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Theater or Theatre? Differences Between US and British English

Difference Between American and British English Header

Although American English originated from British English, even a casual observer would be able to tell that there is a world of difference between the two dialects today. British English first spread in the West when Britain started to colonize parts of America in the early 1600s. Over the next few centuries, the language gradually evolved to accommodate local differences and influences from other immigrant cultures. Today in the United States, there are several different dialects of American English spoken in various parts of the country, influenced by large localized populations such as Germans in Pennsylvania, Norwegians in Minnesota and English Muffin with ButterFrench in New Orleans. The differences in the English language between Britain and America are not only limited to spelling; grammar, word meanings, intonation and pronunciation also tend to differ. Even now our language is rapidly changing, influenced by technology, music, movies and other media.

There are many words shared between British and American English that may be spelled and pronounced the same way but with vastly different meanings. In some cases, it is important to be aware of these meanings since they can easily cause offence or confusion if used in the wrong context. For example, when discussing muffins, crumpets and scones, American and English speakers will arrive at very different conclusions. While American muffins are the popular cake-like baked goods, English muffins (which are mistakenly referred to as crumpets) are a small, flat, round bread. On the other hand, English scones are what we call biscuits. And biscuits in England are cookies in America! In a similar manner, the way words are interpreted in different areas can be very different even when it is the same word.




On the other hand, there are several words in each language that are virtually unknown to each other. Think of the term Lollipop Man. In the U.S., it might conjure up images of an absolutely delightful person who hands out candy to children. In England, however, a lollipop man is simply a traffic crossing guard, so named for the big red stop sign they carry on a stick, which resembles a lollypop or a candy sucker. Other differences are more local. For example, if someone were to say, “I have two quid,” it would translate to, “I have two dollars.”

This table shows how the same words hold very different meanings and how wrong usage could easily create awkward or complicated moments.

Word

British

American

Mate

Friend, buddy

Spouse, partner

Dinner

Afternoon meal

Evening meal

Rubber

Eraser

Condom

Flat

Apartment

Smooth, even surface or object

Wireless

Radio

Wireless phone or Internet connection

Paddle

Bat (for playing sports)

Propel (in swimming or boating)

Chips

French fries

Thin potato chips sold in bags or tins

Homely

Cozy, comfortable (usually for describing the interior of a building or room)

Ugly, unattractive (used to describe a person)

Bum

Slang for buttocks

Homeless person

Chemist

Pharmacist

Scientist involved in chemistry

Hoodie

Delinquent youth

Hooded sweater with a pocket in the front

Jumper

Sweater

Slang for a person who commits suicide by jumping off a building.

The following table illustrates several words that are typically not used at all in the other language.

British terms

American equivalent

Wellingtons or wellies

Rubber rain boots

Pram (from perambulator)

Baby carriage or pushchair

Lorry

Truck or long trailer

Dustbin

Trash can

Motorway

Highway or freeway

Term (used in schools)

Semester

Gaol

Prison

 

 

American terms

British equivalent

Eggplant

Aubergine

Crosswalk (at an intersection)

Zebra crossing

Diaper

Nappy

Soda or pop

Soft drink

Mom & pop store/business

Corner store

Garbage

Rubbish

American and British Flags

When researching differences between English and American phrases, keep in mind that there are many differences in various parts and dialects of England. In the case of language confusion, most people will normally understand from the other’s accent and tone that although their word usage may have rude or muddled connotations, they may actually be referring to something entirely different. Overall it always helps to brush up on the other culture’s terminology and language differences before travelling. When in doubt, always ask for clarification before coming to potentially wrong conclusions and be careful to avoid offensive words and phrases.

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