(Originally Posted on July 22, 2015)
The BBC has a lot to answer for. Especially for the way it has exposed Americans, via BBC America and its many exports, to an entirely new vocabulary. What would shows like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Only Fools And Horses be without “Pull the other one”, “bugger” and “cushty” – apart from easier for my non-limey friends to understand? Its as if we need a translation service to help us understand each other.
The truth is there’s more to the differences in language between us and our distant American cousins (once removed) than the odd phrase here and there.
Us Brits think nothing of describing a plate of delicious french fries as a “brilliant plate of chips”, nor of using “brilliant” in much the same way as “great”. And the less said about describing the Tuesday after next as “Tuesday week”, the better.
So here are some of the weirder differences between American and UK English: because coming up with the language first is no excuse for using it really very bizarrely. Period (or should that be “full stop”?).
The Pants Problem
In America, pants are understood to be full leg-coverings fastened to the waist. In Britain, they would refer to the garment worn one layer underneath. So the phrase “I need to change out of these dirty pants” or “I was locked out of my hotel room in just my pants” is one to be avoided around Brits, unless you’re feeling especially confident that it would work as an opening line. Either way, caution is advised.
Though less common than it used to be in the UK (language changes all the time, which is how all these differences have come up in the first place), the expression “knocked up” can mean to knock on someone’s door to wake them up, as a mailman (postman) might. If you ever hear a British housewife say she’s been knocked up by the milkman, it’s not necessarily time to have a friendly word in her husband’s ear.
It wouldn’t be too disarming to hear the slang phrase “pissed” in the American workplace, if someone has done something to really tick you off. With a British accent, though, admitting to having got “so pissed with him last night” is less a sign that you were annoyed, and more of an explanation for the hangover, unironed shirt and bags under your eyes: to a Brit, being “pissed” is to get very drunk indeed.
However, such is the often-confusing dexterity of UK English that more or less any word used in that place can be taken to mean ‘drunk’ – see the British comedian Michael McIntyre’s “trousered” routine for an only-slightly exaggerated explanation.
Be aware that if it’s the 13th of February and your British boyfriend or girlfriend says, as their parting words, “I’ll give you a ring tomorrow”, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re about to get down on one knee and propose marriage. More likely, at some point they’ll be calling you on the dog and bone. (Not even most Brits understand more than a phrase or two of Cockney rhyming slang, so that should probably be left there.)
The Birds, the Birds!
It’s important to be respectful of changing norms in language, and even the most right-on person can find themselves using outdated phrases as they get older. Take care, though, not to refer to an unusual group of birds – at a zoo, perhaps – as such, and definitely not as a shouted exclamation like, “Look at those gorgeous birds!” around a group of British women. They would rightly not take kindly to it.
First or Second Floor?
To hear someone fell from a second-storey window probably wouldn’t sound too alarming to American ears, but in Britain it’d be time to call 999. What Americans call the first floor is the ground floor in the UK, so a British second floor is – to an American – the third storey. Make sure you know this before stepping into an elevator… and remember to call it a ‘lift’.
Miscellaneous Ephemera (or other assorted weirdness)
Brits wouldn’t have a clue that “trimming your bangs” has anything to do with getting a haircut, as they would call it a “fringe”. They might just about make sense of shopping carts being “trolleys”, but you might be equally confused by being asked for “Sellotape” or, worse, a “rubber” (Scotch tape and an eraser) by a English man. That’s definitely not one to get wrong if you work in a drugstore.
So the British are not only the go-to actors for baddies, or to put on a freakishly good US accent and take the best jobs in TV and movies. As we say of ourselves: we are a brilliantly bonkers bunch, bending the Queen’s English to our (often-incomprehensible) merry whims.