Divided by a Common Language


The language, of course, is English. And the division is between the USA and the UK. We each have our own regional differences as well, but we have learned to get along with those. Americans understand “y’all,” even if most of them don’t say it, and Brits understand “yallright?” even if most of them don’t use it. There are also the differences in spelling, grammar, and punctuation that are immediately recognizable when we read what each other writes. But I’m speaking here of differences in everyday speech that cause confusion on both sides. For example, my dear wife, Elyn, recently went into a shop in England and asked to see “purses.” She was told that they had none, even though they were prominently displayed all along one wall. When she pointed to them she was informed that those were “handbags.” To the British a purse is what we in the USA might call a “coin purse.”

Go into any “bar” in the USA and ask to use the “loo,” and you will likely be met with blank stares. But, dear fellow Americans, when have you ever actually taken a bath in a public “bathroom?” And, by the way, in the UK it would be a “pub” not a “bar.”


Sometimes the differences generate more than confusion. For example, we North Americans love those little pouches we strap around our waists. The Brits love them too, but better not refer to them as “fanny packs” in the UK. In England, “fanny” refers to a woman’s private parts. Better call them “bum bags,” even though to American ears that sounds a bit crude. Or better yet, don’t wear one. They mark you out as a tourist.

Brits, you shouldn’t go around the USA saying “Blow me!” To American ears that sounds like a request for sexual services rather than an expression of surprise. Also, Americans won’t understand you if you say you are “gobsmacked” instead of “amazed.” In fact, to Americans, “gobsmacked” sounds rather disgusting.

Older Brits will sometimes tell you they are going to “spend a penny” (go pee), in spite of the fact that penny pay toilets are long a thing of the past in the UK.


In a restaurant in Britain, you’ll soon learn that “pudding” isn’t necessarily a trembly custard. When the waiter asks if you want “pudding” he’s asking if you want “dessert.” In general, desserts are referred to as “puddings” in the UK—but that doesn't include cakes. And a British "biscuit" is an American "cookie."

Last month I was sitting with a British teenager at a picnic on the grounds of Glastonbury’s legendary Abby. She said she was “chuffed” about something, and I asked her for a translation. She couldn’t give me one and asked her mother, who couldn’t either. The rough translation would be “pleased," and if you are really pleased you might even say you are “chuffed to bits.”

The compartment at the back of a car is called the “trunk” in the USA and the “boot” in the UK. And that big vehicle that is approaching on the A 30 in England is a “lorry” not a “truck.” And, of course it would be called an “interstate” in the USA, not a “motorway.”

Some British are fond of everything “posh” and so are some Americans. But it is likely that neither of us knows that “POSH” is an acronym for “Port side on the way Out and Starboard on the way Home”—the preferred cabins on oceangoing ships.

All this is a part of what makes the expat life enjoyable for me. I can smile as I leave my “piso” (apartment) in Spain and hear my neighbor on her cell phone (móbil) saying “vale, vale” (OK, OK). Variety is the spice . . , and all that. Or as the saying taped to Elyn’s computer states, “There is nothing more repetitious than the need for variety.”

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