British and American English Differences: 25 American English Words That Have a Completely Different Meaning in Britain

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Every American traveler in Britain has been there – you say something that is completely innocuous back home to a British person and you see wide eyes of shock or worse – you hear a snigger.

Did you just say something rude and not realize it?

It is often said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. There are thousands of differences in American English and plain old English (many highlighted in our British Slang Dictionary). We thought it would be fun to put together a list of the major words that have a completely different meaning in the UK.

We’ll definitely be adding this list to our future travel guidebooks!

  1. First Floor – In the USA, we say the first floor to mean the ground floor of a building. In the UK, the first floor is the second floor. Confusing? Welcome to the troubles encountered by tourists in the UK.
  2. Jumper – In the USA a jumper is someone who ends their life by jumping off something. In the UK, a jumper is a type of sweater (usually knitted).
  3. Trainer – In the USA a trainer is a professional that works with you in a gym. In the UK trainer is the name given to Gym shoes.
  4. Pants – In the USA, pants are trousers. In the UK, pants are underwear.
  5. Bird – In the USA, a bird is a bird. In the UK, a bird is a name for a woman (though it’s fallen out of fashion as it’s rather sexist) but a bird is also just a bird.
  6. Bog – In the USA, a bog is a marshy area of boggy land. In the UK, a bog is another name for a toilet. Bog roll is toiler paper.
  7. Rubber – In the USA, a rubber is a condom. In the UK, a rubber is an eraser.
  8. Braces – In the USA, braces are devices placed on teeth to straighten them. In the UK, braces hold up pants (what we call suspenders).
  9. Trolley – In the USA, a trolley is a public transportation conveyance (most famous in San Francisco). In the UK, a trolly is a shopping cart.
  10. Chips – In the USA, chips are potato chips (or corn chips). In the UK, chips are what we would call fries but are a chunkier version.
  11. Coach – In the USA, a coach is someone who manages a sports team. In the UK, a coach is a bus.
  12. Fanny Pack – In the USA a fanny pack is a device worn unfashionably around the waist to store personal effects when traveling. In the UK a fanny is a term for a woman’s lady parts. So to call something a fanny pack is a rather offensive term. The Brits call a fanny pack a bum bag (bum is UK speak for butt).
  13. Biscuit – In the USA, a biscuit is a buttery bread roll. In the UK, a biscuit is a cookie.
  14. Dummy – In the USA, a dummy is an idiot. In the UK, a dummy is a baby’s pacifier.
  15. Flannel – In the USA, a flannel is a type of button down shirt that’s very warm. In the UK, a flannel is a washcloth.
  16. Pissed – In the USA, to be pissed is to be angry. In the UK, to be pissed is to be fall down drunk.
  17. Fag – In the USA, fag is a very derogatory term for a homosexual. In the UK, a fag is a cigarette.
  18. Boot – In the USA, a boot is a form of footwear. In the UK, a boot is the trunk of a car.
  19. Bum – In the USA, a bum is a homeless person. In the UK, a bum is your butt.
  20. Caravan – In the USA, a caravan is a type of minivan. In the UK, a caravan is a type of recreational vehicle.
  21. Chaps – In the USA, chaps are leather pants worn by cowboys or motorcyclists. In the UK, chaps are your male friends.
  22. Chemist – In the USA, a chemist is a scientist that works with chemicals. In the UK, a chemist is what we would call the pharmacist.
  23. Concession – In the USA a concession is a place to get snacks in a sporting venue. In the UK, a concession is a discount on a ticket for particular group of people (disabled, student, elderly, etc).
  24. Daddy Long Legs – In the USA, a daddy long legs is a harmless spider. In the UK, a daddy long legs is also known as the crane fly (but they do have the daddy long legs spider and some refer it to just that).
  25. Post – In the USA, a post is something in the ground holding something up. In the UK, the post is the mail.

british-slang-dictionary-coverThe words on this list were excerpted from Anglotopia’s Dictionary of British English: Brit Slang from A to Zed. Available now from major retailers in prints and eBook form. The book features over 1,000 British Slang words including extra sections on Australian and Kiwi Slang, Cockney Slang, London slang and more! There’s also a hilarious section on Britain’s rude place names.  Full details here.

Comments

    • avatarJill Stern says

      Yes, thank you. I don’t think they have all of the differences quite correct. You and Sylvia answered for me. : )

    • avatarMacken says

      A jumper is also, (and most frequently,) said in the US as a baby toy. It is a couple of bungee strands holding a seat that is then strung between a door frame. A baby is put into the seat and does exactly as the name implies, jumps in it.

  1. avatarSylvia Skinner says

    Yes, I’m glad you posted that, That’s what I think of as a jumper.
    The current use as someone who jumps off a bridge or from a building is newer.,

      • avatarSandra says

        A daddy Long Legs may look like a spider but it flies. No one disputes that, right? It is also not classified as an arachnid.

          • avatarAJ says

            There are 2 arachnids and one true-fly called Daddy Long Legs here; the cellar spider (I’m constantly having to hoover the little gits up as they make such a mess in the house) and the harvestman (not seen one in ages but back in Essex in the 70’s the straw bales after harvest would be chock-full of them, and there’s also the crane-fly which is a blasted nuisance everywhere (leatherjackets have ruined my back lawn). Thankfully I have a healthy population of Giant House and Diadem Garden spiders. The garden spiders see to the worst of the crane fly problem and the former help keep down the cellar spiders indoors – there’s a big female that likes to shelter under my shoes and I have to be careful not to squish her in the mornings while it’s dark.

  2. avatarShaun Double says

    Some of these the USA meaning is used just as much as the UK meaning, trick is the situation.
    Chips are not the same as French Fries – UK has French Fries too but they are thin type ala McDonalds, Chips are big, thick & chunky.

      • avatar says

        I married a Brit, but I am American. We have quite an assortment of names for the British ‘chips’. French fries, home fries, and the most accurate and closest to the British ‘chip’ would be our steak fries, which are large versions of the skinny french fry usually served. But we have many varieties of potato favorites ….hash browns, O’Brian’s (hash browns with onions and green peppers), Tater tots (hash browns shaped and fried into a ‘tot’), curly fries…fries covered in cheese sauce, chili, and as my British husband does….french fries stuffed into anything bread related. He calls it a ‘chip buddy’…I call it…yuk…:-D

  3. avatar says

    There are hash browns, american fries, seasoned fries, lots of different names for fries but never chips.
    rubber could also mean a type of overshoe.

  4. avatar says

    Points 5, 8 and 11: bird, braces, coach. These mean the same in British English as in US English – a bird is a bird, braces are used to straighten teeth and you can be a sports coach (the word ‘trainer’ is used for personal trainer in a gym). I think it’s important to point out that these words have more than one meaning – we don’t use ‘birds’ exclusively to refer to females, otherwise what word would we use to talk about those animals with wings?

  5. avatardbt027 says

    Boot is a triple deadly player. Boot UK=trunk of car. Boot US=weather footwear. Boots UK=football (soccer cleats). It is also the name of the most popular pharmacy in the UK.

  6. avatarTim says

    Getting “knocked up” in the morning is significantly different UK to US. Had to laugh when I was teaching in Scotland in the late 70’s and a fellow teacher asked an American coed if he could come “knock her up in the morning” …she turned bright red! Of course all he was asking if he should come by and knock on her door so she would get up and we could all take the train in to Edinburgh. I explained the difference later to him, he was truly shocked, of course she was very cute….

    • avatarSara Joines says

      I’ve never heard the phrase “knock me up” used to get someone up in the morning. Knocked up to me means the same as the American version, to get someone pregnant.

  7. avatarTrevor Davis says

    some words in the list are that suppose to show the difference, are not strictly true, in my school days, i’ve heard some of my friends say, I’m going to the bogs meaning toilet, now i’ve learnt they say it in America, as for post, yes it does mean mail, here in England, but we do have goal-posts or wooden and concrete posts, as for dummy, again it can mean a babies dummy, but just like in America calling someone a dummy means a stupid person, and the word boot, yes it is what is known in America as trunk of a car, but we have types of foot ware, such Army boots and wellington boots and football boots

    • avatarSylvia Skinner says

      In the U.S. our mail goes through the post office, too. Jumper used to mean a sleeveless, sheath type dress worn over a blouse or sweater, and a long time ago, denim work jackets were called jumpers. Or maybe that was a term carried down by our ancestors who came from the British Isles. When I visited there, especially the first time, I was surprised at the words in use that I heard my grandparent’s generation use.

  8. avatartealrose1 says

    Oh yes …. .made me laugh. I used to live outside of Edinburgh in a town called Dalkeith – and the local ‘palace’ [pretty old and in a country park] was and still is used by Wisconsin University. The students were all 18 ++ .. but of course the lecturers came too – and had their own little children who went to school in the local elementary school. I met one American mum – who had a girl and boy at school with my own two and who are still friends .. [they are in their 30’s now !] – who had a FIT when she got a note home asking for her to send her son [aged7] to school with RUBBERS. Rubbers in Scotland are what the English [ie me] call ‘plimpsolls’ and are little, most ofen black, canvas, rubber bottomed foot wear used in the school gym !! She and her husband didn’t know whether to be shocked, or appalled !! lol!!!!! I love language .. it’s such fun !!!!

    • avatarAnon says

      Actually, there are arguments that say American English stayed truer to original English than the language did in Britain. So while you may have invented it, you also may have strayed off the path more than we did, therefore making us “more correct” ;)

  9. avatarGreening says

    The thing is, in the UK we are exposed to so much US media/film/TV etc that most people would understand what an American meant if they used most if not all of these terms, even if that isn’t their common usage in the UK.
    You’d need to have led a very sheltered life to be genuinely shocked by an American referring a fanny pack for example.

    Plenty of these words also have the same meaning in America and the UK. As ever context is the key and goes a long way to aiding comprehension.

    • avatarSylvia Skinner says

      An example of the influence of American TV on the world, I guess. We visited friends in Ireland a couple of years ago, The oldest family member was a 90 year old aunt, the youngest a 12 year old grand-daughter. With each generation, the Irish accent was less. Except for a few words, the grand-daughter sounded just like my grand-daughters back in the U.S. A shame really, to lose the differences.

  10. avatarGradivus says

    My sister, visiting England, was a bit shocked when a young man told her that when he next visited America he’d like to come knock her up. He seemed confused when she replied, “You’ll have to marry me first!”

      • avatarPatrick Owen says

        It means to knock on someone’s door to wake them up so that you can go do something together….

        I doubt, in this day and age, that any Brit says “I’ll knock you up” without a glint in the eye…we are all well aware of the double meaning.

  11. avatarMaureen says

    Greening is correct when he says the Brits are so exposed to US culture that most of them would know the US meaning. Also the folks who pointed out that a Jumper is an over the head girls sleeveless dress are correct. I live here and I immediately thought of that, not someone jumping from a bridge!. I also thought of rubber being the shoes you wear over your real shoes in wet weather. I think they were also called galoshes? Don’t know if anyone even does that in Britain anymore!

    • avatarAnon says

      I think galoshes is an outdated term, possibly. I’ve never heard of anyone calling those “rubbers” before (perhaps it’s a regional term?)
      I have, however, started noticing in advertisements and such that rain boots are recently (as in, within the past couple of years) being referred to as “wellingtons” or “wellies” here in the US.

  12. avatarMark Geddings says

    Add one more if you wish..In the UK a “Silencer” goes on your car to reduce exhaust noise, what we in the USA call a muffler, While stationed in the UK, my muffler blew open due to corrosion and I had to replace it… I got a lot of laughs asking for a muffler (a muffler in the UK is designed to keep ladies hands warm) but was able to respond with “Now a silencer goes on the end of a gun if you want to kill someone very quietly..” :)

  13. avatar says

    I live in England (born there for that matter). Years ago I had penpals many of whom were American. A big debate started as a American girl said she hated fags. Someone asked me what I thought. I answered, ‘ well they do smell a bit and are unhealthy,’ …it took me 20 years to find out we were talking about different things.

  14. avatar says

    The same can be said for Americans, like me, who prefer British programming. If I have a question, there are British friends to ask. As I love to cook, the challenges are to translating some of the terms used by UK recipe writers.

    • avatarAnon says

      Oooooh, cooking. Yes, that was one of the pitfalls we stumbled into when my English husband moved here. He tried to make mashed potatoes from the box, but they always turned out really runny. Turned out when it asked for a “cup” of water, he went to the cabinet, filled up a glass, and dumped it in! *lol*

  15. avatar says

    I don’t know what you call bread rolls in America, but you have to be careful over here as it’s different everywhere.
    You can call them rolls, barms, cobs, baps, buns, batch, and others. Where I’m from it’s cob

  16. avatarPhil Rowley says

    The word ‘chemist’ in Britain can also apply to somebody who has studied chemistry – such as me – but, for the general public, a pharmacist would be the first interpretation.

    • avatargael says

      I come from Ct,USA but lived in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1972. Everyone around me referred to these little blue 3 wheeled cars as “spastic cars”. The neighbor was an elderly man who had lost his leg in WW 2 and he had a “spastic” car.

  17. avatarLee Stamp says

    As I was passing through customs in London I was asked my purpose in traveling to England. I replied I just planned to bum around. The lady was shocked. My English aunt later explained the reaction to me and delighted in telling all her friends the story .

    • avatarjason says

      Quality… I haven’t stopped laughing. ‘To bum around’ in England means to engage in homesexual activities at every given opportunity.

  18. avatarJeffrey Herr says

    As an American living Dubai, I find myself using the British words more than the American, primarily because there are more Brits here and we have many British friends. They think its great but it gets me in trouble when we go back home because I have to readjust…

  19. avatar says

    When I moved to London the hardest thing to get used to was to say streets and not blocks, as in How many blocks is it to Macy’s, but say How many streets it is to Harrods. And the first time someone said Fancy a Fag? I was quite taken aback.

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