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Language differences – examples of different meaning of terms and phrases used in American English and British English.


When I started these pages I
had no idea just how much interest they would evoke. I do have quite a
back-log of information awaiting publication but I am having difficulty
finding a way to present it in both and entertaining and yet usable
format.  In the meantime, I have just received the following from a

Bun– Really, this usually refers to particular kinds of bread,
based mainly upon shape and consistency, and which always seems to come
in some form smaller than a typical loaf.  It implies a size
intended to be eaten completely in a single meal.  Oftentimes it is
intended as just enough to make a single sandwich of some kind, and
there are particular kinds for certain kinds of sandwiches, such as hot
dog or hamburger buns (although strictly speaking, people almost never
refer to these popular meals as sandwiches, even though that is what in
effect they are). 

burger in bun

Of course, as others have pointed out, the word
is also applied to particular sweet confections as well.  We
also use the word “roll” to describe small bread buns served
with dinner or a more formal lunch.  (And speaking of which, most
people say “dinner” when what they are talking about is
“supper,” with the only exception you normally hear being
Thanksgiving (a Thursday in late November) or Christmas dinner, which
are typically served during in the afternoon.  When my father
was a boy Italian families also habitually had such a dinner weekly on
Sunday afternoons, but I don’t know to what extent the custom has been

Biscuit- In America this is a
particular class of bread (like buns or rolls) eaten with meals, including
breakfast. It is not a pastry, as reported on the web page.
It is associated with less formal dining than dinner rolls, but
nonetheless may put in an appearance at Thanksgiving.  As such, it is
never sweet, except to the extent one puts jam or jelly on it at
breakfast.  Usually, people just use butter, as they would with other
kinds of bread rolls.  Incidentally, when people use the word
“butter” here, they are normally using margarine, not real
butter.  Relatively few people still seem to use real butter
(although when I was in the Navy, we always had real butter, because of
the influence of the Washington politicians coming from those states where
the dairy industry was important.)  Also, sometimes very small
sandwiches are made with biscuits, generally as a breakfast food. 
Finally, what the British call a biscuit we call a cookie

Bottom/bum– There are a host of synonyms for that
particular part of the anatomy (some of them regional) although, sadly,
most you don’t hear very much anymore.  The choice of which to use
was and remains generally dependent upon the context, including how
delicate the speaker wished to be in discussing this arguably sensitive
physical feature. 

Here’s a list:  butt, bottom, behind, booty (only
about 20 or 30 years old, at most), buns (also dates from the 1970’s, and
adopted because of it’s resemblance to some of the previously-mentioned
bread products), fanny, derierre, keister, carcass, can, posterior, rear
end, rear, tusche, tuchas (from the Yiddish),  “Ass” was
always regarded as vulgar and rude (essentially, it is treated as a
swear-word, except on television nowadays, where they are constantly
trying to be “edgy”on theory that it attracts viewers).
“Butt” was also considered somewhat crass but not as bad so
that it could be employed as a euphemism for “ass” in
situations where swearing was prohibited but where the crass
connotation was desired – for example, on television or in the movies
before swearing became prevalent there, and where the producers were
trying to simulate an environment where one would expect swearing to be
employed, such as in military, crime, or sports contexts. 

like can, carcass, and keister were similarly used. We have also pretty
much adopted “bum” as more polite word for the sitting down
place, though you don’t hear it used very often.  “Buns” is
(or was, anyway) not infrequently used by women when admiring the same on
a male. 

flagstaff/flagpole.  Flagstaff is more of a
military or naval term.  I can’t think when I have ever heard it used
in a purely civilian context, apart from the name of the city in Arizona.

shoestring/laces, or
“shoestring” only seems to be used to describe something
tenuous, generally some operation or task being carried out in spite of an
acute shortage of the usual resources needed to do it.

silhouette of Charlie Chaplin and lady

cinema/movie theater  When most Americans go
out to see a movie at a movie theater, they just say they are “going
to the movies”, or “going to go see a movie”, and then
they employ the word “theater” to describe the particular
location they are going to. For example —  Him:  “Let’s go
to the movies. I want to see Indiana Jones.”  Her:
“I want to go see a movie, too. What theater is it playing

If, on the other hand, we say we are “going to the theater,” that means a live stage performance.

As for movie and
, we use both
words, but movie is much more common, “film” generally being
reserved for situations where you are engaging in a serious discussion of
a movie.

toilet– there are a lot of expressions for this. First,
the word “toilet” can refer to either the receptacle itself or
the facility generally where it is located, though the way most people use
the word is to indicate the receptacle only. 

As for the receptacle itself,
on an architectural plan you will see it identified by the initials W.C.,
for water closet, but you won’t hear it anywhere else. This refers to
the commode (the plumber’s term), itself, not the room containing it.
Similarly, only architects typically use the term “lavatory,” to
denote a room containing a W.C. and a sink, but no bath.  Most Americans
refer to the same as “the bathroom”, whether it has a bath
or not.  

We also commonly, though not exclusively, say “restroom”,
if it is in a place other than a home or its equivalent, such as a
hospital room or hotel room (unless a visitor feels
uncomfortable and is trying to be too polite).  Restroom can be
further changed into “men’s room” and “ladies’
room” and occasionally you might still hear someone say “the
gents'” in reference to the fact that men’s room doors used to often
have a sign on them that said “Gentlemen.” 

Some places will use
the term “powder room;” once upon a time, when people dressed
more formally for dinner, the ladies’ room at a posh restaurant might
go by that name.  On architectural plans for residences you
may also see that term used in place of “lavatory” as
discussed above, for the same reason that they may denominate the covered
place where you park your car as a “porte coche” instead of
a “carport.”  And as previously noted, sometimes
because we sometimes teach children to say “little girls room”,
or “little boys room,” in joking, teenagers or adults might
say “I’ve just got to hit the little boys room real fast.”  If
you are trying to be cute, this can be further permutated into all sorts
of other expressions; when I was 18 and had just returned from my first
submarine patrol with the United States Naval Reserve, I would tell my
girlfriend I needed to use the “little submariners’ room.” 
Another expression people teach young children is “potty,” and I
once had a very dainty blonde girlfriend who still used that expression in
an effort to be delicate when she was in her mid-thirties. 
Occasionally you might hear someone simply asking for the

The term “can” is a cruder expression that was
used pretty much exclusively by men, though you don’t here it much
anymore. In military circles, the Navy and Marines Corps still use
“head” aboard ship or on base while the army uses
“latrine” (I don’t know what the Marines call it in the
field or what Air Force calls it anyplace, but not being very impressed
with that branch I would be willing to bet on “potty”). On
submarines we used to call the commodes themselves by the delicately
endearing term, “shitters.”

trousers/pants– You almost never hear the term
trousers used in the U.S. anymore, except possibly on occasion in a men’s
wear specialty store.  You also used to hear the word
“slacks” to identify at least some long pants not part of a
suit, but it seems to have gone out of fashion. Basically, for long
pants we just say “pants.”  As a previous writer noted,
some kinds of pants are indicated simply by talking about the type, such
as jeans or khakis.  When these terms are used it is assumed that
long pants are intended.  For short pants we simply say
“shorts,” or “jeans shorts,” “khaki shorts,”
etc.  We also have “cuttoffs,” which describes shorts
which have the appearance of having been made by truncating a pair of long
pants without bothering to hem the legs, so that they are left with a
ragged appearance.  Almost always those are made from jeans.

side walk/pavement
others, I can’t think where I’ve ever heard anyone call the sidewalk
anything but, unless it was when I was very young and I just don’t
remember anymore.

chipsWhat the British would call
“chips” we would call “fries,” or “French
fries.”  We also have them in more than one shape, a long,
skinny type being the most common.  We use the term “chips”
to describe very thin, crispy sort of wafers made from very, very thinly
sliced potatoes, corn meal, or sometimes other things which imaginative
processed food manufacturers can come up with.

bag of chips

In the UK these “crispy
wafers” are called “crisps”.

ground floor/first floor– In the States we
normally use these two terms synonymously.  Occasionally you’ll see an
office building or similar large structure where for some reason (usually
entrances at different levels) the architect denominated both a ground
floor and a first floor above that, which usually causes confusion
until you are made aware of it and get used to it.

taxi cabWhen I was a
little kid I used to call these by both names – “taxi-cab.” 
Nowadays pretty much everybody I know calls them just cabs, yet the word
taxi is hardly extinct, and shows up other places implying door-to-door
delivery, such as “take-out taxi” to describe the delivery of
meals to your door.

shops and stores  – In the U.S. people
normally say “store” where it seems the British more
commonly use “shop.”   When we use “shop” in
reference to retail it is usually for particular kinds of generally small
specialty store, such as gift shops, greeting card shops, optical shops,
or a tailor’s shop.  In this regard, the word is more typically
associated with a place where work is done, rather than just merchandise
being sold, so that you get various repair shops (mechanic’s,
auto/car repair, auto body, brakes, mufflers, shoes, televisions, computer
repair, clocks & watches, etc.). 

You also still some people
describe a vehicle being repaired as “in the shop” (although you
could just as easily hear them say that it is “at the mechanic,
” “at the dealer” (where the dealership which sells such
cars also has a “service department” to repair them) or even
“at the garage” (which is another name for a
car repair shop, as well as a room in which to park your car) as well as
of course, “at Joe’s [Fred’s, Dave’s, Ray’s, Auto Doc, etc.]”  

The word “shop” is also used sometimes to describe repair or
maintenance facilities within businesses, and it used to be a slang term
in the Navy for certain support facilities aboard ship. 

People will
also sometimes have places in their homes to pursue their hobbies which
might be referred to as workshops, woodworking shops, and the like. 
The term workshop is also widely used in business or professional circles
to describe a seminar of some kind.

estate agent– is called a
or real
estate agent

We say jam just as much as we say
jelly (and
we also have marmalade, too)

Garden/yard – The part of one’s home the
British refer to as “the garden Americans call
“the yard.”  When Americans use the word
garden, it is in reference to a particular place (often within a
yard) dedicated to growing vegetables or flowers.

cartoon glass of beer

Pub isn’t uncommon in the names of bars here, because
among certain things British that appeal to many Americans our
understanding of the concept of the pub is one.  However, such
establishments generally don’t operate like a classic British pub. 
The notion of an American bar that closes at 10 or 11 p.m.*** (2200 or 2300)
is laughable most places (other than in hotels or airports).  It is
also unlikely that the whole family would go or that you would see
children in one (on the other hand, there are innumerable restaurants which
feature a bar prominently as part of the amenities and they cater
especially to families as well others). 

***  Licensing hours have
changed in the UK;  Pubs and bars can now apply to stay open 24/7.

Moreover, we don’t say we are
going to the pub.  More likely we would say that we are “going
out,” or “going out for drinks” (or “going out
for a drink,” though this usage is probably passe) or that we were
going to a particular bar, i.e., “I’m going to the Richmond Arms
(Black Lab, Boar’s Head, Baker Street Pub, Gingerman, Earnie’s, The
Aquarium, Fuzzy’s etc.).  If we are going out to a dance club rather
than just a bar, we’d say we were going out to a club.

Pram  We call this a “baby
carriage” or, in it’s more modern form, a “stroller”.

Roundabout this must go by more
than one name in the States, depending on where you are.  Everyplace
I have ever seen them (including Camp Lejuene, North Carolina and Houston,
Texas) they were called traffic circles.

Car terminologyWhat the British
call the hood on a convertible car we call
the “top.”  We then use the word “boot
to name the little cover that goes over the top when it is down.  

have heard that the British now use the term “truck” in addition
(if not actually in preference to) “lorry”.

Solicitors in the US are people who come door to
door to sell things (nowadays primarily to businesses, rather than homes),
or call you on the telephone, and there are tons of people with stores
that say “no solicitors” on the fronts.  Lawyers in America
are called either lawyers or attorneys, with the terms being 100%
synonymous.  We do not have nor draw any distinction between
solicitors and barristers.  This is notwithstanding the fact that for
some reason there is a position in the federal government in Washington
called the Solicitor General, which is a different position from the
Attorney General.

gravy is a brown sauce made from meat used on
turkey (and mashed potatoes and chicken-fried steak and various other
things), but many Italian-Americans still refer to gravy as tomato sauce,
and all the generations after them still use it.

Resume/ CV   In my experience as a
lawyer, physicians, scientists, some engineers, and similar professionals
may have CV’s.  Most people, including lawyers, do not.

Contributor – C. A. Palumbo –
A 47-year-old male who
has lived in various parts of the United States ranging from California to
Florida to Virginia to Texas with a very wide ranging vocabulary.

As I
mentioned above, this subject has created a great deal of interest and input
from visitors.  For ease of use these have been split into several
different pages including:-

Differences between Australian/American
and British terms

words but different meaning

a chart listing some of the
differences between the more commonly used
British/American words and phrases

a second list of words
and phrases which have different meanings

Then there are all the
suggestions of language differences, language
differences (2)
and Language differences (3)
which have been sent in by visitors which are shown on two more pages.