How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.


69 thoughts on “How the U.K. and U.S. differ

  1. That’s hilarious! Ok so the ‘may I suggest’ comment – this is where the spoken word is mightier than the written. If you knew me, you would probably have screamed with laughter at that because that s not how I usually speak. Iimagine John Cleese starting a sentence in a comedy sketch with ‘may I suggest’ – when I use that kind of language, it’s a send up of how posh Brits carry on.

    I am very much a tongue in cheek person and will often say really close to the knuckle stuff to friends in a very posh upper classy accent. If I say ‘knobs and knockers’ or ‘oh fuck’ in my normal accent, it sounds common – but when I cuss like a toff, it sounds acceptable.

    So when I wrote ‘may I suggest’, it was me taking the piss and speaking in that vague way that Brit toffs do. Thank Christ I ain’t one for real! Brilliant piece – just off to do the dishes because it’s the maid’s day off.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I did catch the send-up tone, but I doubt any American who isn’t putting on a (usually embarrassingly awful) imitation of a posh British accent would say it. It’s just not available to us, even as a joke.

      And about the contrast between accent and content: Wild Thing used to work with a woman who could shock the hell out of anyone by saying nothing stronger than “shit,” because she looked like someone who wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful (as the gloriously vivid Minnesota saying has it). That was useful, because they were both working as drug and alcohol counselors, and throwing an old drunk into shock had its uses. Wild Thing looked like (and was) someone who’d say pretty much anything, so she was eaten with envy. By the time she got into her sixties, though, she finally managed to shock a few people. Sadly, she was on the verge of retirement by then.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t help you with any of this, and I won’t be commenting on knobs or knockers, but I will add a bit if irrelevant trivia. In Washington (state) in the US, bathroom and basement light switches are often on the outside of the door. Gary Larson, cartoonist behind The Far Side, once said that his sense of humor developed, in part from his brother’s habit of turning the basement light off while Gary was down there and then making creepy comments about monsters.

    So there. Now there’s an obscure link between this blog and The Far Side, which will result in an unplanned Google hit in a few years.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ll bet it will. I’ve already had a hit on Robert Okaji’s name. He’s a (very good) poet whose work I referred to for reasons I can’t possibly reconstruct. They’d’ve done better to go to his site than mine.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my goodness yes! I forgot about the light switch thing. They must have started doing it in the U.K. now too because the bathroom light switch is outside the door at our sons new build house.

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s why the normal way to do it in the UK is to use a ceiling mounted switch with a pull cord in the bathroom: you can’t electrocute yourself unless you soak the cord and the switch first, and nobody can switch the light off from the outside.

        However, UK electrical regulations curiously avoid the fact that kitchens are places where people have wet hands too, so ordinary light switches and electrical sockets are ok there. I suppose it’s because most chefs don’t soak themselves from head to foot before they start using all those kitchen appliances.

        Liked by 2 people

        • True, but periodically I miss the tea kettle and pour water all down the sides. I don’t recommend it, but so far I’ve lived through it. I think the reason they allow it is that there’d be too much screaming if everyone had to relocate the toaster, the kettle, the microwave, and the everything else to the living room. Or lounge. Or–you know, that biggish room.

          Liked by 1 person

        • You know what John, I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person and yet I had never thought of this! I may have to downgrade my imagined IQ 😀. And like Ellen says further down, I too slop water down the sides of the kettle and I often touch switches with wet hands. My husband is always telling me off and has me heavily insured. In fact, given the amount of water I slop around in the kitchen, I think I may use less in the bathroom!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Great timing. I just came from cleaning up a mysterious flood on the kitchen floor. I have no idea how the water got there but I can report that no one but me was in the kitchen. Therefore I blame Wild Thing.

            We both lived through it.


  3. Another great post. Love your wit.
    Personally, I think the UK electricity thing is a good call. I’m not crazy about plug-ins in bathrooms.
    Otherwise, I relate to all the American in the post. I ask my kids to wash up before dinner and I would certainly ask them to wash up after a trip to an outhouse.
    When my husband lived in North Carolina, his laundry was in a shed in the carport. I thought it was the stupidest place for laundry, ever. Just a bit better than having to go to the laundromat. I understand the south has warmer weather more often, but it’s actually cold in North Carolina in the winter, and going out to the laundry isn’t ideal. I truly enjoy not putting on shoes, not leaving the house, to do the wash.

    Liked by 2 people

    • When we were house hunting we saw one or two place with the washing machine outside. I’m enough of a Minnesotan still that I don’t trust the weather and was scandalized. Although I’ll admit that our freezer’s in the garage. In Minnesota it would–and I’m not making jokes here, although it sounds absurd–freeze there.


  4. Happy new year dear Ellen. Hope you didn’t waste too much of it tracking down” bottler”. Now feel almost famous, having been mentioned by name in your glorious blog!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well I must say I have used “knob” in the British Slang meaning when referring to gentlemen who are not but while I knew of or had heard some of your other examples Bottle and Bottler are completely new to me. ~~dru~~

    ps: I do know the difference between letter box and post box and a letter box is my mail box while a post box used to be blue in America and stand on most corners. ~~dru~~

    Liked by 2 people

  6. As always, I enjoyed your post. But I wonder if you have even scratched the surface. Is the difference based just on the different use of words? I think there are massive differences in culture and education. But maybe I’m taking it all too seriously!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Okay, I confess: I tend to think I’m pretty funny when I write a serious headline for a piece of fluff. As I’ve discovered but somehow never remember when tempted, the humor doesn’t always translate well into the real world. So yes, I agree–I haven’t even scratched the surface. If you’ll mention some specific element(s) of culture or education, I’ll see if I can go anywhere with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.” I feel that Thursday Doors crowd needs to hear about this. The entire piece is very informative. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I loved this article, Ellen. There are differences definitely. I believe green grocer is a supermarket, correct? A mall in the US is shops in the UK. I find it fascinating. I am also fortunate to have known many Brits in my life so the terms are not that peculiar.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A greengrocer is a fruit store–at least that’s what I remember it being called when I was a kid, back when we had a store that carried nothing but fruit and vegetables. A superstore is a supermarket . But it might also carry clothes etc. If it’s a department store, it’s no longer a superstore, but I’m not sure what department stores are called, now that I’ve backed myself into a corner, because I’ve always heard them called by their separate names. A mall is a shopping area where traffic’s excluded, so it’ll have shops but can still be called a mall. The difference there is that it’s pronounced to rhyme with pal, like the mal in malware. It doesn’t rhyme with all.

      And since I used Google to check my definitions, let me report that when I typed in “define greengrocer,” it offered me “green grocer meaning in Hindi.” Turns out it’s still a grocer who sells fruit and vegetables, but the definition’s in Hindi and for Hindi speakers wanting to translate the English word. Conclusion? Google doesn’t know as much about it as it thinks it does. I don’t know a single word of Hindi. When I typed in “define superstore,” it also offered me “define fascism.” So much for predictive text.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I shouldn’t be here (see current post, mine I mean) but I just saw your post notification in email and came to have a look. A very long time ago, in London, I was told by an ex-boxer that ‘Bottle’ (courage, daring or chutzpa) originated in the boxing ring: a fighter was given a water bottle to drink from. Maybe the water keeps the fighter going, or maybe by the time he drinks from the bottle he’s already mostly there. So -while cockney has ‘arse’ as rhyming slang from glass – that’s not the origin of ‘bottle’ in terms of courage.

    And here’s a definition and probable origin of ‘corker’:

    There’s also the ecpression ‘corked’ which means something that’s gone off or is bad. That’s from wine…. and corks….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is so informative to me Ellen, I am from India and you have totally changed my perspective of how I used to see UK and US as same. well, though not same, we do think there is a lot of commonness between the countries. To read your post was like both interesting and hilarious! and your indepth research did make one wonder how much of time you have spent on this!
    The Bloggers Pit Stop Crew

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for that. From a distance, it’s easy for differences to flatten out, whether it’s Britain and the U.S. when seen from India or Scotland and London when seen from the U.S. Or, for that matter, New York and Ohio when seen from Cornwall.

      Thanks for the work you all do keeping the Bloggers Pit Stop going.


  11. > A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?”

    I must disagree. In Oregon, a cashier’s question is “may I help whoever’s next?” :-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes, that one.

      When I left Minnesota, people were saying, “The thing of it is, is…” and then they’d say whatever they were going to say: “I’ll be there too,” or whatever was on their minds. It was so peculiar that I wanted to work it into a bit of dialogue but never did find a good excuse for it.

      I’m always torn between the copy editor in me, who disapproves of both usages because they’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and the rest of me, who kind of admires the creativity and life in these changes add to the language and argues that wrong is only a matter of common agreement and since I understand what they’re saying, who am I to say it’s wrong? Although having said that, “Can I help who’s next” doesn’t have a hell of lot of life showing.


  12. When I worked in England, I got in trouble for talking about a ‘fanny pack’. Since you live there, I needn’t explain to YOU. But for your American readers, let’s just say that a ‘fanny’ is something that our new Prez likes to grope.

    Liked by 3 people

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