Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Word maven Patricia T. O'Conner takes your calls on the English language. On Wednesday, May 21, she focuses on the differences between English as it's spoken in the U.S. and in Britain.

Weigh in: Tell us your favorite examples of Americanisms vs. Britishisms.

Pat O'Conner will be talking about the myths and mysteries of English
on Wednesday, May 28th at 6:30 pm
at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the NYPL
40th and Fifth Avenue

Comments [114]

Barb from Shark River from Shark River Hills, NJ

I recall writing directions to my residence in London,ending with "Turn left and go two blocks". My Brit friends got to that point and were completely bemused by the expression "two blocks".

May. 30 2008 02:55 PM
Elaine from New Jersey

Whilst in London several years ago for a conference, a colleague invited me to his club for lunch. As we were leaving, he said, "Are you comfortable?" I wasn't quite sure what he meant. Did I have enough to eat? Had I eaten too much? Had I had too much wine to walk without staggering? No, it meant - did I need the loo.

May. 30 2008 12:15 PM
Jill from Canada

Some English usage survives in Canada,

"tap" is more common than "faucet"
"pissed" can mean 'drunk' as well as angry
"one-off", "pardon" and "loo" are in common usage here.

I'm keen to hang onto "Mum" and "Mummy" as opposed to the American-sounding "Mom" (sounds like Maawwwm) which is rarely heard here. Everyone of my generation anyway (30-something) still says "Mum" which to me sounds cozier and is easier to say.

I learned "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down" which I assumed had to do with burning bodies or putting ashes on common graves. Could be wrong.

May. 22 2008 04:42 PM
Mia Northrop

In Australia we say 'a tissue a tissue' we all fall down 'in 'ring a ring a rosie' too. Sneezing before die of the plague, I guess.

May. 22 2008 01:35 PM
Galina from New Jersey

I am not sure what exactly the phrase "word maven" means, but it is obvious that it does not mean "linguist". The answer to most questions asked by listeners on the May 21 show was "I don't know". How can you presume to have a deep knowledge of your language if you do not know other languages, most notably Latin? If you have to use a dictionary to look for the origin of the word "purple", or do not know that "aluminium" is the name of the element in most languages, as well as in the periodic table, you are NOT a language specialist. By the way, the host (one of my favorite, actually) could be more careful with his foreign language citations: please check the French pronunciation of "noblesse oblige".

May. 22 2008 11:34 AM
Pam from Qns.

What's the British usage rule with respect to "whilst?"

May. 22 2008 12:36 AM
Phyllis from New York

(1) I have always thought the way British pronounce "controversy" funny.

(2) I had thought that I would never hear the absolutely offensive non-word "incentivize" uttered by a Britisher. I was wrong. I heard it in an interview on BBC just recently.

May. 21 2008 10:34 PM
al oof from brooklyn

give them a ring meaning call them? how is that confusing?

i don't know what the flat round thing in the middle of the intersection is. i mean, what is the US word for it? because i'm totally confused.

May. 21 2008 03:14 PM
Mhari Sandoval from manhattan

Re: actresses/actors of the 30's, 40's having "british" accents. This was actually a "Mid-Atlantic" accent, somewhere between american and british, a transitional sound to create a uniformity between the american accents and the brits. It was still being taught as a standard way to do shakespeare plays into the 90's.,

May. 21 2008 01:55 PM
Theresa Anderson from larchmont

As an aussie living and working in New York I am a source of constant amusement and frequent confusion to my colleagues and volunteers...especially if I say I will give them a ring, am working flat out, need a loo break etc..I have now lived in Canada, Britain and the US and sorry to say think the average Brit or Canuck has a better ability to deal with hearing or reading different versions of the english language in Australia we call those flat round things in the middle of the intersection... silent cops

May. 21 2008 01:54 PM
Amy from Manhattan

And in the US, candidates run for office, whereas in the UK, they stand for office.

May. 21 2008 01:54 PM
Heather from Greenpoint

I find it amusing the way Brits say "She's in Hospital" or "I have to go to Hospital" and we'll say "she's in the hospital" or "I have to go to the hospital".

I asked my British friends why they don't say 'the' hospital and they couldn't say. We both thought it was a weird distinction.

May. 21 2008 01:53 PM
Rachel Kull from New Jersey

The British usage of "taking" a decision could come from European language influence (especially Spanish, maybe French?). In Spanish one "takes" a decision, and perhaps this has spilt over into UK language use.

May. 21 2008 01:53 PM
Cunning Linguist

The US usage of the word 'apartment' over flat was largely driven by real estate developers. In the 19th Century in New York, it was not considered respectable for middle class on up folks to live in flats. However, free-standing houses were becoming far too expensive, and changes in lifestyles (independent grown men and women living on their own in the city) made houses impractical.

Real estate developers decided to bring upscale apartment buildings to the market, especially near the park (e.g. The Dakota) and along what was then 'upper' Fifth Ave. These apartments had a substantial acceptability threshold to get over, so the brokers started marketing them as "French Flats" and finally "apartments". (The vogue for all things French was in full force in the US of A as well as England, particularly among New York's smart set). We can see the same tendency today with "atelier", "pied-a-terre", etc.

May. 21 2008 01:53 PM
hjs from 11211


: You are right. One makes a decision. The “take” version is seen a lot in the British Commonwealth, especially in India. But even British dictionaries seem to prefer “make a decision” over “take a decision.”

May. 21 2008 01:52 PM
Iver from east vill

This O'Connor calls herself a word maven (or at least WNYC does) and she isn't aware that Brits say "take a decision" instead of "make a decision"? I like O'Connor as a guest, but she needs to spend a little time watching Brit movies, TV, etc.

May. 21 2008 01:52 PM
Pam from Qns.

What's the British usage rule with respect to "thence?"

May. 21 2008 01:51 PM

Man to Boston cabbie at Logan:

"Do you know where I might get scrod?"


"Yes, but it's the first time I've ever heard it used in the pluperfect subjunctive."

May. 21 2008 01:51 PM
Helen from Manhattan

One meaning of "tissue" per Websters is "an interconnected series or mass: (as in)a tissue of falsehoods".

May. 21 2008 01:50 PM
chestinee from Midtown

French take a decision too

May. 21 2008 01:49 PM
Mike from NYC

I was raised outside of Syracuse, NY. Flat commonly referred to apartments there, but only if the apartment was an entire floor of a building, usually what had previously been a single-family multi-story dwelling that was now divided into one apartment one each foor. Occasionally, i hear this usage in NYC, where I've livedfor over 20 years.

May. 21 2008 01:49 PM
Paul from NJ

English here, never ever haerd anyone say "take a decision"!

May. 21 2008 01:49 PM
Paul from NYC

Nothing to do with British/English differences as it were, but the word "soccer" is short for "Association Football" - I understand that the press first shortened the phrase to "assoc". Then as we often do in English (Rugby became Rugger, for instance), an "er" was added and the phrase was further contorted to become "soccer".

May. 21 2008 01:48 PM
Lance from Manhattan

On aluminum vs aluminium

May. 21 2008 01:48 PM
tom from lic

How about the role of class divisions. When I lived in London just a few years ago class seemed to permeate social interactions. A public school there is what we call a private school. I worked at one and saw the upper class perpetuating itself. People immediately judge each others' class by their speech.

May. 21 2008 01:47 PM
al oof from brooklyn

i'm pretty sure the plague explanation for ring around the rosie (not london bridge is falling down) is incorrect. i think i read it on snopes.

but regarding britishizing french pronunciation. one thing that is crazy about english, is anglicizing things instead of translating. like baltimore was bailte more, which meant big mountain in irish. but instead of english using big mountain, they just made the phrase sound english. american english has done this with native american terms. this is why other cultures, people know what their names 'mean', but in english there are names and there are words and we think they are generally separated.

May. 21 2008 01:46 PM
Ben from Brooklyn

I recently studied abroad in Italy, and in a conversation in a British Pub (still in Italy) with some visiting Londoners I tried to figure out their word when they are talking about a stick on fire. "Torch" in Britain is actually a "flashlight" in the US. They insisted that what I called "torch" they would call "a burning branch."

Must all Brits be so poetic when they want to say torch?

May. 21 2008 01:46 PM
Andre from NYC

Can you comment on Kevin Costner's failure to use a British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Theives?

May. 21 2008 01:44 PM
Catherine sister-in-law of a Brit from Long Island, NY

Please let the listeners know that our "ashes, ashes" in London Bridges refers to the ashes of items that were burned dring the plageu in order to cleans them.

May. 21 2008 01:44 PM
jan from nyc

During the Falklands war, the first Gulf war and the 2nd, Americans heard BBC announcers or other British use expressions which were formerly seldom heard in American speech but afterwards became part of general conversation in the USA. "Tarmac" was used extensively in the coverage of the Falklands and now is used commonly instead of "runway", which we Americans used. When preparing for the current Iraq war we heard Tony Blair saying "at the end of the day" and "that being said," which no American would be heard saying, however, now it is common to hear these two expressions. At the moment, I can't recall what Britishism came into use during the first Gulf War.

May. 21 2008 01:43 PM
Rimma from NYC

Would LL please allow his guest to answer the questions? She's the expert. She's the reason we call in. We are glad he lived in Britan for a while--but he is not an expert in the English language and volunteering himself as such is getting annoying.

May. 21 2008 01:43 PM

Re: "Give it me" as a difference in use of prepositions.

This is actually a difference in word placement/sentence structure. We use the preposition in exactly the same way (ie, without the "to."

"Give the book to me"


"Give me the book."

May. 21 2008 01:43 PM
Kyle from Manhattan

A little background on a Ring Around the Rosie

May. 21 2008 01:43 PM
chestinee from Midtown

We grew up saying "johnny in the sugarbowl, we all fall down"

May. 21 2008 01:41 PM
Lynn from NYC

People in Appalachia sing Old English songs because they are descended from the English.

May. 21 2008 01:40 PM
stephanie from RIngwood NJ

Why don't Brits use 'the' for some phrases?
US - going to the hospital.
WE going to hospital.

May. 21 2008 01:40 PM

I've heard that the closest thing extant to Elizabethan pronunciation can be found on some relatively secluded islands off North Carolina.

MUCH more authentic to Shakespeare (tougher, richer, fiercer--"Oh, for a muse of fire!") than the much more refined, almost effete modern Brit accent we accept today as proper Shakespeare.

May. 21 2008 01:38 PM

Don't even get started on slang. Why is "pants" an adjective?

May. 21 2008 01:37 PM
Pam from Qns.

How about Britishizers who say during pledge drives, "WE CAN ONLY DO IT IF YOU'LL CONTRIBUTE" rather than, "We can do it only if you'll contribute"?

May. 21 2008 01:36 PM
Marta from Brooklyn Heights

Ring Around the Rosie, like many nursery rhymes, refers to historical events. This one dates from the Middle Ages and refers to the effects of the plague: The rosie is a marking (the pox) that appeared on one's skin, people carried posies of certains herbs or flowers to ward off the disease, (A)tishoo denotes sneezing fits and, alas, they all fell down (expired).

May. 21 2008 01:35 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Fortnight - I looked that up last month.
It means 2 weeks. (From 14 nights.)

May. 21 2008 01:34 PM
Mary from Manhattan

When I was growing up in Brooklyn (prior to
WWII), adults always referred to flats rather
than apartments. One could purchase signs to
place in windows which read "Flat to Let."

Also, platform signs on the BMT read Trains Stop in Centre of Platform (not Center).

May. 21 2008 01:34 PM
Helen from Manhattan

The British substitution of "Wurster sauce" for Worcestershire sauce is just so much easier to say. Any clue from whence it came?

May. 21 2008 01:32 PM
Chris from Brooklyn

Could you please discuss the difference in the meaning of "quite"? I once got in a real mess at an art opening when I told a British friend that her work was "quite good."

May. 21 2008 01:31 PM
Paul from NYC

1. A common ending for Ring Around a Rosie is "atishoo, atishoo, all fall down"

2. There's a very good book called "British English" by Norman W. Schur, out of print but available online from various places. It has about 5000 "Briticisms" and "Americanisms".

3. A fascinating (to me, anyway) British-English "reverse" is "windscreen" and "windshield". In the U.K., windscreen is the front window of your car (also known as the "front screen" in England) and windshield is a device that's placed over a microphone to reduce wind and breath noise. From the England to the US, the meanings of those two words are exactly reversed.

May. 21 2008 01:31 PM
Ash from Norwalk ,CT

Hi Leonard,
I love your show and it touches my life as a person from India living in CT. When I first came here to pursue my MAster's I had a tough time getting used to the difference between American & British english ...Now I work as a pharmacist , I come to find this no work like thrice in the American English Language is worded as three times a day. ... diarrhoea is spelled diarrhea . I don't mind the differences now I am used to it now but I am still made fun of my English when I direct my customers to the BOTTOM MOST ROW of the aisle . I am told it is the British phrase is it true ?
Thanks for your time

May. 21 2008 01:30 PM
Ned Visser from New City, NY

Aluminum vs aluminium

May. 21 2008 01:30 PM
Karen from Somers, NY

Fortnight is a contraction of 'fourteen nights'

May. 21 2008 01:30 PM
Repub101 from Manhattan

I think Sam spoke to this:

"And the crowd are going wild!!"

I always found this British usage so funny-sounding.

May. 21 2008 01:29 PM
Lance from Manhattan

A plug for Bill Bryson's terrific book, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.
It deals with a lot of these questions.

May. 21 2008 01:29 PM
Jeanne Heifetz from Brooklyn, NY

An American friend living in London heard the following on the morning news: "An articulated lorry has scissor-flipped on the motorway flyover. The fire brigade has been called out to suppress the blaze." American translation: "A tractor-trailer has jackknifed on the highway overpass. The fire department has been called to put out the fire."

May. 21 2008 01:28 PM
Julie from Washington Heights

My favorite British expression, used to mean "wake you up" is "knock you up." At a B and B, the proprietor asked what time tomorrow he should "knock me up."

May. 21 2008 01:28 PM
M.Stewart from CT

"Ring Around the Rosey"dates from the London Plague during the 17C- "t'shoo"means the contagious sneeze from a plague victim

May. 21 2008 01:28 PM
Ken from Soho

Why do the British use the term "fortnight" for a period of two weeks, and what is the derivation of this term?

May. 21 2008 01:27 PM
Sacha from Upstate NY

I'm Australian and we speak and spell British english.

We grew up saying "ah tissue! ah tissue!" like a sneeze. We were told it was about the black death (all fall down!)

I've been tempted to put an "e" on the end of Ax in my son's ABC book but we have started saying zee so that he can get through school without too much torment.


May. 21 2008 01:26 PM
Mary Jane McGuire from Florham Park , New Jersey

My understanding is that the ending of Ring around the Rosie in British English sounds like our 'tissue' but it represents the sound of sneezing. The nursery rhyme was telling about the plague and one symptom was sneezing...before the person fell over dead!

May. 21 2008 01:26 PM
al from queen

from wikipedia:
In the UK and other countries using British spelling, only aluminium is used. In the United States, the spelling aluminium is largely unknown, and the spelling aluminum predominates.[29][30] The Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefers aluminum, whereas the Australian Macquarie Dictionary prefers aluminium. The spelling in virtually all other languages is analogous to the -ium ending.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) adopted aluminium as the standard international name for the element in 1990, but three years later recognized aluminum as an acceptable variant. Hence their periodic table includes both, but places aluminium first.[31] IUPAC officially prefers the use of aluminium in its internal publications, although several IUPAC publications use the spelling aluminum.[32

May. 21 2008 01:26 PM
Christine Allen from Sea Bright New Jersey

Leonard just asked what Brits call Reynolds wrap. In my family, we've always called it tin foil.

May. 21 2008 01:26 PM
Peter from Brooklyn

Leonard and Pat,

The last name "St. John" is pronunced "Sin jin", why?

The times had an article on a british artist with the last name "St George" is that pronounced "Sin Geo" or not?

May. 21 2008 01:25 PM
natalie walshe

reynolds 9 or other types of aluminum wrap is known as "tin foil" in Britain.
Also " ring a ring of rosies, a pocket full of posies, a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down " is a rhyme about scarlet fever or some other illness - not sure which, getting sick, sneezing and dying, as far as I know.

May. 21 2008 01:25 PM
Ken from Soho

Purple and violet are TWO DIFFERENT COLORS. Purple is an additive mixture of red and blue, while violet is a pure color from the spectrum, the shortest visible wavelength before ultraviolet.

May. 21 2008 01:25 PM
terry from manhattan

regarding ring around the roses:
as a native new yorker who lived in england for 9 years i discovered this as well. the words they use in england are actually, "a-tissue a-tissue" which translates into American as "achoo achoo" for sneeze sounds. this is after all, a nursery rhyme about the plague. we all fall down means: we all fall down DEAD.
all true.

May. 21 2008 01:25 PM

Larry, the "for" in "forlorn" and "forsaken" seems to me like it comes from the German "ver-."

May. 21 2008 01:25 PM
Michael from Park Slope

Note the treatment of certain collective nouns as de facto singular when it comes to verb number. Example: Americans say "the government is...." but Brits say "the government are...."

"Presently" vs. "Shortly"
When something new is going to happen soon, my British friends say "I shall be coming over presently," whereas Yanks say "I will be coming over shortly."

May. 21 2008 01:24 PM
Nick from Manhattan

"Tissue, tissue, we all fall down" has nothing to do with Kleenex.

It is a word representing the sound of sneezing...because that nursery rhyme comes from the time of the plague in England, and the first symptoms of the plague were cold or flu-like symptoms that caused sneezing.

May. 21 2008 01:24 PM
Cunning Linguist

Lopate, let the lady talk! When people call in to ask about where the alu thing comes from, why would you be like "WHOAH WHOAH WHOAH I don't actually know anything about this but let me yammer on with my crackhead theory for a few minutes _while the expert is sitting right effing next to me_?"

Also, please tell the callers no one is "correct", British or English.

May. 21 2008 01:24 PM

May. 21 2008 01:23 PM
Paul from NJ

Re: Ring-O-Rosies: The word he's mis-saying is "Atishoo" as in a sneeze - the rhyme dates to the days of the bubonic plague - a sneeze was an unfortunate indication of the onset of this malady - also, the roses in the song are to ward off the stench of death - not such a pretty song when you get down to it!

May. 21 2008 01:23 PM
David from Brooklyn


May. 21 2008 01:23 PM

Re: "Ring around the rosy"
Yes, the Brits say something that sounds to us like "A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down."

But they spell it "Atishoo," and it is their equivalent of our "Achoo." It refers to sneezing.

May. 21 2008 01:23 PM
Karen from Somers, NY

We Brits say " Atishoo, atishoo we all fall down" Not tissue, tissue!

May. 21 2008 01:22 PM
Larry in Nyack from Nyack

Question and Comment
Q: What is the common source [if any] of the "FOR" in forlorn, Forsaken, etc.?

I found in my library video collection the 1970's PBS series about "The History of English" with Robin McNeil, which had a very intersting analysis of how various U.S. speech pronounciation differences developed from original English and Irish regions.

May. 21 2008 01:22 PM
Steve from Manhattan

Please ask her about the word "Fotheringay".

May. 21 2008 01:22 PM
Brian McManamon from Williamsburg

What about "gray" vs. "grey"?

May. 21 2008 01:19 PM
Rory Bernstein from Brooklyn, NY

why do the british say "ah-loo-MIN-ee-um" when we americans say "a-LOO-min-um". do they also spell it differently?

May. 21 2008 01:18 PM
Profiterole from NYC

When I was a kid my teacher was English. I still say/write "I've got..." instead of "I've gotten..." - never get used it.

May. 21 2008 01:16 PM
Chris from Brooklyn

The British retain French spellings, but why did they shift the pronunciation (i.e., herb, filet, etc.)? Yet the US has kept these pronunciation.

May. 21 2008 01:16 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Some of my friends from the West Indies & Guyana pronounce vegetable vej-eh-tuh-bl, whereas Americans tend to pronounce it VEJ-tuh-bl.

May. 21 2008 01:13 PM
John from Woodside

How about these:

SHED-YULE (schedule)
con TROV ersy (vs. CON troversy)

May. 21 2008 01:11 PM
Frank A. Ocwieja from Hartsdale, NY

Dear Ms. O'Connor,

Is the proper spelling of the contraction for until "till" or "til?" The first spelling seems to be more frequently used, although it looks like a contraction for "untill," which would mean to reverse the cultivation of something. Thanks.


May. 21 2008 01:09 PM
Sam from Stamford, CT

I'd love it if Ms. O'Connor could address the following, which has become a great pet peeve of mine:

The practice of *American* English speakers using the British convention of pluralizing verbs referring to organizations and groups:

"IBM Corp. have released their new models this week."

I can understand the Brits doing it this way, but I thought it was actually correct in American English to use the singular, unless referring to the actual members of the group:

"The employees of IBM Corp. went on strike today."

The former has always struck me as people trying to sound trendy.

May. 21 2008 01:07 PM
Avivah from Brooklyn

The etymology (for origins)and quotations (for usage through history) sections of the OED are very helpful in answering questions on unsage. No need to buy all twenty volumes or subscribe online: it's probably available at your local free or university library.

May. 21 2008 01:00 PM
Frank Lotz from Fort Lee New Jersey

My question is : Was the Britishism "flat" for apartment ever used to any great extent in the US.

I'm 66 and when young lived in a cold-water-flat in New Jersey. Everyone knew what it was and called it that.

May. 21 2008 12:54 PM
Neal from Port Washington

I always appreciated the different way the word 'controversy' is pronounced in the UK compared to the US. It almost becomes a different word.

May. 21 2008 12:51 PM
pnina from nyc

one discrepancy that always makes me think twice is the contrasting definitions of the word "nervy"
in american english it means full of nerve or chutzpah.
british friends seem to have used it as a synonym for anxious.

May. 21 2008 12:35 PM
Steve from Baldwin, Long Island

Being married to a Candian, I can say with confidence that British English still exists in Canada. Fading, but it's still there.

May. 21 2008 12:34 PM

PS, always liked the word "snog."

May. 21 2008 11:26 AM

Martin, I don't know. Do you talk with your mouth closed? Do you use rising intonation?

May. 21 2008 11:24 AM

I like queue. It seems so polite and civilized. Sure we queue in the bank, or post office, supermarket, etc. But, at bus stops, it's nuts! Everybody wants to be the first (and it's funny how the first person is the one who will hold everyone up while he/she fishes around for fare). Or, you'll be standing there waiting forever, and as soon as the bus pulls up, someone who just got there will try to be the first person on. So much discourtesy.

May. 21 2008 10:10 AM
Ron from Queens

I love the British expression cock-a-hoop. It just sounds so amusing and inspires visuals of people doing cartwheels and backflips. I've read it on occasion and heard my friend's dad use it once or twice.

May. 21 2008 01:21 AM
Martin from UES

being an Englishman (in NYC for 15 years now) but from just north of London (suffolk) I change my TH at the end of words into F maybe lazy, but maybe olde as Suffolk and Norfolk were originally the south folk and north folk, and why do all Americans still think I'm Australian ?

May. 21 2008 12:08 AM
Martin from UES

There are many, but the multiple
(brit) waistcoat= (us) vest
yet (brit) vest = (us) tank top
yet (brit) tank top=(us) sweater vest ?

May. 20 2008 11:41 PM
Dave Watkins from East Greenwich, RI

Well now i'm on a roll (but I can't think what the english equivalent of that phrase would be!)

Ketchup = Tomtatoe sauce
Whole wheat bread = Brown bread
Roll (bread) = Bun or Bap
Toilet tissue = Bog roll
Sausage = Banger
Zucchini = Courgette (is there no "English" word?
Egg plant = Aubergine
Liquor store = Off Licence (the "offy")
Hardware store = Ironmongers
Car's Hood = Bonnet
Car's Trunk = Boot
Windshield = Windscreen
License plate = Registration plate
Gas = Petrol
Subay = underground or tube
Cross-walk that passes under the street = Subway
Cross-walk = Pellican crossing (with light signals) or Zebra crossing (without lights)
Rotary/Traffic circle = Roundabout
Suspenders (alternative to belt) = Braces
Garters (pre-pantyhose) = Suspenders
Soccer = Football
Football = American Football
Racket ball = Squash

I love your show, keep up the good work

Tata (farewell)

May. 20 2008 09:05 PM
Dave Watkins from East Greenwich, RI

I'm a brit but have lived in US for 24 years. My (Native New Yorker) wife and I have spent many happy hours teasing each other on this topic. Here are some of my favorites (in addition to those above)

Sod: US = Grass/turf; UK = vulgar word to describe someone you don't like (derived from sodomy). I love the sign "Keep off Sod"

Muffler: US = car exhaust part; UK = scarf worn around neck in winter. It took me months to figure out what Mineke was tyring to sell me.

Fag: US = derogatory term for gay; UK = cigarette. I once shoked a room full by saying "I'm going out for a quick fag"

Pudding: US = custard-like dessert; UK = any dessert in general - this has caused me some difficulty as i don't like the US version.

May. 20 2008 08:45 PM
sandy from Newport Beach, CA

I like how the Brits say "toilets" for public facilities vs. our prudish American "bathroom" or "restrooms".

May. 20 2008 07:16 PM
james d from brooklyn

while I'm "on about" it (talking about it)

English American
aluminium -- aluminum
nappy -- diaper
jam -- jelly
jelly -- jello
pavement -- sidewalk
tarmac -- blacktop
road -- street
Beer -- watery cold yellow liquid

May. 20 2008 02:40 PM
james d from brooklyn

in answer to Steve S
Blimy (sic) is spelled blimey, and is derived the phrase "Cor Blimey", which is the literal transcription of the cockney pronunciation of the phrase "God Blind Me". A similar phrase in American English might be, "Blow me down".

May. 20 2008 02:31 PM
james d from brooklyn

I am a british writer living in Brooklyn ( I have even written for WNYC!)
I use the word rubbish -- to mean not very good, all the time and am often stared at quizzically by Americans who don't understand the usage.
Also I am forever asking for a "bit" of cake, or a "bit" of bread, which is met with equal confusion.
Usage is one thing, but accent is quite another. When I first moved here seven years ago I couldn't get a glass of water in a restaurant because of my insistence on pronouncing the letter "t". Even now it pains me to have to say "wahdurh" in order to quench my thirst.

May. 20 2008 02:29 PM
Steve S from Great Kills, Staten Island

excuse me (US) vs. pardon (Eng)

we can damn (or something worse) vs. they say "blimy"...what is a blimy?

bathroom vs. loo (that's a particularly irritating one)

May. 20 2008 02:17 PM
chestinee from Midtown

Ted I think it is a sign of respect for other languages (lacking in Britain) that we pronounce "pasta" and "nam" - that is how I was raised in a well educated family half a century ago. Maybe we as a nation of immigrants are closer to those "ah" sounds in words from other languages.

May. 20 2008 12:49 PM
Judy Arginteanu from Minneapolis

Fave Britishisms from an American:

1) "One-off": perfect and pithy; a great little phrase.

2) "Throwing a sickie" -- calling in sick to work when you're really not. It's such a light-hearted, funny way to put it, it takes all the guilt out of it.

3) On a recent trip to London, saw a road/traffic sign that said "Changed priorities ahead." Couldn't figure out what the heck it meant, but loved its wide-ranging philosophical implications! (For the record, the Londoner sitting next to me on the bus didn't have the slightest idea what it meant either.)

May. 20 2008 12:16 PM
Linda from Sunnyside Queens

The British use of aluminium always makes me laugh.

Also, growing up in Chicago, buildings holding more than one apartment are called 2-flats, 3-flats, 6-flats, although we still call the individual units "apartments". When I moved to NYC people thought it was hilarious that I used a Britishism to describe these properties.

May. 20 2008 12:15 PM
Steve Mark from NYC

There are so many but my favorite was when I told an airport taxi wrangler how pissed I was that it was raining and there wasn't a taxi in sight. "Well, then it's bloody well convenient you can sober up in the fresh air." I found out later pissed meant 'drunk' in England.

One other that has no US counterpart, is 'dirty weekend,' a short holiday with a paramour presuming lots of illicit fun.

May. 20 2008 11:06 AM
Rodders from Long Island

I prefer the American pronunciation of SCHEDULE ie. skedule, to the English pronunciation ie. shedule.

And there'a an American expression that still has awkwardness for me, and that's used when ordering a coffee at Starbucks for example: 'CAN I GET A....whatever it is..' sounds like one is asking to go fetch it oneself..! 'CAN I HAVE A...whatever..' would be preferable.

May. 20 2008 09:38 AM
Ted Kavanagh from Pelham

Not sure if this is really a Britishism vs an Americanism, but what's happened (here) to the Flat A in words from many other languages? You are much more likely, in the UK, to hear "pasta" and not "p(ah)sta". I don't know how often I cringe at "L(ah) Boheme". And when did Viet Nam become Viet N(ah)m?

Is this just creeping laziness...i.e., it takes a tad more effort to make that Flat A than it does to say "ah"? Or is it creeping snootiness??

Que p(ah)s(ah)??

May. 20 2008 07:53 AM
Edward Yee from Queens NY

I loved the way Americans and the English differ in the way they pronounce the word "methane" (the hydrocarbon gas).

May. 19 2008 10:29 PM
Deniz from Switzerland

Could Ms. O'Connor address the fact that many American English words are actually older than their British counterparts because of the settlers in the 17th century that brought those words with them?

I think an example of this is "trash" or "garbage", one of which is actually older than the British "rubbish".

I'm an English teacher in Europe so I like to remind my British co-workers of this whenever they insist that what I speak isn't English but American. :)

Also, it seems as though the British use the present perfect more than Americans.
For example:
I've just eaten. (British)
I just ate. (American)
Am I just imagining a difference or is there really one?


May. 19 2008 06:10 PM
Rodders from Long Island

I'm from the UK living in NY for 5 years now. Whilst attending a course in the city I made the mistake of asking a fellow student in the class if I could borrow a 'rubber' , which I needed to erase some words I had written in pencil.... A rubber in the UK refers to an erasor. There are numerous words in the UK that refer to those other things made of rubber...

May. 19 2008 05:59 PM
Peter from Red Bank

A favorite of mine is the near polar opposite meaning of the expression “table a motion.”

In American usage, it means to suspend consideration of a motion.
In British usage, it means to begin discussion of a motion.

As I remember, the British and American negotiating teams at an arms-reduction conference held, I believe, in Geneva, spent the better part of a morning arguing whether or not to table a motion.

American side: “Why would you want to table it? It expresses views we agree on.’

British side: “That’s precisely why we want to table it.”

Puzzled looks all around.

May. 19 2008 04:03 PM
Ashley from NYC

They have so many good words to express terms in England that they don't have here. For instance:

Smart means to to be dressed nicely or professionally--as opposed to casual clothes.

To Pull means to take a girl/guy back to your place to make out. Similarly, to Be On the Pull means to be out on the town with the goal of finding someone to bring home to snog or shag

May. 19 2008 03:27 PM
pamela from Manhattan

I was born in England, long ago transplanted to New York. I just sent an email to an English friend and closed it wiith "Best love, Pamela." I just realized, in the context of the announcement of your show earlier, that to an American friend a similar expression of affection would have been "Fondly."

May. 19 2008 02:59 PM
Sarah from Brooklyn

Also, while in London, I worked in a clothing store, so there was confusion when I told a customer that her pants looked good on her. She thought I was commenting on her underwear! In the UK, pants are always underwear; what we call pants, they call trousers.

May. 19 2008 01:49 PM
Sarah from Brooklyn

While working in London, I was telling my English colleague about how good peanut butter & jelly sandwiches are, and how they're a staple meal during the American childhood. She came in a few days later telling me she made it at home, and it was awful & disgusting, & she couldn't believe Americans love it so much! After some questioning, it turns out she used JELLO to make her PB&J! In the UK, "jelly" refers to what we call "JELL-O."

May. 19 2008 01:42 PM
Catherine Angus from Montclair NJ

On a recent trip to Spain, my British sister-in-law's driving directions made note of a "sleeping policeman". So, I was on the look out for state troopers hiding in the medians, while my 4-year old was looking for police sleeping on benches! It wasn't until I asked later that I learned a sleeping policeman was a simple speed bump!

May. 19 2008 01:34 PM

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