You Are At: AllSands Home > History > You say tomato i say tomahto: British and American English
A fortnight ago there was a teribble argy-bargy outside the block of flats when the lad found a drawing pin in his ice lolly. What? Oh, I meant two weeks ago, there was a big argument outside of the apartment houses when the boy found a thumb tack in his lollypop.

It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn, as illustrated above, that British and American English, while sharing core traits, are by no means identical, or as the old saw puts it--two nations divided by the same language. Those that have traveled across the Atlantic have had, no doubt, that observation made concrete as they strained to understand a conversation in English which somehow seemed to be rendered in a foreign tongue.

Grammar differences are the tiniest part of British-American variation. For example, every American's ear rankles when he hears a Britisher say something like "the football team have departed for Edinburgh," where Americans would treat team as a singular and say the team has departed.

Spelling differences are noticeable, but still only the tip of the language difference iceberg. Many of these spelling variations date back to Noah Webster's determination not to kowtow to British standards in spelling, which he regarded as needlessly complex. Thus, since Webster's early Nineteenth Century dictionary, Americans have spelled differently from their trans-Atlantic cousins. For instance, in England its tyre, honour, aluminium, waggon, and centre among others.

Word variations lie at a deeper level of difference. Take automotive terms, for instance, what Americans call a battery, the British call an "accumulator." An American wrench is a British "spanner." We call it a truck; they call it a "lorry." We drive on a highway; they motor down the left side of a "dual carriageway." For us it's a sedan; for them it's a "saloon car." We call it a windshield; they call it a "windscreen."

Then there's the question of what to eat. Americans nibble on sausage; the British call it "bangers." They call it "bubble and squeak"; we'd call it cabbage and potatoes. We call it ham; they call it "gammon." Our sardines are their "pilchard." Their "marrow" is our squash.

Furthermore, an American party demands potato chips; in England it's "crisps." We're happy when we have cookies; the British prefer "biscuits." Potential problem there--Britisher puzzled over eating biscuits and gravy. What the English call "courzette," Americans call zucchini. An American dessert is for a Brit his "afters." And what Americans call molasses; the British call "treacle," hence one of their desserts--a treacle roly-poly.

However, the list of vocabulary differences is significantly longer than the preceding. Slang differences abound. English streets have "sleeping policemen"; we call them speedbumps. The Englishman carries a "brolly" where the American takes an umbrella. When John Bull is "pissed," he's not angry, he's drunk. When he's "knackered," he's exhausted, and when he's "spot on," he doesn't need a drycleaner, he's right on target.
In a British "public"(what we call private) school, one may have information dinned into him, particularly if he's a little "daft" (crazy) or "dotty" (mildly disturbed). That same school room in England may be warmed by an "electric fire" (space heater) and it may be a long way to the "loo" or water closet (bathroom or lavatory). In England unlike America when a measure is "tabled," it's not disregarded, it's brought to a vote. A British "jumble sale" is an American garage sale. "Hire purchase" is the British term for buying on credit. And the American middle of nowhere is the British "back of beyond."

When it comes to sex, one has to watch out trans-Atlantically, too. An English girl who has been "knocked up" is not pregnant; she's had someone call and wake her up in the morning. A "rubber" in England is not a condom, but rather an eraser. An American "fanny" is located more forward on a British woman, and sex in a "caravan" for a Brit does not involve camels. A British "caravan" is an American motor home.

Going to work in England is different, too. The British aren't content with one type of lawyer. They have "solicitors" who do the paper work and also "barristers" who do the actual trial work. An "ironmonger" in England deals with what Americans call hardware. A British "chemist" is an American pharmacist. A "busker" in England is what Americans call a street performer.

The list of differences does not stop there. In America it's plastic wrap; in England it's "clingfilm." "Suspenders" are male appurtenances in the U.S., but hold up a British woman's hose. A play that "bombs" in the U.S. will soon disappear from sight while in England a bomb is a huge success. What we Americans call the second floor, the British and the French, too, call the first floor.

This, of course, is not a complete list of vocabulary differences, but only a suggestion as to where variations lie. What factors explain these variant terms? No doubt, sheer separation as a result of 2,000 miles of water had something to do with American English going off in its own direction, but the American experience was a further factor leading to divergence. After all, there were no native Americans in England to enrich their vocabulary with words like "tomahawk," "teepee," "wickiup," etc. Furthermore, America's rich immigrant stream brought a host of words into the American language, everything from German "gesundheit" and "sauerkraut" to African "goober," "gumbo," and "voodoo," and Spanish "hacienda," "chigger," "calaboose," and "sombrero."

And then there's the vast subject of pronunciation differences. We all know they exist, but cataloging them is a job for a young Henry Higgins. The main thing to remember here is that spoken British English, probably even more so than American English is a compilation of regional and class dialects, none of which sound identical. However, for an American ear the one most unusual British pronunciation is the sh sound in "schedule," though the scrunched, letter dropping of words like "Worcestershire" (Woostashir) and "Chomondoley" (Chumley) strike the ear as strange too. However, the supposed dropped h of British English is a myth inasmuch as it is only part of a lower-class London pronunciation variant known as Cockney.

And finally here's an exit exam on British English. If you can successfully identify all these, go to the head of the class. Answers below.

1. How much money is a quid?
2. What's the function of a nappy?
3. Is British paraffin edible?
4. What's a whinging child?
5. Where do yobs hang around?

1 A quid is a pound, thus currently worth around $1.80 American
2 A nappy is a diaper.
3 Not edible like in America. British paraffin is kerosene.
4 Whinging people whine.
5 Yobs hang around pool halls. They're hooligans.