cultural differences · editing · editors · language · writers · writing

The great language divide: Britain, the US and English (but not as we know it)

US British language differences
“Wotcher, mate!”                  “Hey, dude!”

Today I’m going to start with a language quiz.  (I love quizzes and as a writer I LOVE to talk about language.)

If you were out walking, and a complete stranger offered to give you a fanny pack, would you:

a)      Think him a little odd, and say ‘No thanks, I already have one’?

b)      Think him a little odd, but probably accept, depending on the colour?

c)      Chin the bloke?

If, like me, you’d probably go for c) chin the bloke (US trans: whack the guy), that means you’re a Brit, and in British English ‘fanny’ means something VERY different from the US meaning.  In the US, fanny is an innocent word for behind/backside/bottom.  In the UK, fanny is a not so innocent word for female genitals.  Tap a girl’s fanny in Britain without her consent and you’re liable to get arrested.  Either that or a punch in the face.

And by the way, the British for ‘fanny pack’ is ‘bum bag’.  Maybe this expression is equally offensive in the US/Canada?  I don’t know, and I’m starting to realise that my ignorance in this area badly needs addressing!

The reason I’ve been mulling this over for the past few days is that my latest novel is presently being edited in the States.  Both my editor and I agree that it’s important to keep the British flavour of the text (spellings, style, etc), but even so, there have been a number of misunderstandings on both parts.  I’m beginning to understand what George Bernard Shaw meant when he said: “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.”

I’m not a purist and I don’t believe in hanging on to a British way of speaking just for the sake of it.  There are plenty of American words that have enriched the British language.  If it weren’t for the US, we wouldn’t have “teenagers” here.  “That’s the way the biscuit crumbles” doesn’t sound half as good as when the cookie does it.  And what could compete with “sucks” as a description?

There are only a couple of Americanisms I’ve heard in recent years which I balk at.  One of these is  “Can I get…?”  I prefer “I’d like…” or “May I have..?”, which used to be the norm in the UK.  I’ve also heard the American word “truck” more and more .  I prefer the British “lorry” or, even better, the Yorkshire “wagon”.  (See, we have our regional differences, too, just to complicate things!)  But these are only minor quibbles.  New vocabulary and an evolving language are both signs of an interested nation which engages itself in other cultures.

British/US language differences

And so on to some of my favourite “differences” and some examples:

Feet on the floor, fags in the ashtray When my American friend saw that sign in an English pub, she laughed so much she spilled her pint.  Fags, of course, are gay men in the US.  In England, they’re cigarettes.

Purse  A purse in the UK is a very small clutch, used just for carrying coins and credit cards, etc.  We put our purses inside our handbags (US purses).  Confusing!

Pants  If you went to the corner shop (US: store) in your pants in England, you’d get some odd looks and probably get quite chilly.  In the UK, pants – or knickers as they are also known – are the equivalent of the US panties.  A pair of pants in the US is a pair of trousers in the UK.  ‘Pants’ is also used as an adjective in England.  I’m hoping no-one will use this adjective to describe my book.

Can I borrow your rubber, Johnny?  An English schoolroom joke.  Rubber johnnies = an old-fashioned word for condoms, but plain rubbers in the UK are most definitely erasers, used in schools all over the country for rubbing out pencil marks.  A rubber in the US is a condom.  If you handed out free rubbers in an English classroom the pupils would probably be underwhelmed.

My friend was pissed so I had to take her home  In the States they might think it odd that you had to take your friend home just because she was annoyed.  In the UK, being pissed means being drunk.  Being pissed off in the UK, however, is being annoyed.  If my friend got pissed I’d be pissed off.  (I hope I’m making sense.)

Randy  If you have a baby boy in the UK, please don’t name him Randy.  He will spend the rest of his life suffering.  It would be the equivalent of an American boy being called Horny.  Even innocent men named Andrew have been known to suffer here – our Prince Andrew went through a phase in his younger days of being known as Randy Andy.

I could go on and on.  There are hundreds of examples of linguistic and cultural differences.  Take British tea-drinking, for example.  Fancy a cuppa (cup of tea)?  Shall I put the kettle on?  Shall I stick the kettle on?  Shall I make us a brew?  All phrases heard umpteen times a day here, and I daresay never in the US/Canada, where builders’ brew (a really strong, almost black cup of tea) is surely unheard of.

These are just a few examples out of many, many hundreds.  You can see that my editor and I have been having an interesting time!  I told her she didn’t know what she was letting herself in for!  Her reply?  Don’t you mean getting myself into??

For some more linguistic differences, I loved this blog Separated by a Common Language, where you can find out the meaning of all sorts of untranslatable words from both sides of the pond, such as bumf, sorted, lie-in (all British) and kitty-corner, hump day, antsy (all American).

As a language geek, I find this subject totally fascinating!  Are there any other US/Canada/UK language differences you’ve observed?  Any misunderstandings?  Anything the British say which causes much amusement in the US/Canada?  If so, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear it!

6 thoughts on “The great language divide: Britain, the US and English (but not as we know it)

  1. There was an article in the NYT about how American speech among the trendy set has become more Anglified. I heard someone call someone else a wanker on the bus the other day.


    1. I’d heard that a lot more Britishisms were appearing in the US (Harry Potter apparently has quite a lot to do with it!), but I didn’t know “wanker” had finally crossed the pond! That’s “brilliant!”, as we Brits say! Although actually, maybe I shouldn’t be proud of that one! And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t appear in J.K.Rowling!


  2. Yes, it’s important not to Americanize a British book too much — let the readers work a bit!

    One of the things I have in my contracts is that “theatre” is always spelled with “re” not “er”. To me, that’s not British/American, it’s professional/amateur. Since I spent most of my professional life in theatre, to me, the only acceptable spelling is “re”.


    1. Hi Devon, Thanks for your comment. I agree it’s good to try and keep the British flavour in my writing where possible. I also think most readers actually prefer it if the text isn’t “homogeneous”. If I read an American novel (or Australian, or Canadian, or wherever the writer is from), like most readers I’d want the author to use his/her own brand of English, and not make exceptions for me. Language is an important part of the experience for the reader, and regional differences are all part of that. I’m glad you like the spelling “theatre”! Of course it looks “right” to me, but I’m just as happy to see “theater” if the writer is American.


  3. I followed a thread on British/American writing here from EQ . I I like reading erotic romance/erotica and have read many Black Lace authors. Years ago I read the Victorian erotic classics and now I read UK, American, Canadian and Australian authors also. British babes seem to be just a shade naughtier when describing certain ‘bits’. LOL



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