This 4 July, we demystify the funniest discrepancies between US and UK English

It’s Independence Day, but 238 years later, the battle for comprehension rages on

It’s an oldie but a goodie! Enjoy our guide from Independence Day again, as we help you traverse some troublesome transatlantic translation terrain

Today, July the fourth, is a special day. Americans are celebrating Independence Day, not the 1996 box-office smash hit, but the 1776 declaration of independence that saw the formation of the United States and an end to British rule.

The imperialists in England were furious about losing America, and sent wave after wave of redcoats and drummer-boys to their deaths for several more years. But by 1778, the French had joined the Americans to help shake-off the final desperate British attempts to assert their colonial will, and by 1783 it was game-over for Britannia.

But despite the humiliation of losing our treasured America, British influence still prevails in the USA through our introduction of English.

So with a ring of irony, it seems apt that 4 July is also English grammar day at the British Library.

And as our American brethren eulogise their hard won victory through hotdog-eating competitions, tugs-of-war and fireworks, here in the UK we’ll be disputing correct lexical forms and debating the perils of unregulated language.

In his short story The Canterville Ghost, notable user of British English, Oscar Wilde wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language”.

So is Oscar right? Well, our waistbands are certainly expanding almost as fast as they have in America, but our shared language continues to remain unpredictably divergent in particular areas.

We’ve all been amused and confused by the American proclivity for use of the word “pants”, when they mean trousers, but who knew that “bugger” was a term of endearment Americans use towards children?

Here are a few of the essential linguistic rifts you need to be aware of:


They’re called eggplants in America. Perhaps because they’re vaguely egg-shaped… Oh wait, no they aren’t. And they’re purple and massive. Not like an egg at all then.  


In the UK, bog is slang for lavatory. In America, the word is used particularly in reference to plots of artificially floodable farmland used to grow cranberries. So don’t say you’re going to the loo there.


We all know that a bogey is an emerald green crystal of dried snot. Not so in America, where if you voice concern about bogies, you’ll find your fellows anxiously scanning the skies for unidentified enemy aircraft.

Boob tube

This is of course the iconic 90s shoulderless item of women’s clothing. NOT IN AMERICA. If you tell someone you’re going to go out tonight wearing a boob tube, they won’t know what the hell you’re on about.  Boob tube means television in the US – presumably due to the cathode-ray tube technology used in traditional televisions, and the fact that televisions can be used to view boobs.


We all know what this means in English. Simply apply to your least favourite politician. But in America it is, according to Wikipedia at least, a slang term of endearment for children. Who knew?


“Right I’m off down the pub with the chaps”, may be common parlance in Blighty, but in the US, you’ll get some funny looks as the majority of people only know the word chaps in the context of the protective leather leggings worn by cowboys. “Brokeback what?”


This means “duvet” in America apparently. Why don’t they just call it a duvet, or a blanket? I don’t know. I’m just glad we don’t have to put up with this kind of nonsense here.


More clothes confusion surrounds suspenders. “I had Catherine round here last night. She was wearing a pair of sexy suspenders,” is how I often commence a yarn. But in America, the visuals summoned by your listeners will likely be of a lady wearing a nice pair of braces to hold her trousers up. Which I’m sure you’ll agree makes for a somewhat less erotic and more abstract story altogether.


Americans call coriander “cilantro”.


Means bum in America. Hilarious. And bum means tramp there, and tramp usually means prostitute. It’s a minefield!


Means the ground floor in the US, then our first floor becomes the US’s second floor. They’re always one floor ahead of us. It’s just like in Spinal Tap where the guitarist gets the amplifier that has a volume knob that goes up to 11 so it’s “one louder” than the usual 10. Is it necessary?


An English gallon is 4.54 litres, while in America a gallon measures a paltry 3.78 liters. So if you ever hear a cowboy boasting about wearing a 10-gallon hat, you should let him know that your English 10-gallon hat is bigger than his. Watch out though, they have guns in America.


The name Graham is shortened to “Gram” in America. So Graham Green becomes Gram Greene, and the popular breakfast cereal Golden Grahams become Golden Grams, which sounds like a euphemism for heroin if I’ve ever heard one, which I, err, haven’t.


A rather quirky way of pronouncing the word “herb” has gained ground over the last couple of centuries in the US. As a result it has lost the H, and becomes “erbs”, which is harder to pronounce if anything.


In America a jock is the frequently stereotyped character of a vain young athlete fond of nerd-bashing and seen exhibiting sexist behaviour.

In the UK however, a jock is a Scottish man. Don’t try and stereotype him or he’ll glass you.


If you’re a rock-hard Hells Angel, you may have a nice big motorbike in Britain. But in America, you ride a motorcycle. If you ride a motorbike, you’ll get your lights punched out. A motorbike means a little moped over there. If the Terminator had walked into the bar and said “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorbike,” he may not have got away with it. Get it right.


A particularly useful difference to be aware of is the huge gulf in meaning between the British usage of the word pissed, and that of the American. In both America and the UK, it can be used as the past participle of the verb to piss, but that is where any similarity ends. If you come to work pissed in Britain, you are liable to lose your job because you have proved that you are an irresponsible sop. But if you come to work pissed in America, it’s less of a problem, because in the States it merely means angry, and there are prescription drugs for that. “I was so pissed last night” therefore has a considerably different story behind it.

Public school

In America, a public school is a school funded by the state. This actually makes more sense than the backwards system we have for designating schools here. Me? I went to a comprehensive in Wales if you must ask.


“I walked home via the subway”, will be greeted with disbelief in the US, and perhaps a question as to how you avoided death by train, as subway refers to subterranean railways, whereas here it’s just the passages you walk through underground.


That’s all folks. Or as we say in Britain, on your bike.


LLB button - newsletter

Want more? Follow me on Twitter @Harry_Cockburn

Social Bookmarks