The Joys (and pitfalls) of Speaking British English in America

Language is a wonderful thing ladies and gentlemen and in today’s post I am going to demonstrate why, hopefully without boring you to death in the process. Let’s start with a little known nugget of information; a British person would do the hokey cokey but an American would do the hokey pokey (which sounds a little more creepy). A New Zealander, on the other hand, would do the hokey tokey and at this point I start to wonder how a simple dance could have three different names in three different countries. Did it get lost in translation or was it someone’s clever way of avoiding being sued for copyright?

I can practically guarantee that this will never come up in a pub quiz (or, as my American friends call it, trivia) so you can happily forget that piece of useless information forever. Now that I have bored you to death let’s talk about something more interesting; insults. The Inuit dialect spoken in Nunavit, Canada has 53 different words for snow and the British have at least as many words for insulting a friend. Now the British have a reputation for being polite (and I did once apologise to a tree for walking into it) so I need to save our reputation by adding that these insults are usually used affectionately. If a British friend calls you a knob then they are being nice, if a Brit who isn’t a friend calls you a knob you probably should feel insulted.

One of the best things about the British having so many swear words and insults is that there are a number of words that don’t have the same meaning in the US so they can be used perfectly innocently there. If you name your pretty holiday cottage in Maine “Knob End” then you can bet that a British person is going to come along at some point and snigger and take a photo. The beauty of British insults is that many of them are words that are satisfying to say and inoffensive so you can use them in everyday conversation. Numpty is a far more evocative word than idiot and bell-end is more satisfying to say than douche, although I must admit I have a soft spot for douche canoe as an insult. Never let it be said that cultural osmosis isn’t a thing.

funny 1
This makes me laugh

The downside to all these different uses of words is that sometimes they are lost in translation. If a British person accuses you of “telling a porky” they are calling you out on lying (lie is pork pie in Cockney slang). I often forget that this one didn’t make its way across the Atlantic and thus leave people bewildered. Another Britishism that I unwillingly revert to is using “cheers” to say thank you when someone does something for me and they look at me like ‘I just held a door open for you, why are you raising a toast?’  I’ve learned when referring to something awesome it’s best to not call it “the dog’s bollocks” as that idiom has not made it across the Atlantic yet and people will wonder why I am talking about Fido’s undercarriage.

This also makes me laugh

Another thing that can catch out the unwary are the much discussed differences in spelling between British and American English. The spelling differences we have largely come from a patriotic man called Noah Webster who wanted to free his people from the influence of the British by spelling words more phonetically to establish a separate American English. He removed lots of pesky colonial letters such as the ‘u’ in colour, flavour etc. and the extra ‘l’ in travelled. There are also a lot of zeds (yes I will never pronounce it as zee) in words instead of s which makes them better for scrabble but makes them look weird to my British mind. Fortunately not all of Webster’s new patriotic spellings caught on such as ‘tung’ for tongue or ‘wimmen’ for women.

The British desire for understatement also lets me down sometimes; it’s hard to get your frustration across when there are so many ways to express irritation without actually saying you are pissed off. British people are experts at not saying how they really feel in order to not cause offence but obviously this doesn’t always translate well. My favourite one is to say that “I was a little put out” but what I mean is that someone has really annoyed me. The table below that has done the rounds on the internet for a while shows what I mean.


I hope that in this post I have shown how some of the seemingly minor differences between the way that Brits and Americans talk can be interesting and a lot of fun. Have you ever been confused by a Britishism or  an Americanism on your travels?

23 thoughts on “The Joys (and pitfalls) of Speaking British English in America

  1. I snickered over that picture of the “Dream Shag.” Also, I am never going to look at Knob Hill as anything other than redundant now. 😉

    Numpty is the best. Especially when David Tennant pronounces it.

  2. Aakansha

    I have to say, I didn’t even know half of those British slangs you mentioned.
    What an informative slang-ful post! 😀

  3. Haha, as always, love hearing the ‘difficulties’ you face in the US! We were at a wedding over the weekend and someone said in reference to a missing guest that perhaps they’d wandered into the woods for a shag. Which we all found hilarious saying ‘who the hell uses shag anymore?!’ And the poor US guest just looked left out… 😉

  4. We were recently in US and on one guided trip we were frequently told about the nearby ‘porta potty’ should we need it. He slurred his t’s US style and we were reduced to uncontrollable giggles each time he said it! (The UK word is ‘porta loo’ – Loo being something that adults use, while very young children use a potty).

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