During my student exchange to the US of A, there were many instances where I found myself explaining what I meant by a certain word. As I’ve said in other posts, the people of the Upper Midwest are a famously affable bunch, and everyone I met made me feel really exotic. Both friends and strangers alike always seemed super-interested in what I had to say, and any detail, no matter how mundane, about my life back home in the U.K was a source of never-ending amusement. One thing my new friends and I loved to discuss were the divergent branches of English we both spoke. Sometimes the Americans liked to tease me and get competitive, saying British English didn’t make sense. But I think when Americans tease they expect the target the give some back, and they were surprised with how passive I was. And in truth, there is no such thing as “Proper English”. A lot of words present in the American lexicon are remnants of Old English that the British changed during the Victorian period, but which survived in the US. The use of “z” instead of “s” in words like “globalization” for example.
Probably the most hotly-debated and offensive word the Americans use (as far as Brits are concerned) is the word “soccer” to mean association football. I remember writing it down in school when I was about 13 and my friend said to me in a cold voice “Never say that again. Change it to football now” as though what I’d put in my essay constituted sacrilege of the highest order. However I started using the word soccer again during my semester abroad, because I wanted to distinguish it from what most people there call football, and I didn’t have the patience to explain which football I meant. It’s funny watching British football fans get so red-faced about it, because the truth is that soccer is a British term, a kind of shortening of “association football” that’s been around for a good hundred years.
But let’s move on with today’s post shall we? Today I’m writing about 10 words that are used differently in the USA, and I’ve chosen these 10 because they came up repeatedly during my semester in Eau Claire, WI. I’m not interested in pronunciation or spelling, but in the way the same words might have different meanings in the US than they do in the U.K.
When it started to get cold in Wisco, I heard a bunch of girls exclaiming “Ermahgerd! I love sweater-weather!”. In the U.K, we call them jumpers. British people know the word sweater, but will always use jumper instead. In the USA however, the word jumper has a different meaning. Whenever I said “I better bring my jumper,” people started giggling and smirking among themselves. They then informed me that in the US, a jumper referred to a specific female garment known as a pinafore dress in the U.K.
This word came up frequently because I personally used it a lot at that time. In the U.K it’s slang to mean anything good in quality. It’ll be used a lot to describe foods (“Those parsnips are lush mate”) or perhaps something beautiful (“I think you’re lush, Karen”). I use it often when watching sports, for example “That rabona by Eden Hazard was lush”. My friend Aaron really took to this word and incorporated it into his own vocabulary, checking with me a few times to see if he was using it correctly. Pretty soon he and his sister Elizabeth were saying “Ah yes, so lush,” all the time. In the USA it isn’t used as an adjective, which is probably why they were so fascinated with it. Instead, it’s a word used to describe an alcoholic (“Ever since her daughter ran off to the circus, Sally’s turned into a real lush”).
This is another example of where the American meaning is widely known in the U.K but not vice versa. I think it’s because American culture is so prevalent in media overseas, so most Brits will be familiar with words like dude, butt, or barf. However every time I used a British slang word, the Americans I spoke to were unfamiliar with it. Pissed is a great example, because Americans use it to describe a state of rage (“Oh man, Coach Shillcox was pissed!”) and Brits are quite familiar with that. In the U.K, to be pissed is to be drunk and it’s often said as follows: “Mate, Steve’s been on the piss ever since City got knocked out of the Johnson’s Paint Trophy” or “Fancy a piss-up?”. This amuses Americans greatly, and if a British person says “I’m gonna get pissed tonight” they often remark “Why would you make yourself angry?”.
I like this one. When my brother was driving us to Sunday dinner at my nan’s house, he was so hungry for roast beef and potatoes that we said “Frank’s absolutely bombing it down the Long Ashton Bypass”. Bombing it means going very fast, and Frank obviously couldn’t wait for my nan’s cooking because he was hitting about 90 miles per hour. In the USA, the word bomb is used by young people a lot to describe something very good or impressive. Examples include “You da bomb…dot com” or “These chili-cheese fries are the bomb”.
When my roommate Anne-Marie surprised me one day with a baguette while I was blogging, I Instagrammed it with the caption “When your bestie makes you a bomb-ass sandwich” and in that instance I was being very American because I was combining two slang words. In the US, the word ass is often used as a postpositive intensive, which is how I used it. Other examples include “Dude, that is a big-ass walleye” or “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honkey”. My American friends and I use it a lot as a prefix (“We just made an ass-ton of food for the Superbowl party”). This one interested me so much that I just had to include it, even though there isn’t really an interesting British counterpart. Brits don’t use ass as an intensifier like the above examples. It means only one thing here, and even then it exists as a more American way of saying bum, arse, or bottom.
In the U.K it’s slang for your ears (“Cwoarr, those vuvuzelas don’t half hurt your lughole do they?”). This one came to my attention when, a year after my student exchange, Aaron sent me a Facebook message on my birthday saying “HAPPY BIRTHDAY YOU BIG OL’ LUG O’ MATE!”. I assumed that lug denoted an amount of something, and I showed up in poetry class the next week with a poem that included the line “And so I was a lug of mate”. But upon further research, I have discovered that lug is actually an American term of endearment and affection for someone big, shy and clumsy.
This one I’m bringing up because I’m interested in how it’s received when it’s said. In the U.K if you describe something as liberal then it’s usually referring to personal freedom. You might say an office has a “liberal approach” to what its workers are allowed to wear. All the political parties will try to sell themselves as liberal. In the U.K, it’s only got a positive connotation, because freedom is good and tyranny is bad, right? In the USA I was shocked to see conservatives say things like “I hate liberals” or “Eww, such a liberal”. They say the word “liberal” the same way you might say “parasite” and that struck me as odd. So you’re against freedom then? It’s even more strange when you consider that in the purest, strictest political definition of the word, liberalism refers to a philosophy in which government is small, the free market reigns supreme, and the state acts as a neutral arbiter to solve disputes. Isn’t that what the Republicans claim to be in favor of? The same holds true for the term “progressive” when used by American conservatives. It’s just hilarious to me that anyone could attach negative connotations to words like liberal and progressive, unless they are unabashedly fascist.
This one’s a good laugh. The word is used quite a lot in the USA to refer to someone as sassy, hyperactive or feisty. I went for supper at this girl’s house just outside of campus, and when we got done eating we looked at her pet rabbit. It was then when she said “Oh, he’s just so spunky”. In the U.K, the word spunk is a less-scientific term for semen.
I remember this coming up during Thanksgiving Dinner. In the USA, a biscuit is a specific type of food that looks like a scone but has the texture of a croissant. What the Brits call sweet biscuits are referred to as cookies, and what the Brits call savory biscuits are known as crackers. In the USA people enjoy cheese and crackers, and in the U.K people eat cheese and biscuits. British people use the word cookie, but only to mean a specialized, disc-shaped biscuit filled with chocolate chips.
This was the example that inspired this blog post. Both Americans and Brits say the word like when they shouldn’t, and when pointed out, both will be embarrassed and self-conscious of the fact they can’t resist putting the word in where it doesn’t belong. The difference, however, is where and how the word is used. In the USA, it’s often used at the beginning of a sentence. Examples include “Like, what is his problem? Ugh” and “It’s like…does he want me to text him back or not?”. In the U.K however, the word invariably ends up at the end of a sentence. For instance, “What you chatting about, like?” or “I’m a chimney sweeper, like”.