“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 were 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.
One of the things that I thought was really funny, and to this day, 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, purse, and keys, but didn’t have enough space in my pocket to fit them all.
“Take my bum bag,” he said.
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.
“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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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 the Walkers ‘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’.
Ah, the British food that fooled me.
I’d never heard about mince pies until I came to the UK. Just before Christmastime, mince pies started to hit 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 one!).
Until now, I still don’t like mince pies. When H asked why, I said, “They taste of betrayal.”
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
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, that tea means dinner. Other times, this still confuses me. I think it will still continue to confuse me for a long time.
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.
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:
“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! 🙂