Linguistic drift is a natural part of any language’s evolution, occurring as societies and cultures sharing the same language grow and adapt independent of one another. In time, the languages can become so disparate that they aren’t recognizable to each other anymore, though this typically takes generations to occur. Such is the case with slang words that have evolved separately since the United States split from England a few hundred years ago.
Consider the following differences between modern American and UK English:
10 Words that mean something different in the UK than in the US
Bonnet – In the United States, if you told someone “to look under the bonnet,” the first thing they’d do is start looking for a piece of headwear. In the UK they’d be directing you to the front of an automobile where one typically finds the engine, known to North Americans as “the hood.”
Boot – In America, this term refers to a type of footwear generally suited for less-than-pleasant, outdoorsy environments. Here in the US, if you told someone to get something “out of the boot” they’d likely look at you strangely for having stored something in one of your shoes. But in the UK, this expression refers to the storage typically found in the back of a car, which the Americans refer to as “the trunk.”
Proper – If you were to refer to someone as a “proper fool” in the US, you’d be looked at oddly for sure, as the term “proper” generally refers to one who is genteel and careful in their conduct. How can one be a “proper” fool? But “proper” in the UK bears a far closer resemblance to the States’ “real” — just as Americans would say “a real fool.”
Brown Bread – In the US, the phrase “You’re brown bread!” is going to draw you some strange looks, given how it typically refers to a cheap type of whole wheat bread. In the UK, that expression is used to tell someone that they’re dead, threatening them with violence for some real or imagined wrong.
Conservatory – In North America, a conservatory typically refers to a school of music, and if you suggested growing plants or having dinner in one, it would sound totally off. In the UK, a conservatory refers to a glass-enclosed portion of a home used as a sun room or for growing plants and relaxing in the sunlight with a good book.
Hire – In the UK, to hire something is to borrow it for a period of time, known in North America as renting. Therefore saying you’re going to “hire a car” may lead to considerable confusion for someone, who might wonder how you plan on adding an automobile to the payroll.
Rocket – There’s nothing like explosives in your salad, wouldn’t you agree? In the UK they are particularly fond of salads and sandwiches containing rockets, referring to a plant called arugula in the US. Of course, in the States, a rocket refers to anything from a firework to the massive devices used to launch satellites into orbit.
Jimmy – When you’ve forgotten your keys and need to get into a locked car, you might hire someone in the US to “Jimmy the lock.” If you say this in the UK, you might find yourself being stared at with a mixture of disgust and horror, as this indicates that you’re going to urinate in the lock.
Lift – When you’re looking to “catch a lift” in the US, you’re typically looking to catch a ride in another person’s vehicle. But in the UK this means you’re headed into a building to get on an elevator.
Rock – There are few treats so enjoyed by the children of the UK than a big old hunk of rock; the smiles that light up kids’ faces as they bite down and chew on these sweets are palpable. Here in the Unites States, eating a rock translates to chewing on a chunk of stone from the ground, but in the United Kingdom, it refers to a hard candy.
Of course, we all know that there are many more instances of words meaning two totally different things in the British vs. American English. Know any other good ones? Please mention them in the comments (and make sure to check out Brainscape for learning languages)!
The “How to Be British Collection” by Martyn Alexander Ford and Peter Christopher Legon
Jean-Baptiste Greuze “Young peasant girl with bonnet” (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
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