10 socially-awkward differences between British and American English
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10 socially-awkward differences between British and American English

So, you speak English! You must be great at having a good bit of cockney banter with Londoners- or maybe you prefer to chat with Australians over some cold neck oil? Do you have a blast when speaking with Americans, or does it make you feel a little antsy? Or do none of the above apply, and instead leave you scrabbling for your search engines? Don’t worry! Your IELTS tuition hasn’t failed you; you’ve simply learned the ultimate ninja language, which has many forms and sneaky nuances.

There are currently more than one billion people learning English across the world- and it is predicted that this number will have doubled by 2020. But do they all speak the same English? As has already been shown, this complex language has many guises, and pops up in a perplexing number of accents and dialects. British English speakers may not understand much of what is said by their Australian friends. Glaswegians probably wouldn’t know where to start if offered a double-double by a Canadian- and most haven’t even started to get their heads around Singlish.

One of the most common and confusing linguistic battles encountered by English language learners is that of ‘British English vs. American English’.  To help international students avoid most (we can’t promise ‘all’; Freshers’ Week behaviour is beyond our control) embarrassing or socially awkward scenarios, we’ve translated ten words that mean different things to Brits and Americans. Here goes…

1. Biscuit

Brits dunk their biscuits; Americans, despite the industrial size of their coffee mugs (hey, perhaps that’s why they’re so large), do not. UK biscuits are round, crunchy, flat(ish) and sweet- cookies, if you will. In America, biscuits are soft, flour-based baked goods that are generally served with savoury meals. Asking someone to pour gravy over your biscuit in London may well be met with confusion.

2. Pants

In America, pants are recognised as lower-body outerwear- trousers, if you will. UK residents hear ‘pants’ and think of ‘underpants’. Americans, if you choose to make comments such as ‘Hey, your girlfriend’s pants are amazing’ to British friends who are larger and stronger than you, be prepared to face the consequences. You have been warned.

3. Bin

No UK resident will ever understand the capacity of this word to cause strife, isolation and general havoc until they a) go abroad, b) help a US student to clear out their university room by following their instruction to ‘put all of that stuff into bins’ and, consequently, c) lose a friend because they threw all of the other person’s belongings away. In America, a bin is a storage container for things you wish to keep; in the UK, a bin is a rubbish receptacle. Remember this if ever listening to a friend’s account of helping their grandmother to spring clean by ‘putting all of her belongings in the bin’.

4. Chips

Americans are often perplexed by the fact that one of the most famous dishes in the UK is ‘fish and chips’. This is not because they cannot understand the beauty of battered fish accompanied by bits of crispy-on-the-outside-and-fluffy-on-the-inside potato, but because they think the Brits mean crisps. While many Brits are unlikely to complain about being offered battered cod and a packet of crisps, Americans may be met with confusion if they ask for salt, vinegar and ketchup on their portion.

5. Ground floor vs. first floor

To avoid getting lost and extremely confused on your first day at your faculty or department, it is worth being aware that the ‘first floor’ in America is the same as the ‘ground floor’ in the UK. Americans, it seems, are more literal about how many floors physically exist (i.e. this is the first of all of the floors); the British, true to form, feel the need to use an entirely different word to emphasis the fact that the floor is, in fact, on the ground.

6. Rubber

This is a mistake to make once and really, truly, never again. In the UK, a rubber is an eraser: innocent, suitable for children and found on the ends of pencils. In the US, please do not offer rubbers to children. Parents will complain and possibly argue for your arrest. Why? Because a rubber is a condom. Sad but true.

7. Chaps

While in the UK, have you ever heard someone exclaim, ‘I say, chaps!’ and thought it strange that they might have spotted some stray seatless leather riding trousers at that particular moment? Fear not; while the UK has its quirks, the level of insanity has not risen quite that high. When the British say ‘chaps’, they mean ‘guys’, ‘girls’, or simply ‘people’, rather than the shortened version of the North American term ‘chaparajos’, which refers to a garment worn over normal trousers by cowboys to protect their legs while riding. See, that seemingly insane friend was, in fact, just ‘being British’.

8. Cider

To avoid the possibility of new UK friends seeking outside help to combat your shameless alcoholism, don’t tell them that you ‘love to drink cider with breakfast’. US citizens understand cider to be a non-alcoholic drink made from apples- apple juice, if you will- which is seasonal and most popular in autumn. In the UK, cider is an alcoholic drink made from fermented apples which is popular throughout every season and definitely not an acceptable form of mid-lecture hydration.

9. Trolley

Americans, take heed: if a British friend suggests that you should ‘go for a ride in a trolley’, they do not mean the tram or bus-like mode of transport used in America and have a strange idea of what is socially acceptable. You mean a wheeled carriage which runs along tracks and is attached to an overhead wire; they mean a wheeled, mesh cart which is used for transporting shopping items. While it cannot be denied that ‘boarding’ a shopping trolley is physically possible, it is certainly not advisable and is likely to be held against you by tutors, the general public and, in extreme cases, the police.

10. Fancy dress

Did an American friend just invite you to a party which they described as being ‘fancy dress’? Stop. Return your Jack Sparrow costume to the bin (yes, bin) from whence it came.  In America, fancy dress means, quite literally, dressing in fancy clothes in an attempt to raise levels of attractiveness. In the UK, fancy dress has a great deal to do with making yourself look like a carrot, a cowgirl, a cat or a cavemen (disclaimer: these are not the only costumes available in the UK) and has little or nothing to do with being attractive. If ever your tutor mentions a formal social event and mentions fancy dress, think back on this article before dashing out to buy a cowboy hat. You’ll thank us later.

Read on to discover leading institutions that offer world-class English language tuition.

A world leader in the sphere of higher education, Southern Illinois University (SIU) is a state university in the USA, with its flagship campus in Carbondale, Illinois. SIU has been in operation since 1869, and has since been named one of the best universities in the Midwestern US by The Princeton Review. Given its reputation for high-quality research, small class sizes and high value for money, SIU is a leading choice for international students keen to pursue undergraduate or graduate study in the USA. Read the full profile.

One of the UK’s leading further education institutions, Harrow College offers a comprehensive selection of full-time courses aimed at international students planning to continue their studies in the UK. The largest institution of its kind in the London borough of Harrow, the College is located a mere 10 miles outside of central London. Each year, Harrow College welcomes a thriving community of 3,000 full-time learners across each of its programmes. Read the full profile.

At Berlitz Language Schools, each student is treated as an individual. Consequently, all course options are designed and tailored to the specific needs and professional goals of the individual rather than to a predetermined template. Courses offered at Berlitz are aligned to consistently high academic standards; all classes are held in a relaxed, stimulating learning environment. Those enrolled not only have the opportunity to excel academically; there are also numerous chances to enjoy social excursions and improve English language skills while forming lifelong friendships. Read the full profile.

A world-class provider of English language tuition, Richard Language College is one of the longest established private language schools in the UK. Students of all ages and from all walks of life choose this institution for its innovative approach, experienced staff body and dedication to achieving excellence. In addition to the College’s proven record of high-quality language instruction, students also benefit from a broad spectrum of courses that can be tailored to suit virtually any level of expertise. Read the full profile.

Kennesaw State University (KSU) is a public comprehensive institution situated at the heart of the beautiful region of Kennesaw, Georgia. Home to around 25,000 students from 130 countries, Kennesaw is the third largest university in the state and offers a total of 90 bachelors, masters and doctoral degree programs across its nine colleges. The University’s unique programs for new and transferring students are steadily garnering plaudits for excellence; in fact, KSU’s first year seminar program is consistently ranked by US News as one of the best in the country.

The Academic Student Centre English in Boston is a unique, world-class Language School that prepares international students for further study and careers which require advanced English language expertise. The School hosts a dedicated staff body, each member of which has students’ interests at heart and a strong understanding of learner requirements. All programs offered at ASC Boston, which range from Intensive ESL training to IBT TOEFL Preparation courses, have been carefully constructed to ensure that each student is equipped with the linguistic skills they need to succeed within today’s global society.