British Slang: 48 British Words For Driving That You May Not Know – How the British Communicate Driving Differently Than Americans


This is the first article in an ongoing series about British English or as we Americans tend to call it, British Slang. The following list of words is taken from Anglotopia’s Dictionary of British English and you’ll find these and a ton more words in our bestselling dictionary.

This week we’re going to talk about the words for driving that are different from British to American English. Some of the words are obvious in their meanings, some words are used completely differently to the way we Americans use them – which can lead to confusion when renting (or hiring as the Brits say) a car when you’re in the UK.

AA – abbr – The British Automobile Association, whom you call when your car breaks down.
Bollard – n – Metal post that usually indicates a place one should not drive into.
Bonnet – n – The hood of a car.
Boot – n – The car’s trunk, opposite of the bonnet.
Camper van – n – Recreational vehicle.
Car boot sale – n – Swap meet or flea market where people sell items from the back of their car.
Car park – n – Parking lot or parking garage.
Caravan – n – Another term for Recreational Vehicle.
Caravan Park – n – Campsite for recreational vehicles and trailers
Cat’s eyes – n – Reflectors located on the road in the center line.
Central Reservation – n – The median between two opposite sides of a road.
Damper – n – The shock absorber on a car.
Dual carriageway – n – A divided highway a step down from a motorway.
Estate car – n – A station wagon.
Gear lever – n – The stick shift in a manual car.
Golf buggy – n – Golf cart.
Handbrake – n – Parking/ Emergency brake in a car.
Hard shoulder – n – Shoulder on the side of the road that’s paved.
High street – n – Main street.
Hire car – n – A rental car.
Indicator – n – Turning signal in a car.
Kerb – n – A curb.
Kerb crawler – n – A person who solicits street prostitutes.
L-plates – n – Special license plates you’re required to have on your car while learning to drive in the UK.
Lay-by – n – Rest area along the highways.
Lorry – adj – A semi or heavy goods truck.
Manual gearbox – n – A manual transmission on a car.
Motor – n – An antiquated term for an automobile.
Motorway – n – The equivalent would be an interstate highway.
Nearside – n – The side of the car that’s closest to the curb.
Number plate – n – License plate.
Pavement – n – The sidewalk.
Pelican crossing – n – A type of crosswalk on British streets.
Puncture – n – Flat tire.
Registration – n – A car’s license plate.
Roundabout – n – A traffic circle.
Saloon – n – Standard 4 door family sedan car.
Sleeping policemen – n – A speed bump in the road.
Slip-road – n – An exit on/off ramp on a highway.
Soft-Shoulder – n – Roadside shoulder that’s made of gravel.
Tarmac – n – A paved road.
Traffic Light – n – Stoplight
Trailer tent – n – A pop-up camper.
Undercarriage – n – The underside of your car.
Verge – n – Shoulder on the side of the road.
Windscreen – n – Windshield.
Wing – n – Car fender.
Zebra crossing – n – Pedestrian crossings on roads.

Did we leave anything off the list? Which word is your favorite. We love saying ‘hire car’ instead of rental car – sounds so much more adventurous!

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 and London slang. There’s also a hilarious section on Britain’s rude place names.  Full details here.

Read More at Anglotopia


  1. avatarMindy Helms says

    This is great! I love this topic! My favorites are “Sleeping policemen” and “Pelican/zebra crossings”. Of course “Kerb crawler” gives me a good laugh too. Is there a different word for the roof of a car in British English?

  2. avatarpsgifford says

    A caravan is a self contained unit for travelling that you tow. Us Brits love them.Plus the term motor is till very much used in certain parts of England, particularly in London, A Bonnet is where the engine is and a boot is the storage part of the car- so a boot might be in the front of a rear engined car. I would also add ‘Lollipop lady,” which is a school crossing lady. A Panda car for police care, motorway services, and a few others. But, a good job.

  3. avatarAlex says

    Blinker (v turn indicator)
    Brake disc (v rotor)
    Flat battery (v. dead battery)
    Outside (opposite of nearside)
    MOT (v inspection)
    Moped (? North Americans don’t have them)
    Reliant Robin (? North Americans don’t have them)
    mini-roundabout (? North Americans don’t have them)
    Belisha beacon (? North Americans don’t have them)
    Invalid carriage (? North Americans don’t have them)

    • avatarSuzanne Stevens says

      Actually, roundabouts are showing up in parts of the US. There are three in Brighton, MI; a mini one in Saginaw, MI; and a new one just now being build in Midland, MI. I’ve also see them in parts of the east coast.

        • avatarmeg says

          We’ve had then in the northeast USA for ages. We giggle at the Midwesterners who visit and get confused by them

        • avatarChris says

          I live in Milton Keynes (Google is your friend) which is built on a grid plan where the roads intersect at Roundabouts … we’ve about 120 of them … you’d like it here ! 😀

      • avatarLydia says

        Was familiar with all until I got to ‘Pelican Crossing’ – what does one look like? And yes, the MOT is very important. As for the question of roundabouts in the US – we’ve had them for years here in Washington, DC – Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Washington Circle, etc. There’s also one in NY State (I think it’s on or near either the Saw Mill River Pkwy or the Taconic.)

        Does anyone know why the British call it a lorry and we call it a truck?

        • avatarGraham says

          Pelican crossings are pedestrian controlled Ie: the pedestrian on the pavement pushes a button on a box on the lamp post and this turns the traffic lights to red so that the pedestrian can cross the road. A zebra crossing is not pedestrian controlled and they stand on the pavement and either wait for the courteous drivers to stop to allow them to cross the road or they wait for a safe time/gap in the traffic to cross the road.

  4. avatarMartha McCann says

    Belisha beacon: an amber flashing globe on top of a black and white striped pole, placed at a zebra crossing.

  5. avatarLanina123. says

    People carrier. A seven to twelve seat mini-van similar to Dodge Caravan. It makes you wonder what exactly other vehicles carry!

  6. avatarFrank Levin says

    You left out my favorite which I learned in Wales last year. The slow lane up the long hills that the lorrys use is called the “Crawler Lane.” There is no doubt who travels there.

      • avatarwyvernchick says

        Technically, a saloon and a hatchback have different kinds of rear openings – a three- or five-door hatchback is hinged above the rear window, so the whole back of the car opens up like a hatch (hence the name). A saloon has a separate boot lid below the rear window. Saloons (like the old Ford Escort and Vauxhall Cavalier) are becoming far less popular than they were in the past, with hatchbacks (like the Ford Fiesta and the Vauxhall Corsa) approaching ubiquity.

  7. avatarJan Sasser says

    When we put Garmin in British mode, Jeeves (our name for him) tells us to take the slip road. My favorite!

  8. avatarMarie Mac says

    No point explaining what an indicator is , most Americans don’t or don’t know how to use them.. It’s bloody annoying

  9. avatarDoug says

    A caravan is not the same as an RV. A caravan does not have an engine and is typically towed behind a car. We don’t use damper in British English, we use shock absorber. We use ‘registration’ to refer to what is written on the number plate, not the physical object. I would say ‘gear stick’ is used more often than ‘gear lever’. Interesting, I always though fender was what we call a bumper.

    • avatar says

      But is highly popular here in the US as its the only way to get past some them. As an ex Brit it drives me bonkers when they drive in the left lane and won’t move over. Probably the worst and most infuriating habit of American drivers. Did I say “road rage”!!

      • avatarKarin Peterson says

        I hate ‘lane hoggers’. We have them in the UK on the middle lanes too.
        You quickly learn to move back into the inside lane after overtaking somebody when you drive in Germany and a Beemer comes up behind you at 200 km/h

  10. avatarDrew G. says

    Can’t forget to add ” BLIND SUMMIT ” to the list. In the states they’re called hill & dales, or hilly up and down roads, like the two lane hilly up & down roads in upstate New York, <–which includes a lot of those much safer "no passing", no lane changing areas, because you would be "Blind" to what was coming in the other lane of travel at the top or bottom of those scenic hills. :-). "…..Safety First …."May save your own life,as well as others.!!!

  11. avatarJan says

    overtaking = passing
    undertaking (used informally) = passing on the inside. Not legal in UK. blinker = turn signal = indicator. I live in Boston where illuminated highway signs have been known to say “Use ya blinkah” when changing lanes.

  12. avatar says

    Caravan is a trailer, not an RV. License plate (used to) be Number Plate and the Registration is a small disc mounted on the inside of the windscreen on the passenger’s side. Fender is a Bumper and the wing is the body panel above the wheel arch. Gear Lever is Gear Stick. An Overpass is a Flyover and a Motorway intersection is a Junction … and don’t forget that gasoline is Petrol.

    • avatarChris says

      “Registration is a small disc mounted on the inside of the windscreen on the passenger’s side.” This is technically the receipt that shows that you’ve paid your “Vehicle Excise Duty” which is basically a Tax to use the public roads – it’s informally known as “Car Tax” and “Tax Disc”. This system is ending in October 2014 … you still have to pay the “VED” but you will no longer get the disc as a receipt, and you will no longer need to display it on the vehicle. The Police will zap your “Number Plate” with their “ANPR” (Automatic Number Plate Recognition Camera) and the computer will tell them if you’re paid up or not … 😉

  13. avatarKevin Rustill says

    HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle) = a lorry / rig
    Sunday Driver = slow driver (usually an older one)
    Traffic Warden = Meter Maid
    Provisional Driver = one who has usually just passed their driving test – can have a green “P” on the car, similar to the red “L” for Learners (who have not yet passed their driving test)

  14. avatarCathy St John says

    I love the term “estate car” because I want to own a Volvo Estate and call it that even though I’m American.

  15. avatarJane says

    Soft Shoulder? Never heard of one of those, we mainly have a hard shoulder which is at the side of the road which you should only use if your vehicle has broken down!

  16. avatarBilly Claire says

    Windscreen = windshield
    Prise = pry
    tyre = tire

    Here in Massachusetts we’ve had rotaries aka roundabouts forever. No one outside of here knows how to drive in one or who has right of way. And when you’re used to them and drive in the UK and approach one and realise you have to go around it clockwise instead of anti-clockwise (another UK-ism) you pull over and have to think about it!

  17. avatarSarah says

    Here in Britain we beep our horn, in the US you honk your horn? And this is kind of related – last winter in Indiana I found it hard remember to say that the streets were slick (meaning icy/slippery), in the UK we would say slippery

  18. avatarLeon Guyot says

    headlamp = headlight. sills = rocker panels, rocker cover = valve cover
    silencer = muffler, reverse lights = back-up lights.

  19. avatarGraham says

    Ok you have the words but do you have the ability to drive on the “correct” side of the road and understand our road markings with the road signs.

  20. avatarArthur Vibert says

    A “quarterlight” is the little triangular window that can be pushed open manually on older cars. In the U.S. they were called (at least in California, where I grew up) “wind wings.”

Leave a Reply