Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

99 thoughts on “Translating British English into American

  1. Early in our years here together my husband wrote a British/American dictionary which he tried – and failed – to sell to airlines.
    Your descriptions are great and well observed. I would just embellish as follows.
    Boots the chemist: chain of shops selling cosmetics and medicines and more.
    Wellies: ‘give it some wellie’ put your foot on the accelerator.
    Garden: if you have a small partly or wholly paved enclosed-by-a-high-wall and gate space behind your terraced (usually) house that is a backyard – I always find the US use of backyard weird even after all this time as I spent my first 6 years in a house with aforesaid yard.
    Braces: as in retainers (is that right?) on your teeth.
    Knickers: can be used as a surrogate swear word, ‘knickers to that’ (or is that a regional thing?).

    I also have a translation issue with prawns ans shrimp. My rellies use shrimp (singular) for everything prawn-like – we use shrimps for the little tiny ones. And as for bangs…

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think “knickers to that” is regional. At least I’ve never heard it here in Cornwall. And before I moved here, I thought the only use for the word prawn was to demonstrate the pretentiousness of a menu.

      I wonder if your husband’s dictionary wouldn’t appeal more to a publisher interested in the kind of small novelty book that appeals to tourists. Although having said that, I tried that approach with one on driving and got nowhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Things we have learned (personally) from you differ are: Puddings e.g. Christmas puddings and Pies/Tarts particularly mince pies. I will leave you to explain the vast difference in British Tarts & US ones, oh yes, whilst you are squirming you can explain what randy means in U.K. but not in USA 🇺🇸

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay. In the U.S., Randy’s the guy next door. In Britain, the guy next door’s randy.

      Does that help?

      In the U.S. we’ve upsized mince pies until they’re the size of apple pies. Tarts are a frenchified dessert, and I think they have to involve fruit, but don’t trust me on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the problem people have is thinking that the two languages are the same…
    there enough similarities to make communication possible…but enough differences to make it hillarious…
    (or dangerous if you try to walk on the pavement in the US i understand)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve made the mistake of writing a blog post about buying pants and then realizing how many followers I had in England. I also owned a British car for about 25 years. That required understanding Bonnet, boot and spanner. I’m just glad I didn’t write about how I don’t like fanny packs.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks, Ellen, for that informative – and funny – post. I knew a few of the words you mentioned, but others were new to me. Thanks for letting me learn.
    Have a wonderfeul weekend,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Here in Wales, ‘wellies’ has yet another meaning that I was unaware of until we had a plumber in to see to one of the taps* on our bidet. He looked at said bidet and said with a grin “that’s for willies and wellies’.

    I wasn’t aware that ‘chocolate box’ was still used. My mother used to use that, often accompanied with a sort of twist of the mouth as she uttered, in disguest, “too chocolate box for me.”

    I can’t bring myself to call jeans ‘trousers’ either and I’m a Brit.

    Oh yeah, and tap (Brit) = faucet (American). Though we still use faucet here, for the one that turns on the mains water.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My oldest son’s first day in an American school (5th Grade, aged 10), he asked the kid sitting next to him if he wanted to borrow his rubber. I am glad we were able to clear that one up before he went to Middle School the following year when it could have been much more embarrassing.

    I am an old dog who does not learn new tricks easily. I can never reach for the American word quickly enough and so end up using the British words even when I know I am risking being misunderstood. Trunk is one such word. For an entire school year, I would pick up my oldest son and his friend from an after school club, tell them to put their stuff in the boot, and be met with the same confused stare from the friend. It frustrated me that the kid could apparently not figure out that the boot was the trunk even though it was the same instruction, explanation, and action every single flipping week. Then again, I am sure it frustrated him that I could not remember the word trunk every single week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll add to what you said that I don’t really want to substitute British words for my American ones. I’m a writer. I need my vocabulary, and the way my brain works I can’t keep two vocabularies working. So yeah, I know I’m being misunderstood sometimes, but–well, okay, with something like rubber, I would adapt. Fanny, fortunately, isn’t part of my working vocabulary in either version of the language.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Working with preschool children is forcing me to adapt my vocabulary a little. I will now say “pants” for trousers but only in the context of my workplace. As soon as I am out of the building, I am back to calling them trousers or breeks again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Young kids’ll do that to you. I once–for reasons I can’t remember–asked some random kid if he was in Cornwall on vacation. He looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, “I don’t know what vacation is.”

          To which I could only wonder why I’d asked anyway. I didn’t need to know and I didn’t even particularly want to know. I was just filling a blank spot by confusing the hell out of the poor kid.

          Breeks, though? To my ear, that sounds archaic. Scots, right?

          Liked by 2 people

          • Correct. I think it is Scots generally rather than just a Fifer word. No doubt related to “britches”. I haven’t spoken in Scots as ny everyday language since childhood but my vocabulary is still full of Scots words as my first word choice. It takes me two ticks to remember the English word for some things.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Occasionally, even now, I find myself using a Yiddish word in a sentence, even when I know damn well I’m talking to the wrong audience. It’s one way I know my brain can’t keep two vocabularies effectively separate.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. Here in Southern Minnesota, we call “Wellies”, Wellies. They are absolutely necessary around the barn and in the peat pasture. They are, however, never, not under any circumstances, allowed in the living room (there is a story there). :)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. And what about the phrase “knocked up”? That definitely has different meanings for the two cultures under discussion. We (husband and 3 children) moved from Canada to Australia in the 1960s. The English steward assigned to our cabin on the ship caused us to giggle when he asked us what time we’d like to be knocked up in the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My employer a good mush from Southampton, now living in Oregon, and I were discussing the differences in “proper” English (queens English) and American(yank) English. I told my boss. “Hay! Harry, Next time your daughter comes for a visit, do you mind if I knock her up?” He replied, “I dunno. You are risking your life. She is pretty grouchy in the morning.” My younger American co workers looked shocked. We laughed.
    For the Yanks. Queens English tends to be very literal. I asked him if I could knock on the door to wake his daughter up. It simply means wake up call. A person can knock up their whole family and the Brits will think nothing of it. In America…your a very perverted person.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. How aboot Canada? No, bad Canadian jk. That is also getting into dialects/accents and not words in English. Haha

    I am originally from Canada and I think we are a mix of a bad rip off of British English and have some American English as well. I also have discovered as my husband is from the USA that we have different wording for things. I also think where we grow up we create our own versions of English proper or not.

    One example I can think of right now although probably not a great one would be, in Canada we call loonies, toonies, quarters etc change for the most part, in the USA they call them coins and their dollar bills singles. (I am still getting used to all this xD) Coins is probably the correct terminology. Their dialect where I am now living in the states (recently relocated) is also funny. They say roof like ‘a ruff’ and I am like WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? it literally takes me a second to realize they are talking about roofs. :/ It bothers me almost enough I want to correct them. :( Like it is not spelled ruff or rooff the O sound is clearly there, it is not a past tense of U. yes I know I worded all that wrong. xD The challenges of English. Haha

    Liked by 1 person

    • Challenges indeed. I heard someone a while back trying to make a case that English was the world language because it’s easy. Easy? It’s a complete mess.

      About coins, though: Having grown up with American English, I always called it change as a kind of collective noun–“I have a pocket full of change.” But that pocketful is made up of coins. So someone might collect coins but wouldn’t collect change.

      That makes no sense at all, does it? Like a said, a crazy language.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t met anyone in my 29 years on this planet who has actually told me English was easy. Sure it is easier if you grew up speaking, writing it and what not. However English is considered one of the most hardest languages to learn because of all the different meanings of words, dialects and so on. Even though it is a popular language. I think people confuse it as easy because it is so widely spoken and used. But according to like language stats you could say English is high on the list for hardest to learn.

        Yes English is a very complicated language even when spoken correctly.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. “Interesting” ;) I got most of these right, so I suspect what I need is an American into British dictionary.

    As to biscuits, I tried to buy a biscuit in Edinburgh and they didn’t understand what I wanted because they called them cookies. Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I remember being utterly horrified when my (then 10 yr old) step daughter announced over Skype that she “had found a jolly rancher in her pants” My husband who was obviously aware of the what she actually meant and what it would sound like to a Brit was doing his best to keep a straight face in the back ground and failing miserably.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I almost didn’t read the post as a protest against the title. No need for the ‘British’, what we speak here is English.

    I can still remember the shock the first time I came across pants in an American novel. It was quite a while before I realised that the gentleman concerned wasn’t walking around the streets in his underwear.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. We do these things purely to confuse you.

    It would be a shame if all American tourists and temporary residents perfected their Brit vocab and never used any charmingly bizarre Americanisms any more. Due to international media it isn’t as if Brits can’t make out the gist, most of the time anyhow. Plus, should you achieve it, we’ll just come up with weirder alternatives.

    My Mum remembers American soldiers in the war, eating their bacon with jam. Or jelly, even. Eek. Do you rum coves still do that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kind of thought that’s what was going on: Quick, the Americans are catching on. Burn all the dictionaries and start over. It’s just a slight change from the strategy that saw all the street and road signs taken down during World War II.

      I have never, ever know, or even heard of, anyone who ate bacon with jam, or jelly. I do know people who eat it with pancakes so it gets doused in maple syrup, which isn’t much different but someone seems more forgivable. Maybe because it wasn’t American bacon, which is crisp and very fatty, they felt the need to drown out the taste. Maybe they were doing it to mess with the British.

      Is a rum cove the place you store the rum you’re smuggling in?

      Liked by 1 person

  16. So funny to read what people think we mean and what we actually mean. You really should try a bit of spotted dick, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think saying Knickers to that was regional but maybe it is, either that or I just had a dubious upbringing… Faucets are where you turn on your mains water and taps are interior water inlets, although going back a few years faucets would have been the correct term for all taps. But if you happen to be tapped then you’re just a little odd.
    Please keep these coming because they really make me guffaw.
    P.S. soldiers are the best thing about having boiled eggs ;) and yes Johnnie Craddock really did say that, the nation were all giggling into their spotted dick…….

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Ellen! Isn’t strange how the English language can change in meanings. I recently visited in-laws in Italy and their children are learning English by watching American TV – Lord help us! Also in Australia even between states we can have different words that mean the same thing. For example: Swimming costume can become cossies or togs (I hate that word). Thanks for sharing with us at #BloggersPitStop and have a great week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m guessing any language will do that. I know Spanish well enough to know that the word for something like bus will change from country to country, but whether they get the same absurd multiple meanings that we do I don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what happens when you another country’s version of English–it creeps into your own and you find people wondering what you’re talking about. Which is either great fun or a problem, depending on how you feel about it.


  18. Taps/faucets almost reverse, elevators/lifts almost reverse, avoid mentioning pants or conjugating verbs like “focus” or “travel”…joys of international hack writing. People think it’s only a matter of spelling and accent. Most of the time it is, and then…

    Liked by 1 person

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