What I just learnt about American English

Or should that be “What I’ve just learnt about American English”? I get confused after 6 years living in East Asia and reading the International Herald Tribune (I’ll never go back to the Guardian again!) every day. Still, good to be learning something about my own language every day now that I am learning zero about the language of where I live. It also helps me avoid “correcting” my students when they are in fact using something that could be correct in America or not correcting them because I think it is American when in fact “muffler” etc is Konglish via Japlish.

Anyhoo, here are my latest attempts to learn Yank, all from the Oxford Picture Dictionary Second Edition. The first few are ones I have sinned on before, hence the very loud apologies.

Some less familiar differences between American and British English

(most of which I didn’t know or had forgotten)

robe/ dressing gown- SORRY!

puzzle/ jigsaw (puzzle)- MI AN HAMNIDA!


rider/ (bus) passenger

turnstile/ ticket barrier

home improvement store/ DIY shop

Laundromat/ laundry

crosswalk/ zebra crossing

barbershop/ barber’s

rescue breathing/ mouth to mouth (resuscitation)

adhesive bandage/ (sticking) plaster

(straight) pin/ pin

dryer/ tumble dryer

clothespin/ clothes peg

VCR/ video (recorder)

electric shaver/ electric razor

bobby pins/ hair pins

walker/ Zimmer frame

cast/ plaster cast

pin/ brooch

sleeveless shirt/ sleeveless top

athletic shoes/ trainers (although my American colleague says “tennis shoes” is standard)

cardigan sweater/ cardigan

sports jacket or sports coat/ blazer

winter scarf/ woolly scarf

rain boots/ wellies

ski hat/ woolly hat

long underwear/ long johns

blanket sleeper/ babygrow

bump cap/ hard hat

safety glasses/ safety goggles

latex gloves/ rubber gloves

dinner salad/ side salad

low-fat milk/ skimmed milk or semi-skimmed milk

chicken sandwich/ chicken burger

pot/ saucepan

vegetable peeler/ potato peeler

bell peppers/ green etc peppers

a head of lettuce/ a lettuce

wheat bread/ brown bread

scrub brush/ scrubbing brush

dishwashing liquid/ washing up liquid

outlet/ socket

wood floor/ wooden floor

changing pad/ changing mat

stuffed animals/ cuddly toys

attic/ loft (for me attic is more of a room)

washer/ washing machine

the country/ the countryside

a townhouse/ terraced houses

front walk/ garden path

grill/ BBQ

teakettle/ kettle

burner/ hob (on a cooker)

throw pillow/ throw cushion

armchair or easy chair/ just armchair

hamper/ laundry basket (hamper is just for picnics)

scale/ bathroom scales

dresser or bureau/ chest of drawers

stroller/ pushchair

car safety seat/ baby seat

pacifier/ dummy

bangs/ fringe

part/ parting

blow dryer/ hair dryer

one fourth/ one quarter (of a pie)

Sunday is the first day of the week/ Sunday or Monday are both possible

legal holiday/ bank holiday

pound key/ hash key

directory assistance/ directory enquiries

chalkboard/ black board

LCD projector/ projector

dry erase marker/ whiteboard pen

eraser/ board rubber

clear off your desk/ clear your desk or put your books away

Other stuff I learnt

there is a difference between drapes and curtains in Am Eng

autumn is okay in American English

a 3-ring binder can also be called a notebook

wallet can be used for a woman as well

there is a difference between blazer and sports jacket/ sports coat in Am Eng

A few I need some help with

Couldn’t work out how to say these in British English, if indeed such a thing is possible:

toaster oven/???- always thought this was Japanese English- SORRY!

crew socks/ ?????

busser/ ????

bus the dishes/ ????

counterperson/ ???

checkstand/ ????

roofer/ ????

bumper pad/ ????

broiler/ ????

end table/ ????

SKU number/ ????

There are British and American English worksheets on TEFLtastic somewhere. If you are interested I recommend using the Search function, because I have to go out now and buy two tonnes (or should that be tons??) of nappies…

This entry was posted in British and American English, Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to What I just learnt about American English

  1. Natalia says:

    Or diapers… 🙂
    There’s a great blog about the differences between AmE and BrE. It’s written by an American semanticist working in Britain and married to a Brit. If you’d like to check it out, it’s

  2. Christine says:

    Hi, As a note of interest, Canadian English is a mix of the British and American Englislh. As I read through the lislt, I wasn’t sure which was which until I reached the end where you ask for the British. Also, anyone visiting Montreal would encounter a different English as it is inflluenced by French, e.g. convenience store is a depanneur and highway is autoroute.

  3. Anne says:

    Also: http://www.vickihollett.com.

    The text below is gross, just testing: Would it be misunderstood?

    As a teen I was a professional babysitter: That was much more fun than bussing tables (viz filling water glasses), though less lucrative than working the counter at the Icecream Lobby, our local iceream parlor, to which I escaped at age 16. In those days my uniform was pants, a sweater, and sneakers with tube socks (much better than crew socks). Before the parents left, they’d give me instructions like asking me to run over to the drugstore to buy disposable diapers for the baby, or tell me to fix the older child a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven for lunch.

  4. Deven Black says:

    Interesting post, but it would have been more effective if you stuck to American first/British second or the other way round. Switching back and forth may be confusing to anyone who is neither British nor American.

    For 18 years, prior to becoming a teacher, I ran a traditional British pub in a tourist area of NYC. I spent a good amount of time translating conversations between an English speaker from one place and one from somewhere else. Americans and Brits are not the only ones divided by a common language.

  5. Agata Zgarda says:

    I’m your great follower now. I loved the dictionary. It added few words to my study (and teaching) list thanks to you. You’re doing a great job here.

  6. Great post. I was always on the other side of the confusion.

    I’ll never forget the first business English course I taught. I told my students over and over that “turnover” has nothing to do with a company’s sales and just refers to how quickly employees leave a company (which is true in the States). I didn’t learn the BrE meaning until well after that course had finished.

    Including “SKU” in the OPD fascinates me. It’s definitely used in U.S. retail stores, but does it have any meaning elsewhere? I wonder if this reflects the fact that picture dictionaries tend to be written for students living in the US and then simply exported as-is.

  7. Alex Case says:

    “it would have been more effective if you stuck to American first/British second or the other way round”

    according to the OPD and my version of British English, these are all American first/ British second. Let me know if there are any you disagree with

  8. In graduate school, a British colleague went to the pharmacy to buy a rubber–he had worn his out taking notes in class. I should have rescued him, but was incapacitated with giggles as the sales clerk brought out a box of prophylactics, rather than erasers.

    Karma got me later.

    My first class in Japan was at a junior college (senmon gakko). I took over mid-session, so I was given a stack of 150 papers to grade before ever meeting the students or looking at the book. They had just learned to describe family members. I wondered why all the students were making the same error (My sister has got black eyes) but corrected it anyway to the “better” “My sister has black eyes.” After correcting about half of the papers, I thought I might as well look at the book. It was the red Cambridge book, so of course, British English. Sure enough, the model was “has got.”

    So, the first vocabulary word my students learned from me was “oops!”

  9. Alex Case says:

    “Would it be misunderstood?”

    Before I left the UK, I didn’t know bussing tables but maybe could have guessed, knew the American meaning of pants (but still find it amusing, along with “fanny”), had never heard of an oven toaster and couldn’t imagine what it looked like but obviously could guess what it does.

    Still don’t know what tube socks are

    Is a drugstore like a chemist’s? I’d always thought that it was more like a convenience store, as they seem to have magazines and stuff, at least in the movies

  10. Eric Roth says:

    Excellent list. Practical and clear.

    Personally, I’ve found the use of prepositions more confusing. For instance, as an American, I go to the beach ON the weekend but the London Underground posters list regulations about closed stations AT weekend. Likewise, I teach my students in oral skills class to ask “follow UP” questions; a British teacher says the proper phrase if “Follow ON” questions.

    Perhaps you could compile a list of differences between British and American English focusing on prepositions. Just an idea.

  11. Christo Meyer says:

    In your “Other stuff I learnt” section, I noticed that you stated, “a 3-ring binder can also be called a notebook,” which surprised me. In California, we definitely recognize the difference between these two objects and call them by their different names (i.e., binder & notebook). Pages in a notebook are usually bound together by a “spiral” wire or glued binding. Once these pages are removed, they cannot become re-attached to the original notebook binding – as can be done with a binder. Be careful not to depend on an inexperienced American to explain the meaning of American English words they don’t truly understand.

  12. Anne says:

    Tube socks are the ones that don’t have a heel. Made of very thick cotton, they miraculously stretch around your feet and ankles. The fashionable ones have stripes: http://fuzzyco.com/news/archives/mime/DSC00716.jpg and were perhaps most famously modelled (ahem, under 18 warning) by The Red Hot Chili Peppers: http://www.gobaeng.de/product_info-products_id/12476

    A “chemist’s” evokes bubbling cauldruns. I prefer my aspirin in a factory-sealed bottle 😉 You’re right, you can get pretty much anything at a drugstore, including lunch, but it generally contains a pharmacy, viz http://www.drugstore.com

  13. Alex Case says:

    Very late answer for this one (sorry Natalia, and anyone who suffers from me dealing with my email inbox in the same way)

    Not only do I know http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/, I recommended it to Onestopblogs for inclusion a couple of months ago. Can’t remember if that was one they accepted or not

  14. Hi Alex,
    I really like the OPD, but I fear it might have a some limitations when it comes to some of this stuff.
    What was that label for ‘laundry’ pointing to? Was it to some dirty clothes or was it the whole launderette? I haven’t noticed anyone being very particular that I specify I want a ‘head of lettuce’ rather than a lettuce or ‘bell peppers’ rather than peppers here, but maybe I’ve missed something or this is a regional thing? Legal holiday sound oddly specific too. Might there be some illegal ones that I’ve been missing?
    It must be very hard for the OPD writers because what do you do when there are no direct equivalents? I struggled the other day trying to translate ‘service station’. My neighbours/neighbors park their cars in a garage in the US, and they rarely seem to take them to (a rather old fashioned sounding) garage for servicing. They certainly don’t take them to a UK style motorway service station where you might stop off on a a journey for a cup of tea. For something more than an oil change, they seem to head to a bodyshop, but how would you translate that? (And why do American cars seems to require more frequent oil changes than British ones?)
    So I fear there may be a few limitations in translaton that could be bound up with the pictures here. And American readers, I urge you pipe up because I am sure Alex would be happy to know when stuff is wrong so he can correct. (Right, Alex?)
    And Alex, please keep up the good work.

  15. I don’t think there is a British word for “toaster oven” because they don’t exist in the UK, do they?

  16. Jennifer says:

    As a NS of AE I definitely think some of those can go either way – I think a large part of the “problem” is that there are regional differences within the US!!

    rescue breathing/ mouth to mouth (resuscitation) – I have NEVER heard of rescue breathing – this is something that must have come into vogue over the past decade or so.

    cardigan sweater/ cardigan – I think either would be perfectly understood.

    long underwear/ long johns – long johns is definitely used in the US – could be regional

    chalkboard/ black board – either is fine

    dry erase marker/ whiteboard pen- again either is fine

    washer/ washing machine – again, pretty much the same to me

    vegetable peeler/ potato peeler – ditto

    I myself don’t know the difference between a blazer and a sportscoat!!

    A broiler in UK Eng is a grill (took me forever to figure out why Brits were forever grilling things in recipes!!!)

    A bumper pad is just a bumper in UK Eng according to the Mothercare site – but I also noticed that UK bumpers are only at the top of the bed and a short way down the sides, whereas in the US they go all the way around the crib/cot….

    Toaster oven in UK ENg is mini oven: http://www.johnlewis.com/Electrical+Appliances/Small+Appliances/Cooking+Appliances/Mini+Ovens/541/ProductCategory.aspx

    A drugstore in the US is something like Boots in the UK – selling toiletries, basic sundries, toilet paper, cosmetics, and the like (but very little real food, maybe snacks and choccies), and usually has a pharmacy (chemist’s) at the back.

    @Vicki Hollett – where I grew up (northern Virginia), we took our cars to the “shop” to be fixed, or say just “I’m taking my car in to be fixed/have the oil changed/for a checkup”. We also have places like the rather dubious sounding “Jiffy Lube” where you can get your oil changed while you wait. And yes, we do have surprisingly short intervals between oil changes – usually 5,000-8,000 miles, while here in Europe, my car is going in every 20,000 km for a change! And a bodyshop is a place that only does body work – fixing dents, replacing body parts, etc.

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