as it’s a very informal word.
Chemist – British English for a pharmacist, although it also applies to the shop where the pharmacist works, too. So if you’re in the UK and develop a headache, you might want to find a chemist’s (drug store) to ask the chemist (pharmacist) what you should take for it. This word also has the same meaning as the American term of “a person who has a college degree in chemistry”.
Chippie – A restaurant that sells fish and chips… and perhaps curries, burgers and pizza as well. These are almost always “takeaway” (take out) places.
Chippings – Gravel.
Chips – Yes, everyone knows that “chips” are French fries. But not so fast, buddy: when American fast food restaurants came to the UK, their menus called them “fries”. Brits still use the term “chips” generally, but often use the word “fries” when specifically referring to the curly or shoestring variety sold at American-style fast food places and “chips” when referring to the thicker, “steak fries” style potatoes sold at chip shops.
Chuffed – A slangy British term for “happy”, as in “I’m chuffed to be off that damn airplane!”
Cinema\Theatre – In Britain cinemas have movies while theatres have plays. The terms are not interchangeable as they are in the US.
Clerk – A generic British term for someone who works in an administrative position. It’s always pronounced “clark” in the UK. The people in shops who help you with things are called assistants (or shop assistants) in the UK (as opposed to clerks, which they are sometimes called in the US).
Clingfilm – This is what the Brits call “plastic wrap” or “Saran Wrap”.
Coach – For some reason, a bus is called a bus when it’s an intracity bus, but a coach when it’s an intercity one. So you’d take a bus from one part of London to another, but a coach from London to Manchester. I don’t know why this is exactly. Perhaps it’s because coaches have toilets? Maybe it’s a holdover from the old days of horse-drawn coaches? At any rate, even if Brits will know what you mean if you ask for “the bus from London to Liverpool”, you’ll avoid some unnecessary confusion by using these terms correctly.
Cockney – Historically, this meant “a person born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church” in the City of London. Over time, it’s also come to mean working-class Londoners and\or their accents. However, what exactly makes one a “Cockney” is up for debate. There were long periods in which there were no bells at all (after the Great Fire of London, and during World War II, for instance). And the area around St Mary-le-Bow has become almost entirely commercial, so there just aren’t that many births in the area these days. Many adherents to the “bells of St Mary-le-Bow church” theory still take it quite seriously, however.
Concession – In the UK, a concession is a discount given to certain demographic groups, usually for admission to cinemas, museums, etc. It’s analogous to the American “senior citizen discount” or “student discount”, although concession is a blanket term that covers all groups. Interestingly, the American use of concession comes from another meaning of the word, that being “granting a business a license to operate within the property of another business”. In America, the only concession businesses that most people ever patronized were hot dog stands at baseball games or food vendors at train stations. Over time the American idea of “concession = food” became so commonplace that even food sold at movie theatres is sold at “concession stands”, even though the theatre itself owns the stand.
Copper – This word has several meanings in the UK. Most often, it refers to a police officer. It can also refer to any coin that’s not silver, so instead of asking your mate for a penny, you could ask him for a copper. The word can also refer to a type of metal (as in “copper pipes”).
Corn – In the UK, corn is a generic word used for almost every type of grain. The North American plant Americans call “corn” is called maize in Britain.
Cotton Bud – The British term for cotton swab or Q-Tip (a popular brand of swabs in America).
Council home – A home that was built by the local council (a type of local government similar to a city or county government in the US). People move into the homes and rent is then paid to the local council. Council homes were first built in the late 1800s, but really became popular after WWII, when 4 million British homes were destroyed by Nazi bombing runs. One of Margaret Thatcher’s most popular actions was to force local councils to sell these homes to the people that had rented them. The cost varied depending on the location and the amount of time someone had rented the house, but generally speaking, the houses were sold for a fraction of their market price. As of 2005, around 20% of all houses in the UK are council homes. Because of the destruction in WWII, council homes don’t have nearly the stigma that public housing does in the US. Note also that some councils built large apartment buildings instead of private homes; these are called council estates.
Courgette – The British term for zucchini. Like aubergine, courgette is a French word, coming from courge (gourd), which in turn came from the Old French cohourde, which itself came from the Latin cucurbita. Zucchini is known by its Italian name in America, as it was popularized here by Italian immigrants.
Crisps – Potato chips.
Cuppa – A cup of tea, as in “I’m dying for a cuppa!”
Custom – While the British use this word in the same sense of “a longstanding tradition” that Americans do, they also sometimes use it to refer to giving a company business, as in “I don’t give Sainsbury’s my custom any more now that they’ve hiked their prices”.
CV – This is short for Curriculum Vitae, a Latin term meaning “the course of life”. It’s the British term for résumé, although many highly-skilled professions in the US (such as medical researchers) use CVs instead of résumés.
Digestive (biscuit) – A “digestive” is a type of cookie (“biscuit” in Britspeak). It’s somewhat similar to America’s graham crackers.
DIY – Stands for “Do It Yourself” and it generally means “tools or supplies for home repairs” or the hardware store where you buy such things, or the overall “fix it yourself” philosophy. Interestingly, the whole “DIY craze” didn’t hit the UK until the mid 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher allowed people to buy the council homes they had been renting from their local governments for years. Although many Britons think that Margaret Thatcher is the devil, most agree that this was a much needed (and appreciated) move on the government’s part. Since people finally owned their own homes, a long phase of “fixing them up” kicked on that only started to cool off in the past year or two.
Doner – See kebab.
Dosh (slang) – A slangy British term for “money” in general. You might hear someone say “I’d love to buy an iPhone, but I just don’t have the dosh for it right now”.
Dressing Gown – A bathrobe.
Dummy – A pacifier for babies and toddlers.
Dustbin – A trash can. Interestingly, there are no trash cans in Tube stations. This was initially due to fears of IRA bombs; although the IRA is not nearly the threat they once were, Muslim extremists have taken up the slack, so trash cans are still prohibited in most Tube stations.
Dustman – The person that comes and takes away your garbage (“empties the dustbin”). Usually called a trashman or garbageman in the US, unless he’s snooty and demands to be called a “sanitation engineer”.
Elevenses – A short morning break, traditionally accompanied by a small snack and cup of tea. It was usually taken at around 11AM, hence the name. You may recall Winnie the Poo, Paddington Bear and the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings taking elevenses. Elevenses survived for quite some time in American culture as a short morning break to have a drink of whiskey… but Prohibition and liability lawyers have pretty much killed this custom off.
Engaged – A phone line that’s “busy” in the US would be engaged in the UK. All other uses of the word “engaged” Americans are used to – such as busy (“I can’t do lunch – I’m previously engaged”) or two people in a commitment to get married (“John and Jane got engaged!”) – also apply in the UK as well.
Ensuite – A hotel room with a private bathroom included. Most any large hotel will have “ensuite rooms” by default, but many of the smaller touristy hotels have shared bathrooms. If your hotel looks as if it might have been a private home at one point in its life, you might want to make sure that your reservation is for “an ensuite”. Note that this word refers to a room with a bathroom attached only, not to the bathroom itself.
Entreé – In Britain (and most of Europe), an entreé is an appetizer, not the main meal. Although many Brits smugly think that Americans “got this one wrong”, the usage of this word isn’t as cut and dried as it seems. There have been lots of discussions on many Internet message boards that suggest that it was the Russians (not the French) who invented “courses” with meals, and that they called it their main meal entreé, and that usage spread to America. Others think this interpretation is simply wrong. Who’s right? Who knows? See also mains.
Estate – In the UK, this refers to any defined area of property, such as a council estate (housing project) or trading estate (industrial park). It also has the same legal meaning of “someone’s stuff” as in the US, as in “disposing of your grandfather’s estate”.
Ex – I don’t know how “official” this is, but in reading British news sites on the Internet, the British seem to have no problem with using the prefix “ex-” to refer to any former situation, especially with regards to public office. Most American newspapers prefer to use the term “former” to refer to past presidents (i.e. “former President Jimmy Carter”), because “ex-” has a bit of a stigma attached to it in the US due to “ex-wives” and “ex-husbands”.
Ex-Directory – This is the British term for an unlisted phone number.
Fag (slang) – A slang term for a cigarette… although every American schoolboy probably knows this word, as he probably used it as a insult in grade school and then tried to “get off on a technicality” when confronted by teachers about it.
Fagged – A slightly old-fashioned term meaning “tired”, as in “I’m fagged out after chopping all that wood!”
Faggot – This word has several meanings in the UK. The most common is for a type of pork meatball (the most popular brand is “Brain’s Faggots”!). It can also mean a pile of sticks used for kindling. Although the traditional British slang term for homosexual is “queer”, the influence of American films and TV has led fag to be an accepted slang for “gay man” as well.
Fairy Cakes – This is the British term for “cupcakes”, although the US word is become more popular in the UK. I think that’s a shame, since “fairy cakes” is so damn cute!
Fancy Dress (Party) – British people don’t have “costume parties”, they have “fancy dress” parties. If you make a new friend in the UK and he or she invites you to a “fancy dress” party, it means to come dressed in a toga or clown suit, not a tuxedo.
Fanny (slang) – In British English, fanny is an extremely vulgar term for a vagina. You should never, ever use this term in polite company, so keep that in mind if you need to refer to your “fanny pack” – in America, a bag with a built-in belt designed to rest on the lower back.
Father Christmas – The personification of Christmas in most English-speaking countries outside North America is “Father Christmas”. It’s interesting that Father Christmas was originally supposed to appear to adults, to kick off feasts and parties. The image of Father Christmas has changed over the centuries time to be closer to America’s Santa Claus (which is from the Dutch Sinterklaas). However, although Father Christmas is an older, jolly man, he’s rarely portrayed as fat and jolly, like Santa usually is.
Filet\Fillet – There is almost no end to the confusion surrounding these two words, so let me try to break it down for you: fillet (pronounced fill-lay) is a French word whose usage in English means “a strip of meat” (usually beef or fish). On the other hand, filet (pronounced fill-it) is an English word that had multiple meanings, one of which is “a strip of fabric used as a headband”. In time filet came to include many other “strip like” things – including a strip of beef. Yes, both words have the same root – the Latin word filum, which means “thread” – but only the French version is used in America. So if you go to a British restaurant and the waiter mentions a “filet” they’re running as a special… he’s not butchering French, he’s using an English word that, while similar to the French word, simply has a different pronunciation in English. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, the British pronunciation of anchovy (ANK-ohvee) is a complete bastardization of the Spanish word.
Fish fingers – Speaking of filets, “fish fingers” are the same exact food Americans call “fish sticks”.
Fizzy drink – A carbonated beverage, typically a soda like Coca-Cola. Beware that in Britain “lemonade” refers to citrus-based carbonated beverages like Sprite or 7-Up. If you want American-style lemonade, ask for “still lemonade” or “flat lemonade”.
Flannel – An old-school British term for “washcloth”. Since washcloths are somewhat rare in budget hotels, you might need to ask the front desk for a “flannel”.
Flat – In the UK, it not only means “something without curves”, it’s also the most common term for an apartment, as in “let’s go back to my flat and play some Xbox”.
Fortnight – A period of time consisting of two weeks. It comes from the phrase “fourteen nights”. Amazingly, most Americans are unfamiliar with this word, even though it used to be much more common in American English.
Fringe – The little bits of hair that hang over your forehead, commonly called “bangs” in the US, are called “fringe” in the UK.
Fry-up – A traditional English breakfast, usually consisting of fried eggs, English bacon, sausages, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, baked beans and toast. It’s also sometimes called a “full English”.
Fruit machine – This is called a “slot machine” or a “one-armed bandit” in the United States. I don’t know how often this will come up in your travels, but I added it for the sake of completeness.
Full Stop – The type of punctuation mark that is commonly called a period in the United States. And just as Americans would use “period” in a sentence to emphasize that they really mean something, British people often use “full stop”, as in “You are not dating that guy… full stop!”.
Gaol – This is the old-school way of spelling “jail” in the UK. It’s pronounced exactly like “jail”, just spelled a bit differently. Gaol is rapidly falling out of fashion in Britain in favor of the Americanized “jail”, but gaol is the only official way to spell it in Australia and New Zealand.
Garden – The space in the front and\or back of your home where green stuff grows is called a garden in the UK. In American English the term is yard, with garden being reserved for patches of plants grown for a specific reason (like a vegetable garden) or for a highly-organized area of plantings (like a flower garden). The Brits only use “yard” in the industrial sense of a “large place where work is done”, like a scrap yard or ship yard. Note that even a tiny patch of concrete with one potted plant in it – typical for a lot of townhouses in London – is called a garden in the UK. It’s referring to a place, not to a specific botanical thing.
Gas – As you might know, gasoline is called petrol in the UK. What you might not know is that gas refers to “natural gas” exclusively in the UK.
Geezer – In the UK, this is a general term for “a man” and is usually used when referring to someone that the speaker has no relationship with, as in “I got directions from this geezer on the street corner”. In the US, the term refers exclusively to elderly men and is considered mildly offensive. The term is not considered to be offensive in the UK, as it doesn’t “target” old men. It is, however, considered informal. If you’d like to refer to an old man in a derogatory way in the UK, the word you’d be looking for is codger.
Gherkin – This is the “official” British term for pickle, although the US term is becoming more and more common.
Ginger – Although British people will understand what you mean if you say that someone has “red hair”, the usual phrase in the UK is ginger hair. You can also use the term as a singular noun, as in “of course she’s got a temper, she’s a ginger!” Of course, ginger is also a popular spice in the UK, too.
Git (slang) – This insult from northern England is somewhat hard to define. I suppose the closest American term would be “jerk”, although git often implies stupidity and\or ignorance as well.
Gobsmacked – One of my favorite British words, this means “speechless”, as in “the Atlanta Falcons won the Super Bowl? I’m gobsmacked!”
Grass – Although “grass” can be the green stuff that grows in the front yard, or a somewhat dated slang term for marijuana, in Britain the word has the additional meaning of a criminal informant. An especially valuable informant, such as a high-ranking member of the mob, might be called a supergrass.
Gravy – What the Brits call “gravy” we’d call au jus in the States. Sausage gravy – popular here in the southern states – is usually called “white sauce” in the UK.
Ground floor – In the UK, this refers to the first floor of a building. For a typical 3-storey building in the USA, the floors would be labeled “first floor, second floor, third floor” while in the UK they would be labeled “ground floor, first floor, second floor”.
Half [time] – When giving time, a British person might say that it’s half something, like “half six”, which means 6:30. The phrase was originally “half past [the hour]”, but over time it was shortened to just “half-[hour]”. Note that in German (and perhaps other languages) “half-six” means 5:30, as in German the phrase originally meant “halfway to six o’clock”. Note also the British term gone [hour], which is an exasperated way to give the time, such as “here it is gone six and I’m still at work!”
Hash – The symbol most Americans would call a “pound sign” or “octothorpe” – # – is called a “hash” in the UK. Also, to “hash something up” in the UK is to mess something up, as in “I sure hashed up my final exam”.
High Street – High street is analogous to the American “main street”. It refers to both the main thoroughfare of a town as well as the nation as a whole (as in “crack cocaine has finally hit the high street”). In the UK it also refers to the nation’s retailers, as in “the high street had dismal sales this holiday season”.
(to) hire – To rent something for a short while. For a tourist, this usually means hiring a car or bicycle.
Hob – the flat cooking surface most Americans would call a “range”, as in “put the kettle on the hob”.
Hock – Hock is a type of white German wine Americans would call “Rhine wine”. Interestingly, the other American uses of “hock” – such as the end of a ham (ham hock) or to pawn something – are unknown in the UK.
Hockey – To most Brits, “hockey” without any additional qualifiers means field hockey, not ice hockey as it would be in North America.
Holiday – the British term for vacation, as in “I went to London on holiday”.
Homely – In America, homely usually refers to a female, as in “a homely girl”. In this case, she is specifically a girl that is not only unattractive, but dresses plainly or old-fashioned as well. One would rarely call an unattractive but smartly dressed girl “homely”, and an attractive woman that’s plainly dressed would be called “frumpy”. In Britain, homely has the same meaning as “homey” in the US. Thus, a warm, comfortable and cozy house would be called homely in the UK.
Hoover – A word which either refers a vacuum cleaner, or to the act of vacuuming itself. Presumably this comes from the Hoover brand name.
Hospital – Hospitals are pretty much the same in the US and UK. However, Brits almost always drop the definite article “the” before the word. So a friend might be “in hospital” instead of “in the hospital” as they would be in the US.
Icing sugar – This is what the Brits call confectioner’s sugar.
Interval – An intermission period, most commonly used at theatres. If you go to a play, it will probably have an interval.
Jacket potatoes – baked potatoes… specifically baked potatoes with the skin (“jacket”) still on. Jacket potatoes are a popular item on British menus, and often come with a variety of toppings, including cheese, bacon, and\or onions… I’ve even jacket potatoes with tuna salad on them!
Jaffa cake – These delicious little treats are a spongy yellow cake (shaped like a cookie), topped with orange jam (see jam) and covered in chocolate. They’re absolutely delicious!
Jam\Jelly – Boy, is this one confusing! In the US, jam is a fruit preserve made from bits of fruit (like strawberry jam), while jelly is a fruit preserve made from fruit juice (like grape jelly). In the UK, either type of preserve is called a jam, whilst jelly is reserved for a gelatin-based dessert that Americans most often refer to by the brand name Jell-O.
Jumper – A jumper is what they call a sweater in the UK. In the US, the word most often refers to one-piece outfits for babies or toddlers.
Jumper Leads – Also called jump leads, this is the British term for “jumper cables”.
Kebab – A type of sandwich which is very similar to what Americans would call a gyro. In fact, the only difference that I’ve been able to tell between the two is that kebabs are offered with a variety of sauces (my favorite is chili sauce), while gyros only seem to come with tzatziki sauce. It’s interesting to note that the words for the two very similar sandwiches come from different countries: doner kebab is Turkish in origin, whilst gyro is (of course) Greek. Presumably, doner kebabs became popular in the UK due to either Turkish immigrants to England or Turkish immigrants to Germany (where the sandwich then migrated to the UK). In the US, large numbers of Greek immigrants seem to have opened diners solely to corner the market on the sandwich. If you are in the UK and want meat served on a skewer, just ask for it by its full name of shish kebab, as kebab by itself is the gyro-like sandwich.
Kerb – The edge of a sidewalk, spelled “curb” in the US. In British English, curb has the same meaning as the American sense of “restraining or limiting something”, as in “to curb your desires”.
Kit – In the US, a kit is a collection of items gathered for a specific purpose, such as a first-aid kit or shaving kit. In the UK, kit is used on a much broader basis. Although it usually refers to some electronic gizmo (e.g. “His new mobile phone is a cool piece of kit!”), it can be used to refer to just about anything in the UK, especially sports uniforms (“Do you like Manchester United’s new kit?”).
Knackered – To be tired or exhausted. You could also be fagged out, but this is an old-fashioned term that is not used in the UK much these days.
Knickers – Although several websites say that this is a slangy, generic British term for underwear, I’ve only ever heard it refer to women’s underwear. That’s why it’s an insult to tell a man “not to get his knickers in a bunch” – because he’s allegedly wearing women’s underwear, see?
Knock up – In Britain, this means “to knock on someone’s door”; in America it means “to get someone pregnant”. Hilarious cultural misunderstandings must have ensued at the British debut of the film Knocked Up.
Lad – In the UK, a lad is a young man who is rude and crude (but not rude and crude enough to be a ‘yob’). The American term “frat boy” is used in the same sense, although it doesn’t have quite the same meaning.
(to) let – To rent something for a longer time than hiring. It’s usually used in reference to apartments or office space. You’ll see signs that say “Office Space To Let”, for example.
License fee – When used in the context of television, it refers to a yearly fee required to own and operate a television set in the UK. The current fee (as of August 2008) is £139.50 per year (approximately US $271.81). Only one license is required per household, regardless of how many sets are in use, and licenses are not required for any TV that does not receive broadcasts (CCTV monitors, for example). Concessions (discounts) are available for pensioners (senior citizens). Money from the license fee goes to fund the BBC, which operates several TV channels and radio stations. This is why BBC programs never have commercials, although they do run promos for other BBC shows between programs (other “private” British networks do have commercials). The BBC World Service is funded exclusively by the British government and no monies from the license fee are used to support it. If you are at a pub and things get a little boring, you can spice up the conversation by asking the Brits if they consider the license fee to be a “tax” or not. (I’m kidding, don’t do this.) The British government collects the license fee money and gives 100% of it to the BBC, so most Brits don’t consider it to be a tax. Most Americans would see it quite differently, however.
Lift – An elevator.
Lemonade – See fizzy drink.
Loo – A toilet (see Toilet). There is a lot of argument over the origin of this word, the most popular being that it was ripped from the French gardez l’eau – “watch out for the water!” – from back in the good ol’ days when people flung the contents of chamber pots out of their windows and into the street. This is one of those terms only Brits and Australians should use – it just sounds silly when Americans or Canadians talk about “going to the loo”.
Lorry – A truck. Pickup trucks don’t appear to be too common in the UK, so lorry usually refers to what Americans would call a “panel truck”.
MP – short for “Member of Parliament”. You might also see MEP, which stands for Member of the European Parliament or MSP, which stands for Member of the Scottish Parliament. As you might guess, PM stands for Prime Minister.
Mains – The main courses served at a restaurant or pub. Where an American menu would say entrées, a British one would say mains. For example, it’s common for British pubs to have signs in their windows advertising “2 mains for £7.50” or something similar. Mains also refers to the main household electrical system, as in “the reason you’re sitting in the dark is ‘cos there’s a problem with the mains”.
Mackintosh – The British word for raincoat, named after Scottish inventor Charles Macintosh, who first sold his raincoats in 1824. Interestingly, although most British people know that Macintosh invented the Mackintosh, no one can tell me why they’re spelt differently.
Marmite – This is a yeast extract that is left over from brewing beer. It’s spread (thinly!) on toast, and is often described as “salty tractor grease”. It is basically the same thing as Australia’s Vegemite. It’s also disgusting. Seriously!
Marrow – Although marrow has the same meaning as the American “soft tissue found in the hollow interior of bones”, in Britain it more typically means “squash” (as in zucchini, butternut, acorn, spaghetti and pumpkin). Imagine my confusion when I went to open a can of imported Bachelor’s Mushy Peas, only to see that they “contained marrow” but were “suitable for vegetarians”!
Mars bar – Confusingly, a British Mars bar is the same as an American Milky Way bar. This came about because Forrest Mars, Sr. became disillusioned with the way his father, Frank Clarence Mars, was running the Mars company in the US. Forrest moved to England and opened his own branch of the Mars company in 1932. He based the British Mars Bar on his father’s Milky Way bar (albeit making the British Mars bar a bit sweeter than its American sibling). Eventually, all was patched up between the American and British branches of the company, but not before the US company had made its own version of the Mars Bar (which is still sold today in the US an the “Snickers Almond” bar). As if all of this weren’t confusing enough, in Britain and the rest of the world a “Milky Way” bar is the same candy bar sold as the “3 Musketeers” bar in the US!
Mews – This word originally referred to stables built around a courtyard, but is now sometimes used to refer to a residential cul-de-sac. There are several streets in London with mews in the name, such as Huntsworth Mews, Chenies Mews, Barb Mews and Muncies Mews.
Mince – The British term for “ground beef”. Interestingly, mince pie is made from mincemeat, which is a combination of currants, raisins, apples and spices and contains no beef.
Minger (slang) – An unpleasant person, especially an unattractive one.
Mobile phone – In the UK, cellular telephones are called mobile phones, usually shortened to just mobile. It’s not uncommon for an American to call his phone a mobile phone, but most Americans use the term cellular phone to differentiate today’s small portable phones from the bulky mobile phones that were used from the 1950s to the 1980s. Back then, a mobile phone was a real telephone – just like the ones that sat on your desk – that was bolted to the floor of your car. You couldn’t dial out from or dial in to a mobile phone directly; one had to dial a central number and go through an operator. Since these phones were still being used when the new portable phones came out, Americans used the term “cellular” to avoid confusion between the two types of phones.
Mod Cons – Short for “modern conveniences”, as in “this hotel has cable TV… air conditioning… all the mod cons!”. Speaking of “All Mod Cons”, that was the name of an album by the popular British punk\New Wave group The Jam.
Monger – A merchant that deals in a specific type of goods. Most Americans have heard the term “fishmonger” to refer to a seafood vendor; the British use these terms much more than Americans do. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out what product the person is referring to, although you might not know that an ironmonger sells hardware.
Mother (slang)- This cute little piece of British slang refers to anyone in a group of friends that serves food or beverages. If a group of twentysomething guys held a birthday party for someone, the person that sliced and served the cake is being the mother.
Nappy – A diaper. Although I’m not completely sure of this, I believe that nappy only refers to “baby diapers”, as opposed to the “adult diapers” used for incontinence.
Newsagent – A store that sells newspapers, magazines, sweets and canned or bottled drinks. Equivalent to the American news stand.
Notes – Individual bits of paper money are called notes in the UK, never “bills”. Thus, the leather accessories that carry money are called wallets and not “billfolds”.
Nutter (slang) – The British slang term for a crazy person. While Americans might say “fruitcake”, “nutjob”, “nutcase” or “whackjob”, Brits will usually just say “nutter”.
Offal – This is the British and American term for organ meats, such as lungs or kidneys. Offal is much more common in the UK than it is in mainstream US restaurants (steak and kidney pie is, after all, a British institution). Since offal (also called “organ meats” in the US) is pretty rare here, many Americans (especially the younger ones) might not have seen this word before.
Off-license – A shop that sells alcoholic beverages for consumption off the shop’s premises, like a convenience store.
Oi! – This is the British version of “hey!” as in “hey you, get back here!”. When most British folk say it, my American ears hear a cross between boy without the “b” and aye. This word is almost always used in a bad way, especially if used in a loud voice. It’s the kind of thing an angry bouncer would say to an unruly patron or a shopkeeper would yell at a shoplifter. So if you hear it, trouble might be coming your way. If you think you might have done something to cause the “Oi”, be prepared to apologize… or duck!
Oxbridge – This is a term for Oxford and Cambridge universities. There really isn’t an American equivalent, although “Ivy League” is pretty close. Where a smart American kid might apply to a couple of Ivy League universities, his British counterpart would apply to Oxbridge.
Paki (slang) – It rhymes with “Jackie” and is quite possibly the most offensive word in British English. It’s a derogatory term for an Asian (in the British sense, i.e. an Indian or Pakistani), and is as offensive, if not more so, than “nigger” for blacks. Unless you want to end up in the hospital, don’t use this word.
Pancake roll – For some reason, egg rolls and\or spring rolls are sometimes called pancake rolls in Britain.
Paracetamol – The British term for acetaminophen.
Pasty – A popular meat pie in Britain, especially since it’s portable (like a Hot Pocket). Note that this word rhymes with “nasty”, not “tasty”.
Pavement – This UK term refers to the part of the road on which pedestrians walk, which is commonly called a sidewalk in the US. This begs the question – if the sidewalk is “pavement” in the UK, what do they top the streets with over there? The answer is tarmac, a word that’s only used to describe airport runways in the United States.
Pay packet – The British term for “paycheck”, as in “you’ll get your pay packet on the 1st and 15th”.
Peckish – This is a British word that means “hungry, but not starving”. In America you’d probably call this “munchy”.
Pensioner – An elderly person, so-named because that person is (presumably) retired and living off a pension. I have never seen the words “senior citizen” or “elderly” in a British newspaper, always pensioner. You will sometimes see the acronym OAP (which stands for old age pensioner) used in newspapers.
Pie – There was confusion in America due to a commercial for the GEICO auto insurance company. In it, the company’s British-accented “spokes-lizard” (he’s a gecko… get it? Gecko? GEICO?) wonders why people “wouldn’t want free pie and chips”. Most Americans know that “chips” are fries, and as soon as someone with a British accent talks about “chips”, most automatically assume the speaker is talking about french fries. But millions wondered why people would want to eat apple pie with french fries! The confusion came about because the default type of “pie” in Britain is the savory variety, such as pork pie, steak and kidney pie, or steak and mushroom pie. Of course, they also have sweet pies in the UK like apple pie or blackberry pie… it’s just that if you stopped 100 Britons on the street and asked them to name a type of pie, 99 of them would answer “steak” instead of “apple”. By the way, British savory pies are quite similar to American “pot pies”, but they have a nice, flaky puff pastry instead of the flat crust American pies usually have. They’re delicious!
Pissed – In Britain, pissed generally means “drunk”, whilst in America it usually means “angry”. People in both countries sometimes use the other nation’s meaning, although Brits tend to say “pissed off” (as opposed to just “pissed”) when talking about an angry person. They might also use “pissed” to mean angry when its meaning would be unambiguous, as it might be during an argument (“what are you pissed at me for?). By the same token, most Americans qualify the use of “pissed” when talking about an intoxicated person by using such phrases as “piss-ass drunk”. The only Americans that tend to use the word “pissed” (meaning drunk) on a regular basis are people with immediate British connections or wannabe Anglophiles.
Pitta – A type of bread, exactly the same in every way as “pita bread” here in the US. Note that in the UK the word is pronounced “pitt-a” not “pee-ta” and that it’s usually just called “pitta” and not “pitta bread”.
Plaster – The British term for “adhesive bandage”. Most Americans call this a “Band-Aid” after the popular brand name. It can also refer to the stuff you put on your walls (drywall is not nearly as prevalent in the UK as it is in the US).
Plonk – Cheap wine, especially cheap red wine. “Are you still drinking that plonk from a box?”
Polystyrene – The British word for “Styrofoam”, which is actually a brand name here in the US.
Poncey – Although the dictionary definition of this word is “effeminate, snobby and\or ostentatious”, it has become almost a catch-all put down for the well-to-do in the UK, in the same way “rich boy” might be used in the US. If you would like to refer to something upper-class or expensive in a positive way, use the term posh, as in “this is one posh hotel!”
Pork scratchings – Almost every pub in the UK has bags of crisps (potato chips) and pork scratchings (pork rinds) available for purchase, should you get the munchies while downing a pint (or two).
Post – What mail is called in the UK. Instead of asking “what’s in today’s mail?” a Briton would ask “what’s in today’s post?”. Note that just about every word that Americans associate with “mail” is switched to “post” in the UK as well, such as postman (mailman) and post box (mail box). Most of the public post boxes one sees on the street in the UK are cylindrical in shape and are painted bright red; these may be called either post boxes or pillar boxes.
Poste restante – This is the British term for “mail delivered to, and held at, a post office”. It’s equivalent to “general delivery” in the US.
Pram – In Britain this is a baby carriage. The term is short for “perambulator”. It’s also sometimes used as “pram-face”, an uncommon slang term for “baby-face”.
Prawn – According to Alton Brown of Good Eats, Europeans use the word prawn to refer to only the largest shrimp. Presumably, Europeans call smaller shrimp “shrimp”, just as we do here in the US. However, I must admit that I’ve never seen the word “shrimp” on any product in the UK. Walker’s potato crisps come in “prawn cocktail” flavor, Marks and Spencer sandwiches include a “prawn salad” flavor, and most any restaurant offers at least one dish made of prawns. So I guess it’s just prawn in the UK. Interestingly, in the US crustaceans harvested from salt water are called “shrimp” while crustaceans harvested from fresh water are called “prawns”.
Presenter – This is the customary British term for the people on TV that host shows. For example, Jay Leno would be the Tonight Show’s presenter in the UK, not the host. Note that the term newsreader is common for TV news people, and that the American “(news) anchor” is slowly slipping into usage in the UK.
Publican – the owner of a public house (pub).
Pudding – Confusingly for Americans, this term is generic word for dessert in the UK and can include includes cakes, ice cream, etc. It’s thought to have originated in the way the dish was cooked (for a long time under low heat in a bladder of sorts), and that the British simply started calling everything that was sweet (but not candy) a pudding.
Punter – This word has many meanings, but typically refers to the “customers of a particular business”. If a shop were to go out of business, it might be because “not enough punters came in the place”. A punter originally meant someone that gambled on sports and was also used as a slang term for the customers of a prostitute. Although these meanings are still valid today, 99% of the time you hear the word it’s simply referring to “customers” in an inoffensive way.
Purse – In Britain, a purse is a small pouch for carrying change. Men might or might not carry a purse, or they might have a wallet with a built-in purse. The larger bag that women carry their wallet, makeup, cell phone and other things in is called a pocketbook in the UK. The terms “purse” and “pocketbook” are not interchangeable in Britain.
QC – Stands for “Queen’s Council”, a senior lawyer who was originally entitled to carry out legal proceedings on behalf of the crown. As a general rule, QCs are selected from the available barristers (lawyers that mostly work in courts) and not solicitors (lawyers that work with clients). If you wanted to get a divorce, you’d first see a solicitor, for example. If the case went to court, you’d have to also hire a barrister. As you might guess, members of the Queen’s Council become members of the King’s Council if a male monarch takes over.
Queue – The British term for a line of people, as in “there was a huge queue at the post office”.
Quid (slang) – A slang term for a pound sterling, as in “you’d better enjoy this Coke – it cost 3 quid at the hotel gift shop!”
Range – In the UK, the total amount of products a company offers, as in “our company carries the entire range of Microsoft products”. This is typically called a product line in the US.
Reception – For travelers, this refers to the front desk of a hotel. If you need a wake-up call, you’d “ring reception” instead of “calling the front desk”.
Red Indian – This is the actual term that Brits use to refer to American Indians (or “Native Americans”, if you prefer). It’s absolutely shocking to American ears, but to the Brits, “Indian” without any other qualifier refers to someone from India, since there are large numbers of them in the UK.
Redundant – This is the British term for “laid-off from work”, as in “he thought he was going to get a promotion, but was made redundant instead”. The British also use the word in the American sense of “superfluous”, as in “I got you a fancy ashtray for your birthday, but now that you’ve quit smoking it’s redundant”.
Return (return ticket) – A return (also known as a return ticket) is British English for “round-trip ticket”. When you buy a train ticket, you will be asked whether you want a single or return. Choose return if you want a round-trip ticket.
Roads – There are many differences between American English and British English when it comes to roads, so I’ll just condense them all into one no-nonsense entry if I may. A motorway is the British word for freeway or expressway. One can get on to or off of a motorway by using a slip road, something we’d call a ramp in the US (or, more specifically, an on-ramp or off-ramp or entrance ramp or exit ramp). A dual carriageway is the British term for a divided highway. The area between lanes of a dual carriageway where the grass grows is called a central reservation in the UK and a median in the US. And lastly, intersections are called junctions in the UK.
Rocket – What the Brits call arugula. The word comes from Middle English rokette, which itself comes from the Old French roquette, which came from the Italian rochetta, which is a variant of ruchetta – the diminutive form of ruca, a type of cabbage. Once again, the American term comes from the Italian; however, in this instance the word comes into American English from a particular dialect of Italian: the northern Lombardy region.
Row – It rhymes with cow, and it’s a common British word for “argument”, or “commotion”, as in “the new tax hikes are going to kick off one hell of a row!”. Of course, this word is fairly common in American English too, but it’s much more common in British English. In fact, it seems like every day you’ll see the a headline that reads “Fury at [something] Row” in British newspapers.
Rubber – Stop giggling! This word just means eraser in Britain. The things that stop you from having babies are just called condoms (although most British people I’ve heard pronounce it CON-DAAWWM instead of the more American CON-DUM).
Rubbish – This is the British word for “trash”. A British wife might beg her husband to “take out the rubbish”, for example.
Salad – British people enjoy salads that are quite similar to American salads. However, the term salad is also used to describe the mixture of lettuces and onions included on a sandwich. For example, at a takeaway stand you might be asked if you want salad on your kebab.
Saloon – In the UK, it’s a type of car that usually has four doors and a separate trunk, which is usually called a sedan in the United States.
Sarny (Sarnie) – Yet another slang term for a sandwich.
Scampi – In the UK, scampi is a popular snack at pubs, consisting of fried shellfish Americans would call langostino. In the US, scampi is a type of dish served at Italian restaurants that consists of a meat (usually shrimp) served in a boiling hot mixture of butter, garlic and white wine.
Scheme – In the UK the word scheme is often used to describe some new government plan, like “the Labour Party’s ‘Free School Lunches’ scheme”. This is hilarious to Americans, as “scheme” almost always has a negative connotation in the USA thanks to Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes. In fact, the only phrase I can think of where “scheme” would not be seen in a negative light is “color scheme”.
Seconded – In British English, this is pronounced SEKonded, not “second-ed”. It’s originally a military term that meant “to be transferred to another department or unit for a period of time”. An officer in the British Army who has a special skill needed in another unit might be “seconded to the 95th Rifles”, for example. The term has spilled over into everyday use, so that an office worker might be seconded to another branch if needed.
Sellotape – Cellophane tape, usually referred to as “Scotch tape” in the USA due to the popularity of the Scotch brand name.
Serviette – a table napkin (usually made of paper) in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Don’t worry about using this word yourself – Brits know full well that Americans call it a “napkin”, and will know what you want if you ask for “extra napkins”. You might, however, see the word in print on a menu or something and not know what it means otherwise.
Shambolic – Another great British word, this means “disorganized and messy”.
Shandy – A drink made from beer and lemonade (where “lemonade” refers to to British usage, like Sprite or 7-UP). A shandy is great when the weather’s hot. Be warned, though, that a shandy isn’t considered a “manly drink”. Ordering a shandy at the wrong pub in the UK would be like ordering a white wine spritzer at a biker bar in the US.
Shepherd’s pie – Shepherd’s pie is a meal made from ground lamb and leftover vegetables topped with mashed potatoes (and usually with cheese on top). Cottage Pie is the same thing, but made with ground beef. Although “shepherd’s pie” is fairly common in the US, since it’s almost always made with ground beef in the US. So it should be called “cottage pie” here.
Shop (Store) – In the UK, places where you buy stuff are called shops. As far as I know, “store” is only used as a noun in the sense of “an amount of something”, as in “the Spanish ships had a huge store of gunpowder”.
Single (single ticket) – A single (also known as a “single ticket”) is British English for “one-way ticket”. When you buy a train ticket, you will be asked whether you want a single or return. Choose single if you only want a one-way ticket.
Skip – In the US, a large trash receptacle is usually called a Dumpster after the Dempster-Dumpster brand name, which was one of the first companies to offer a mechanized trash removal service to businesses (they were actually the company that invented the truck that lifts the bin and empties it into the back of a truck). In the UK, what Americans call a Dumpster would be called a “skip”.
Skive (slang) – To get out of work, usually by calling in sick. You can skive off of work to watch a football (soccer) match, and you’ll be skiving whilst doing so. This word rhymes with “jive”.
Sleeping policeman – A bump in the road placed there on purpose to reduce the speed of cars traveling on the road; it’s usually called a speed bump in the United States, although there are newer (wider, flatter) bumps that are much larger that are sometimes called speed humps.
(a) Slice – The Brits have a breakfast tradition of making “toast” by taking bacon or sausages out of the pan and frying slices of bread in the leftover grease. It’s absolutely delicious, but you might have health or religious issues with eating “toast” cooked this way. They certainly have regular “toast” made in toasters or toaster ovens over there, but keep in mind that “slice” always refers to fried bread, but “toast” can refer to either preparation. Be sure to ask if it’s important to you.
Snogging – Although it sounds really dirty, a snog is just a French kiss, whilst snogging is “making out”.
Spinster – In the US, a spinster is an elderly woman that has never married; in Britain she’s any woman that’s never married, although I’m not quite sure when a woman stops being just plain “single” and becomes a “spinster”. Hopefully this problem will go away, as there’s a movement afoot in the UK to stop using this word in all official documents. In any case, the crucial thing here is that the woman has never married – someone whose husband died but chose not to remarry is a “widow”, not a spinster.
Spring onions – This is the British term for scallions or green onions, although like so many other phrases, a Brit will know what you want if you ask for “green onions” in a salad.
Squash – A drink made from a fruit concentrate syrup, as well as the syrup itself. It’s sometimes called “dilute” because it has to be diluted with water before drinking; imagine drinking a “water enhancer”, like MiO, straight from the bottle! Little kids may just call it “juice”. Because squash, the American vegetable, is new to the UK, they are often referred to by their specific varietal name – “butternut squash” or “acorn squash” – or might just be called “pumpkin”, a kind of catch-all term for such vegetables in the UK.
Squiz (slang) – To have a quick, but close, look at something, as in “have a squiz at last quarter’s sales numbers”. It’s possibly a blend of “squint” and “quiz”, and is likely an Aussie term that migrated to British English.
Stodge (slang) – This is a cute British term for “heavy food”, like the stuff your grandmother used to make. A restaurant that’s trying to update its image might “ditch the stodge” for a lighter menu.
Stone – a) A unit of measurement equal to 14 pounds. Although stone was historically used to measure people and agricultural commodities like beef and wool, today it is only used to measure people, as in “my sister weighs 10 stone” (140 pounds). Stone measurements do not have partial units, so someone might weigh “11 stone 4”, meaning 158 pounds (11 stone [154 pounds] + 4 pounds = 158lbs). The correct plural form of stone in this context is stone. b) What Americans would commonly call a “pit” in fruits and vegetables (e.g., a peach pit or avocado pit) is called a stone in the UK.
Straight Away – Used anywhere Americans would say “right away”, as in “I’ll get the manager for you straight away”.
Subway – A pedestrian walkway, usually referring to tunnels under larger streets. You might have to walk through a subway to get to an Underground station, for example.
Sultanas – Originally, this word referred to a specific type of yellow grape that was grown only in Turkey, but in time the word has come to mean any grape that looks like a sultana. Confusingly, the British seem to call any other type of grape a currant, even though that word originally referred to a dried Zante grape. Perhaps it’s a case where it’s called a grape on a vine but a currant when it’s at the supermarket? I’m not sure, and I hope a jimcofer.com visitor can clear up the confusion. All I know is that I’ve never seen “grape-flavored” anything in the UK, always currant.
Suspenders – See braces.
Suss – Although not unknown in the US, especially in the South, this term – which means to figure out something, as in “did you suss out how to put together that Ikea bed yet?” – is much more common in the UK.
Sweets – In the UK, sweets are candy only, while in the US the term can include anything sweet, like pastries or ice cream.
Swot – When used as a verb, it means to study intensely for a test, much like the American term “cramming”. When used as a noun, it refers to one who studies excessively… kind of like “nerd” or “geek”, but with a more precise meaning.
(to) Table – In Britain, to table something (like a business plan or government bill) means to take action on it (as in, “to bring something to the table”). In the US, to table something is to stop discussing the plan or bill and cease action on it (as in, “to take it off the table”). As you might guess, this created a lot of confusion during the war between British and American military and political leaders that had never worked together before.
Takeaway – Food purchased for consumption off the premises. It has the same meaning as the American “take out”.
Taking the mick – to tease someone, as in “don’t get mad, we’re only taking the mick”. A common variant is “taking the piss”, although “taking the mick” is preferable in polite company.
Tannoy – Tannoy is the most popular brand of loudspeaker in the UK, and has become the generic term for such things. So where an American would say something like “the announcement came over the loudspeaker [or “PA”, for public address system]”, a Brit would say the announcement “came over the Tannoy”.
Tariff – In the UK, a hotel’s room rates have traditionally been called its tariff. You will find that the American term “rates” is slowly but surely creeping in, especially at larger hotels and chains.
Taxi Rank – The British equivalent of “taxi stand”.
Terrace – In Britain, this is a row of nearly identical houses sharing side walls, like townhouses in the US.
“The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street” (slang) – Sometimes shortened to just “The Old Lady”, this is a slang term for the Bank of England, which is located on Threadneedle Street in the City of London.
Tick – A check mark. Where a form might say “please check the appropriate box” in the United States, a similar British one would say “please tick the appropriate box”.
Tin – This is a British word for “can”, as in “a tin of baked beans”. Interestingly, Brits use “can” and “tin” interchangeably, so in this case it’s not a situation where Americans use one word and the Brits use another.
Tip – Although this word has every meaning it does in America (a gratuity, helpful advice, to fall over), it also means a Dumpster, or an area where things are dumped. Thus, a housewife may ask her husband when he’s “going to take that broken fridge down to the tip”.
Toilet – A small room with a toilet, sink, and perhaps a mirror. Although most any British person will know what you’re asking for if you ask for a “restroom” or “bathroom”, I think it’s more polite to just ask for a toilet instead. Historically speaking, British “bathrooms” were just that – rooms with a bathtub or shower in them, and usually (but not always) a toilet as well. Since facilities in restaurants and pubs rarely (if ever) include a bathtub, it’s technically wrong to ask for a bathroom.
Torch – This is the British word for a flashlight.
TOWIE – An abbreviation for The Only Way Is Essex, a popular “scripted reality” show, not unlike Keeping Up With the Kardashians here in the US. You may see cast members referred to as “the newest TOWIE”.
(Ticket) Touts – A ticket scalper. Avoid these people at all costs.
Trainers – In the UK, tennis shoes or sneakers are generically called trainers, although the popularity of certain brand names has led many British youth to call their shoes “Nikes” or “Chucks”, just like kids here in the US.
(Shopping) Trolley – This is the British term for the shopping carts one uses at a grocery store. Amusingly, the carts used to hand out beverages on airplanes are called drinks trolleys; this led to the wonderful (if sexist) British slang term trolley dolley being used for flight attendants.
Trousers (Pants) – The British call pants trousers and underwear pants. Like so many other phrases, a Brit will probably know what you mean if you say that you “spilled something on your pants”, but you can avoid confusion (possibly embarrassing confusion) by using these terms correctly.
Twee – Yet another of my favorite British words, to be twee is to be overbearingly dainty, refined, cute and\or precious. Although the word can be used affectionately, it is generally a derogatory term for something that’s nauseatingly cute or sweet. In America, the term is generally used only to describe pop music; “The Lovecats” by The Cure can be described as twee, as can anything by Belle and Sebastian – a band often called “The Beatles of Twee”. In the UK, the word is used much more generally, and can apply to music, movies, TV shows, books, etc.
Vacuum flask – In the US, an insulated container used for transporting hot liquids is commonly called a Thermos, after the popular brand name. In the UK, it’s called a vacuum flask.
Vest – Here’s another confusing one. A vest is a sleeveless undershirt worn by men in the UK. Americans would call it an undershirt or t-shirt, or maybe even the slang term wife beater, after the television show Cops, where people were constantly arrested wearing them. The thing you wear with a suit (which Americans would call a vest) is called a waistcoat in the UK. Note that like so many technological terms that are exported from the US, a British policeman might wear a bulletproof vest (rather than a “bulletproof waistcoat”, which would be technically accurate but just sounds silly).
WAGs (slang) – This is slang for “wives and girlfriends”. The term was invented by the British media to refer to the wives and girlfriends of the English national football (soccer) team, as in “the team arrives in Rio tomorrow, the WAGs are due the next day”. You can also use the singular WAG to refer to just one member of the group.
Wanker (slang) – An unpleasant person, usually male. Since wanking is British slang for male masturbation, a wanker is the British equivalent of a “jerk off”.
Way Out – It’s not something old hippies say, it means exit in the UK. Look for signs directing you to the “Way Out” in Tube Stations and other public places.
[day] week – This helpful phrase means “not the day upcoming, but the one a week after that”, For example, if it’s Tuesday and your boss gives you a project that’s due “Thursday week”, he or she doesn’t mean two days from now; they mean nine days from now. You can also add “last” to go back in time, as in “last Monday week” to indicate Monday of last week, not yesterday or the day before. It’s interesting that this phrase is used almost everywhere in the English-speaking world except the United States. It was once common in the American South but has sadly fallen out of fashion there, too… at least with young people. I grew up with this, and it amazes me that Americans outside the old Confederate states have never heard of this.
Wheel clamp – A device used to restrain a vehicle, usually to prevent the owner of an illegally parked car from leaving without paying a fine. It’s typically called a boot in the US (or, rarely, a Denver boot, after the first US city to deploy the obnoxious things).
Whitehall – This is a collective term for the “British government”, due to the fact that much of the UK’s government is headquartered on the street of the same name in London, close to the Houses of Parliament.
“White Van Man” – Roughly analogous to America’s “Joe Six Pack”. In the UK, tradespeople like plumbers and locksmiths almost always drive white vans, and they have a reputation for being aggressive drivers who park almost anywhere. They’re also stereotyped as working-class folks who fly the English flag at home, which is the British equivalent of “rednecky”: just as the Confederate flag has a bad reputation in the US, so the English flag does in the UK. It became a symbol of the English Defense League, which is kind of like England’s KKK”. Flying an English flag is generally fine if some sporting event is going on where England competes as a separate county (like the Word Cup). Flying the English flag on a random Tuesday is not so cool.
Windscreen – The main piece of glass in a car, usually called a windshield in the US.
Yob – a young man, especially of the “hooligan” or “ruffian” variety. British tabloids once referred to the Sex Pistols as “foul-mouthed yobs”, for example.
You lot – This is used to refer to a group of people, as in “what are you lot up to?” It’s similar to the Southern US favorite “y’all”.
Z – In American English, the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced “zee”. According to Wikipedia, this pronunciation “derives from an English late 17th-century dialectal form, now obsolete in England”. Interestingly, America stuck with that pronunciation after the War of Independence, while the “mother country” (and the rest of the English-speaking world) transitioned over to “zed” – after the Greek “zeta”.
Zebra Crossing – A pedestrian street crossing marked with white stripes on a black background, somewhat resembling a zebra’s stripes. In the USA it’s called a “cross walk”. Note that in the UK it’s pronounced “zeb-ra” (rhymes with “Debra”) and not “zee-bra”.
The British also use numbers a bit differently than Americans do. For example, you might have heard that billions and trillions are different in the UK than the US. That used to be true: in the UK a billion was a million million (1,000,000,000,000), instead of the thousand million (1,000,000,000) it is in the US. And a trillion was a million million million (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) , instead of the million million (or thousand billion, or (1,000,000,000,000)) that it is in the US. In 1975, Denis Healey, then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain’s version of a Treasury Secretary) switched the British government over to the American system, and the rest of the country followed. If you’re interested in this, hit Wikipedia’s page on Long and Short Scales.
But there are other, more subtle differences. The Brits are big into the “double [number]” system: to a Brit, the number 5566 would be “double five, double six”. This usage isn’t unheard of in the US, but it’s much more common in the UK. And since the Brits use it with any number it can be jarring (it’s most often used in the US with zero, as in “double-oh seven” for James Bond, or a TV or radio commercial that might refer to a phone number as “five five five double-oh ninety-six”).
Brits almost always say the full name of a number, too. For example, a Brit would say that 1,200 was “one thousand two hundred”, instead of “twelve hundred” as many Americans might. In fact, most Brits would say that “twelve hundred” sounds “odd” or “American”.
And nil is used in sports to refer to a football (soccer) team that scores no points, as in “Cardiff City beat Man City four-nil” (4-0). Again, nil isn’t unheard of in the US, but it’s really odd to hear British sportscasters refer to American football scores as “Pittsburgh twenty-four, Cleveland nil”.
2 Replies to “British Glossary”
This is a list of British words not widely used in the United States. In Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and Australia, some of the British terms listed are used, although another usage is often preferred.
Dennis! you’re offended and acting like a hooligan!