The civil war between British and American English has enjoyed a long and bloody history, perhaps with more nuance than we realise- or should that be realize? A number of commonly used English words have different meanings in the UK and America, resulting in their capacity to distort meaning and generally confuse. International students’ lives are fraught with sufficient ‘learning curves’ without allowing them to worry that their choice of words could destroy their credibility; awareness of linguistic potholes is likely to aid the avoidance of most (we can’t promise ‘all’ as bad dancing is beyond our control) instances of confusion and social awkwardness.
Brits dunk their biscuits; Americans, despite the industrial size of their coffee mugs (hey, perhaps that’s why they’re so large), do not. UK biscuits are round, crunchy, flat(ish) and sweet- cookies, if you will. In America, biscuits are soft, flour-based baked goods that are generally served with savoury meals. Asking someone to pour gravy over your biscuit in London may well be met with confusion.
In America, pants are recognised as lower-body outerwear- trousers, if you will. UK residents hear ‘pants’ and think of ‘underpants’. Americans, if you choose to make comments such as ‘Hey, your girlfriend’s pants are amazing’ to British friends who are larger and stronger than you, be prepared to face the consequences. You have been warned.
No UK resident will ever understand the capacity of this word to cause strife, isolation and general havoc until they a) go abroad, b) help a US student to clear out their university room by following their instruction to ‘put all of that stuff into bins’ and, consequently, c) lose a friend because they threw all of the other person’s belongings away. In America, a bin is a storage container for things you wish to keep; in the UK, a bin is a rubbish receptacle. Remember this if ever listening to a friend’s account of helping their grandmother to spring clean by ‘putting all of her belongings into the bin’.
Americans are often perplexed by the fact that one of the most famous dishes in the UK is ‘fish and chips’. This is not because they cannot understand the beauty of battered fish accompanied by bits of crispy-on-the-outside-and-fluffy-on-the-inside potato, but because they think the Brits mean crisps. While many Brits are unlikely to complain about being offered battered cod and a packet of crisps, Americans may be met with confusion if they ask for salt, vinegar and ketchup on their portion.
Ground floor vs. first floor
To avoid getting slightly lost and extremely confused on your first day at your department, it is worth being aware of the fact that the ‘first floor’ in America is the same as the ‘ground floor’ in the UK. Americans, it seems, are more literal about how many floors physically exist (i.e. this is the first of all of the floors); the British, true to form, seem to feel the need to add more syllables, thus emphasising the fact that the floor is, in fact, on the ground.
This is a mistake to make once and really, truly, never again. In the UK, a rubber is an eraser: innocent, suitable for children and found on the ends of pencils. In the US, please refrain from offering rubbers to children; parents will complain and possibly argue for your arrest. Why? Because a rubber is a condom. Sad but true.
While in the UK, have you ever heard someone exclaim, ‘I say, chaps!’ and thought it strange that they might have spotted some stray seatless leather riding trousers at that particular moment? Fear not; while the UK has its quirks, the level of insanity has not risen quite that high. When the British say ‘chaps’, they mean ‘guys’, ‘girls’, or simply ‘people’, rather than the shortened version of the North American term ‘chaparajos’, which refers to a garment worn over normal trousers by cowboys to protect their legs while riding. See, that seemingly insane friend was, in fact, just ‘being British’.
To avoid the possibility of new UK friends seeking outside help to combat your shameless alcoholism, don’t tell them that you ‘love to drink cider with breakfast’. US citizens understand cider to be a non-alcoholic drink made from apples- basically, apple juice- which is seasonal and most popular in autumn. In the UK, cider is an alcoholic drink made from fermented apples which is popular throughout every season and definitely not an acceptable form of mid-lecture hydration.
Americans, take heed: if a British friend suggests that you should ‘go for a ride in a trolley’, they do not mean the standard mode of transport used in America and have a strange idea of what is socially acceptable. You mean a wheeled carriage which runs along tracks and is attached to an overhead wire; they mean a wheeled, mesh cart which is used for holding and transporting shopping items. While it cannot be denied that it is possible to ‘board’ a shopping trolley, it is highly inadvisable and is likely to be held against you by tutors, the general public and, most likely, the police.
Did an American friend just invite you to a party which they described as being ‘fancy dress’? Stop. Return your Jack Sparrow costume to the depths of the bin (yes, bin) from whence it came. In America, fancy dress means, quite literally, dressing in fancy clothes in an attempt to raise levels of attractiveness. Across the Atlantic in the UK, fancy dress has a great deal to do with making yourself look like a carrot, a cowgirl, a cat or a cavemen (disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list) and has little or nothing to do with being attractive. If ever your tutor mentions a formal social event and mentions fancy dress, consult this definition before dashing out to buy a cowboy hat. You won’t regret it.