The longer I live here, the more I appreciate the whimsy of British English. There are certain names we have for quite prosaic things that when I tell Americans make them stare in disbelief. For example, our names for road crossings. From the descriptive ‘zebra crossing’, to the bird themed ‘pelican’, ‘puffin’ and ‘toucan’ crossings, our naming of these road features suggests both our British love of order and our love of nonsense. In the states all these crossings are simply and directly known as ‘cross walks’.
When I mention this sort of thing to R, he always remembers a Simpsons episode where Moe derides Homer’s use of the word ‘garage’, insisting that the normal, salt-of-the-earth phrase for this is ‘car-hole’.
I always wonder if the prosaic nature of American English comes from their German heritage – the Germans are widely known to be direct. But this theory was challenged when my English turn of phrase was also mocked by a Southerner (surely no German heritage there?) – when I looked up from my menu and asked, unselfconsciously, ‘what do you fancy?’.
Needless to say, I’m far more conscious of my speech these days, often breaking off to ask ‘do you use that phrase?’. I admit, I’ve always been rather whimsical in my choices of words and phrases. I always seem to have a limitless choice from different social registers, eras, disciplines and language-traditions, that sometimes render me tongue-tied or leave my conversational partner in giggles. Arguments are often ended by laughter at my choice of an unusual or arcane word – which nonetheless absolutely precisely embodied what I wanted to say at that moment.
I suspect it’s a never-ending task to create a glossary of American-isms, and probably there are plenty around the Internet, but I thought I’d just pull a few together that have struck me or caused me problems. It’s the smaller differences that are most challenging. When you get them wrong you’re greeted with blank looks, confusion or ridicule, but once you get them down you can really start to feel at home.
At a restaurant:
- ‘f’ere’r to go?’ – for here or to go. Usually said very quickly in an exchange that you’re imagined to be used to.
- ‘Take out’ – take away.
- ‘Pick up’ – collection.
- ‘Entree’ – (ridiculously) main course.
- ‘Biscuits’ – scone-like, fluffy breakfast cakes, good with chicken.
- ‘Oatmeal’ – porridge.
- ‘Shrimp’ – prawns. Nearly always the large kind.
- ‘The check’ – the bill.
- ‘Tip’ – minimum wage. Always 20% in a restaurant.
- ‘Close it out’ – to pay your tab, or to let them know that you don’t want to start a tab, you just want to pay on your card.
On the street
- ‘Crosswalk’ – zebra or pelican crossing.
- ‘Black top’ – Tarmac.
- ‘Pavement’ – road surface.
- ‘Side walk’ – pavement.
- ‘Store’ – shop.
- ‘Canned goods’ – tinned food.
- ‘Half and half’ – mixture of cream and milk. Not better than full cream milk as I thought for a while, but somewhat better than full cream…
- ‘Heavy cream’ – double cream.
- ‘Eggplant’ – aubergine.
- ‘Zucchini’ – courgette.
- ‘Mesclun’ – baby leaf salad.
- ‘Arugula’ – rocket.
- ‘Bouilion’ – stock.
- ‘Comforter’ – cross between a quilt and a duvet – doesn’t have a removable cover, usually goes on top of sheets.
- ‘Nightstand’ – bedside table.
- ‘Closet’ and ‘California closet’ – the first is just wardrobe in general I think, but mainly applies to the partitioned off walk-in, room-like wardrobes. The second refers to our kind of free-standing wardrobes.
- ‘Broiler’ – grill. Often at foot level for reasons passing understanding.
- ‘Grill’ – barbecue.
- ‘Faucet’ – tap.
- ‘Throw pillow’ – cushion.
Of course, as I went through, listing the differences I found that in plenty of cases Americans can be more whimsical than the Brits, and use French terms almost as often as we do – just not the same ones (apparently ‘mesclun’ comes from the French). One notable way in which Americans are more whimsical than us is in their use of ‘reach out’ to mean phone or email (as readers might have noticed in the American House of Cards). And in some parts of the U.S., people say ‘visit with’ to mean ‘spoke to on the phone’, which I just love.
I might update this page with new words as and when I encounter them. Also, any suggestions for inclusion would be very welcome – which are your favorite Americanisms?