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An American Abroad: US/UK Vocab Mix-Ups for your UK Trip

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Traveling from the US to the UK is easy because we speak the same language, right? Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw put it best when he famously said that America and England are “two countries separated by a common language.” I quickly learned that George Bernard Shaw knew what he was talking about. It took a number of confusing (and subsequently embarrassing) situations on my UK trip for me become able to properly communicate with my English speaking, British counterparts.

In order to prevent you from experiencing similar, painful embarrassment on your UK trip, I’ve decided to bare all and share some of my horrifying language mix ups and mishaps. I’ve also included stories I’ve collected from friends and family. (If you guys are reading this, I hope you can laugh at these now!)


Can you please show me where the euphemism is?

A group of my friends got together for a birthday. We decided to all meet at one person’s apartment before going out. Right before it was time to leave, I asked the host if I could use the bathroom. I was greeted by a strange look, and she led me to a room with just a bathtub and sink in it, no toilet. Embarrassed and unsure of how to handle this situation, I asked her where the missing toilet was. She laughed at the confusion, and led me to the toilet, AKA the ‘loo.’ I guess it makes sense, I asked for the bathroom and that’s exactly what I got!

LONDON, UK – NOVEMBER 07, 2023: Carnaby Street Christmas decorations. This year’s theme is ‘Carnaby Universe’ with solar system of neon lights floating above the London’s famous shopping street

A clothes encounter

The language differences can get especially confusing with clothing. An American sweater is a British jumper, and an American jumper is a British pinafore. An American undershirt is a British vest, and an American vest is a British waistcoat. What British people call “trousers,” Americans call “pants,” and what British people call “pants,” Americans call “underwear.” This got my sister into a lot of trouble when she met her British roommate while she was studying abroad. Have you ever tried to explain the plot of the famous American bestseller “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” to someone from the UK? “What do you mean four girls share a pair of pants and don’t wash them!?” 

A view of Lennox Gardens which is located in Knightsbridge, London

Just give me my food!

American zucchini is British courgette, and American eggplant is British aubergine. It gets confusing when you learn that British crisps are American chips, and British chips are American fries, British jam is American jelly, and British jelly is American jello. If you’re craving a good old savory American biscuit served with gravy, please don’t order a biscuit in the UK, because you will be very disappointed when you are served what you know as cookies. I hate cilantro and always make sure to ask waiters if it’s in the dish I’m interested in. To my dismay, the waiter was right on my UK trip when he said there was no cilantro in the meal, because American cilantro is British coriander.

Liverpool city

Clear instructions

I was very overwhelmed the first time I babysat in England. “Don’t worry, I’m a very organized mum. I left a dummy in the nappy bag which is hanging on the buggy.” I froze. Mum? Dummy? Nappy bag? Buggy? Who knew children in England has completely different things than children in America! The parents very patiently explained to me, mum is mom, dummy is pacifier, nappy bag is diaper bag, and a buggy is a stroller. Once that was cleared up, we had a great time!  

View from Carlton Hill at Night, Edinburgh


Do you mind?

If you find yourself on the American subway, AKA the British tube, when they say “mind the gap,” they mean watch the gap. And don’t forget to look right when crossing the street!

LONDON, UK – MAY 14, 2012: London Underground station entrance in London. London Underground is the 11th busiest metro system worldwide with 1.1 billion annual rides.

Be Careful what you ask for!

When my British friend asked an American guy in her class for a “rubber,” well… things got awkward fast (she was only asking for an eraser, she swears!)

Since we don’t want you to be like me, we made a little pocket dictionary to help you prepare for your UK trip! Here is a handy list of words you may want to look over during your flight:

USA – UK Dictionary

Elevator – Lift

Shopping Cart – Trolley

Apartment – Flat

Gasolene – Petrol

Parking Lot – Car Park

Sneakers – Trainers

Vacation – Holiday

Soccer – Football

Truck – Lorry

Mail – Post

Candy – Sweets

Bar – Pub

Speed bump – Sleeping policeman

Crazy – Mad

Mad – Angry

Exhausted – Knackered

Bathroom/restroom – Toilet/loo

Robe – Dressing gown

Hood (car) – Bonnet

Trunk (car) –  Boot

Line – Queue

*Drunk – Pissed

Suspenders – Braces

Dessert – Pudding

Somewhat – Quite

Quite – Very

Cigarette – Fag

Cotton candy – Candy floss

Flashlight – Torch

Underwear/Panties – Knickers

Please let us know if this list was helpful and what tough words you encounter during your trip to the UK!

Enjoy your trip, and let us know if you come home with any funny vocabulary mishaps.

*Edit 24 January, 2018: Pissed/Drunk

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