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Life in the UK

Lost in Translation: The British Words That Fooled Me

“I’m still in the flat, need to hoover before I leave.”

The first time I heard that sentence, I was confused. Flat? Hoover? (Translation: I’m still in the apartment, need to vacuum before I leave).

Growing up, I learned English mostly from American books, movies, and TV shows. Most of the English books I could get my hands on were the American versions, and apart from children’s classics (think Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, etc.), there wasn’t much exposure to the British words and culture. Years later, when Harry Potter books came out, I got more glimpse of the British culture, although I guess many of the words are changed to American English.

When I first came to England for my master’s, it was fun and fascinating to learn all these British words that I’d never heard before. Some of these I’ve gotten used to, like ‘fortnight’ or ‘knackered’. But others, I still find it odd/amusing/hilarious.

Bum bag

One of the things that I thought was really funny, and I still can’t use it because 1) I’ll break into laughter whenever I say it, 2) it just sounds… odd.

These words came out one day when I was about to go running. I told H I wanted to bring my phone, wallet, and keys, but didn’t have enough space in my pocket to fit them all.

“Take my bum bag,” he said.

“Your WHAT?”

He then proceeded to brandish a fanny pack (which, to be fair, sounds equally funny, but still a bit more normal). It’s called bum bags here kids, not fanny packs (in fact, ‘fanny’ means something else here: a female’s genitals).

But in whichever language you say it, you can be sure that I’ll never wear any kind of this bag.

Fag

“I’ll go out for a fag,” a friend said to me one night, a few weeks after my arrival.

I didn’t know what it meant at the time. It just sounded dirty to me. I didn’t dare to ask him what a fag was. Had I known that he was just having a smoke outside, I wouldn’t have been so scared to ask.

Jumper

This was one of the first words that I learned when learning about British vs American English in school. H says this and I sure tease him every time. I just think ‘jumper’ is a funny word that doesn’t really make sense. Like I said to H every time we have a debate about jumper vs sweater, “It makes you sweat, it doesn’t make you jump!”

Trousers

Trousers vs pants is another common misunderstanding in our household. I never use the word trousers, so when I ask H to get me my pants, he has to clarify. “You mean trousers? If you say pants that means underpants/knickers here.”

Torch

For me, a torch is a stick or device of some sort that emits hot flame. A battery-powered portable lamp is a flashlight for me, but in here it’s a torch.

A friend also reminded me to be careful of how I pronounced ‘flashlight’, as a little slip could mean something entirely different, and dirty. Be careful, guys.

What I think torches are.

Telly

I’ve never heard anyone here says ‘TV’, it’s always ‘telly’. This one isn’t confusing, just funny. And I don’t think I’ll ever get used to saying the word ‘telly’, it just sounds like an adorable made-up word.

Fancy dress

A ‘fancy dress party’ in here isn’t about glitz and glamor, as it’s what Americans would call a ‘costume party’. Thankfully I dodged this faux pas, otherwise it would’ve been embarrassing (imagine turning up in a beautiful, elegant dress when everybody else wore silly costumes. Ugh).

Chips and chippy

When someone said ‘fish and chips’, of course I know straight away chips are the fat fries. But when I speak, I still say ‘chips’ when I actually mean ‘crisps’, as they call it here.

I usually ask H to buy me some ‘chips’ when he goes to the shop, and by now he knows what I actually mean is ‘crisps’. He still reminds me though, “When you ask me to buy chips, I’ll go to the chippy.”

That’s another cute word, ‘chippy’. That means ‘chip shop’.

Mince pies

Ah, the British food that fooled me.

I’d never heard about mince pies until I came to the UK. Around Christmastime, mince pies started hitting the stores. Rows and rows of boxes with the pictures of the most delicious-looking pies. Hearing the name, and looking at the pictures, I imagined tasty savory pies with minced meat as the filling.

It turned out that mince pies were actually sweet, and the mince was dried and candied fruits with rum and brandy. Suffice it to say that I got a big surprise as I took the first bite (and it wasn’t a pleasant surprise!).

Until now, I still don’t like mince pies. When H asked why, I said, “They taste of betrayal.”

Cookies

I think some of the most important things I’ve learned are: 1) Brits take their tea seriously, 2) biscuits and cookies are different here. If you don’t know where to start, biscuits are the crunchy ones and cookies are the soft ones.

While we’re talking about food, I also want to point out that the differences between vegetable names can be interesting, but also confusing. Some of them (American – British English):

  • Cilantro – coriander
  • Eggplant – aubergine
  • Zucchini – courgette
  • Rocket – arugula
  • Garbanzo beans – chickpeas
  • Snow peas – mangetouts
  • Scallion – spring onion

Tea

I first heard this when staying at H’s parents’ house, when his mom asked me, “What would you like for tea, sweetheart?”

Apparently, milk and no sugar wasn’t the sort of answer she was expecting.

I’d learn later that tea means dinner, apart from tea the beverage. I know now that when she asked this close to dinner time, or when she’s about to cook, tea means dinner. Other times, this still confuses me, and this is the one word that I still can’t get my head around with. I think it will still continue to confuse me for a long time.

Pharmacy

This one I’ve heard before, but I’m so used to say ‘drugstore’ that it sometimes just slips out of my mouth, and I’ll be rewarded with strange looks from whoever happens to be within an earshot. I sincerely hope they don’t think I’m involved in some illegal drug deals.

Pissed, take the piss

When I say “I’m pissed,” I always mean I’m annoyed, but in here pissed can also mean drunk.

‘Take the piss’ also has nothing to do with… urine. It means to mock something/someone, and in here I hear this all the time.

You see how these can cause hilarious misunderstanding…


There are many more words that I can think of. ‘Codswallop’ (nonsense), ‘nick’ (steal), ‘boot’ (car trunk), wellies (boots), etc. The list goes on. You can read more in this article of British phrases that will confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in the UK.

Curse words

That being said, I love their curse words. I just think they’re hilarious and entertaining, and not offensive at all to my ears (in fact, for some reason the words sound cute to me). Some of my favorites:

“Oh, bugger!”

“That’s utter bollocks!”

“What a twat/wanker/prick/tosser!” (choose one)

The literal meaning of these words might be a bit dirty, but as curse words, they’re considered pretty mild.

Do you have any experiences with confusing/amusing British words, phrases, or slangs? I enjoy reading people’s experiences about this, so feel free to share if you have any! 🙂

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18 Comments

  • Reply Ria

    Nursery in UK means childcare/daycare here in Aus it means plant shop. So, when I lived in UK, atfirst I was confused lookingbat Nursery building but with no plants in it but lotsa kids😝😝😝

    Aus and British almost use the same words, like fag, tea for dinner (my mother in law used this word too), wellies, jumper, etc. Oh, and brolly for umbrella😛😛 Magazine in Aus slang is mag, bloke for man, budgie smugglers for speedo (the one that looks like undies)

    March 18, 2018 at 1:02 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      I didn’t know nursery in Australia meant plant shop! I can imagine your confusion 😀

      And yes, I’ve noticed many words are just the same (but not sure about brolly and budgie smugglers, never heard of them. I think maybe they’re only used in Aussie?). It’s always interesting to learn all these differences 😀

      March 18, 2018 at 11:46 pm
  • Reply inly

    Kurang lebih sama juga sama NZ, Dixie.. Mungkin karena commonwealth ya.. Kyk mba Ria, sama juga beberapa slangnya.. Lumayan bingung sih dulu waktu pertama kali keNZ.. Tapi aku kadang cuek aja tanya haha.. Untung pada maklumin..

    March 18, 2018 at 1:34 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Haha iya pertama kali dateng pasti bingung ya Ly. Aku juga sekarang masih ada istilah2 yang bikin bingung. Apalagi kalo udah kebiasa pake American English, yang artinya beda banget sama British English 😀

      March 18, 2018 at 11:47 pm
  • Reply Ria

    Tambahan, pharmacy kl dsini chemist👌🏻😜

    March 18, 2018 at 4:23 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Ah yes, it’s used in casual convo here as well 😀

      March 18, 2018 at 11:47 pm
  • Reply Aggy

    Dixie! This made me laugh out loud 😀 British words are just lovely aren’t they xD. I learned a lot of them when I was little and never really thought of them as weird until I went back to Indonesian and my English teacher used to look at me like I’m talking nonsense (she also probably didn’t believe that I used to live in England haha) 😀 I used to say “this is so badddd” with my mates at school and it means that it’s really REALLY cool (but I think it’s an early 2000 expression lol).

    March 18, 2018 at 4:26 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      They definitely are (I’m always amused and entertained whenever I learn new words). I have a suspicion your English teacher might have thought you just made up those words. I guess unless you’ve lived here and experienced using the words yourself, it could be a bit hard to believe that such cute/funny words existed 😀

      March 18, 2018 at 11:49 pm
  • Reply Francesca

    I’ve never really thought about how strange some of our language is. The tea thing I’m going to have to insist is wrong though – depending on where you live you’ll say “Breakfast, dinner, tea” vs “Breakfast, lunch, dinner”! And don’t get me started on how to pronounce “scone!”

    One of the things I find most interesting is our regional accents – when my parents first moved to the North West, my mum heard a scouse accent for the first time and didn’t recognise it as English at first (although it must have been a very strong accent!)

    March 20, 2018 at 10:46 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Oh my, the tea thing is a lot more confusing than I thought! 😀 Scone pronunciation is something that I really have to do carefully, I know it’s been one of the subjects of intense debates 😉

      I still struggle with northern accent, scouse and geordie in particular. Can’t imagine how strong it was for your mum to not recognise it as English! 😀

      March 22, 2018 at 5:46 pm
  • Reply Dita

    And in the US biscuits means something else 😀 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscuit_(bread)

    March 20, 2018 at 2:57 pm
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Ah yes, it’s scones in here. Very different! 😀

      March 22, 2018 at 5:47 pm
  • Reply Christa

    I think I still drive R crazy whenever I say tube instead of the subway (it doesn’t happen often but when it does he always protests!) hahahaha

    March 24, 2018 at 5:14 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Ah yes, that too! Tube vs subway. H is frustrated too with my ways of saying things. Those poor guys 😀

      March 24, 2018 at 1:59 pm
  • Reply Hans

    Hahhaa lucu juga ya kalo dipikir2.
    Ini sama aja kayak bahasa indonesia vs bahasa malaysia.
    Mobil nyebutnya kereta, dll.
    Wadow 😆

    March 25, 2018 at 3:12 pm
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Haha iya bener, banyak kata yang artinya bisa beda di 2 negara ini, bikin bingung dan mesti hati2 😀

      March 30, 2018 at 10:27 pm
  • Reply adele

    It just remind me of my friends. they asked me to have a tea every morning with their lovely accent and told me lots of British accent..
    ahh,, love their accent so much!

    March 27, 2018 at 5:54 am
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      They do have a distinctive accent 😀

      March 30, 2018 at 10:26 pm

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