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I can't recall it, but there is a word in American English which now means the opposite of itself in British English. What words are there that have opposite (not just different) meanings in different regions?

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/1820/… –  RegDwigнt Aug 26 '10 at 12:04

15 Answers 15

These were on the auto-antonym list:

chuffed In British slang this has come to mean "pleased", synonymous to "puffed up"; an older definition, also colloquial is "displeased, upset". Specifically, "chuff" is the sound of exhaust being emanated, as from a train engine.

discursive In essay structure, it can mean either to be rambling or freeform (American usage), but also can mean to be strictly structured (British usage).

momentarily In British usage, means "only for a brief moment" but may be in the past or present- the lightning lit the room momentarily. In American usage, means "soon" but may be persistent.

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In particular, it's somewhat scary to non-American ears to hear the announcement "the airplane will be in the air momentarily". –  ShreevatsaR Aug 26 '10 at 8:14
    
Be careful, 'Chuff' also has some entirely less polite meanings: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chuff –  Jon Hadley Aug 27 '10 at 9:03
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In the US momentarily has the UK meaning and sounds natural in the past tense: "The lightning momentarily lit the room", or "the dog momentarily sat on the couch". Only when it's used in the future tense (and moved away from the verb) does it have the "soon" meaning. –  Matthew Frederick Jun 14 '11 at 6:57

"public school" has opposite meanings in the U.S. and England: a public school in England is equivalent to a private school in the US.

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Almost, but not quite. (UK public schools are like US private schools, but "private school" is less used in the UK.) In the US, "public school" means state-run school, and "private school" means fee-taking. In the UK, these are called state schools and independent schools respectively. Certain prestigious (not all) independent schools are called "public schools", dating from when they first opened up to the "public" (anyone who could pay), got students from everywhere, and used to train students for public service — historical reasons. elevenplusexams.co.uk/public_schools_UK.php –  ShreevatsaR Aug 27 '10 at 5:41
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Another point: many of the terribly exclusive upper-class "public schools" in the UK are technically run as charities, and whenever "private school" is used, it means a school run to make a profit. See: ukstudentlife.com/Course/Boarding.htm So US "public schools" and "private schools" correspond to UK "state schools" and "independent schools" respectively, with (in the UK) both "public schools" and "private schools" being subsets of independent schools. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 27 '10 at 5:48
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Australian usage seems to echo the US usage in this example. Although we still sometimes refer to public schools as state schools. –  soutarm Sep 9 '10 at 3:42

The American word fanny refers to the opposite side of the body in England.

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Uh oh. I think I need to go apologize to some Brits.... –  JohnFx Aug 27 '10 at 14:29
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Say "fanny pack" to some Brits, and watch them giggle. Works on me! :-) –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 31 '10 at 12:07
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I think "fanny" as a term for your behind is a US-only thing, not just US vs Britain. A related term is "bum" where in the US it's a derogatory term for a homeless person whereas in other countries (Australia at least) it's what a US citizen would refer to as a fanny. –  soutarm Sep 9 '10 at 3:39
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Most Americans I know would know that 'bum' meant 'keister' in context. –  Jared Updike Nov 5 '10 at 21:54
    
@soutarm: it's not just Australia, see my bum is on your lips. –  RegDwigнt Dec 18 '10 at 12:54

The verb to table, when applied to parliamentary procedure, has opposite meanings in the US and UK.

From Wikipedia:

  • In the United States, the motion to lay on the table (often simply "table")...is a proposal to suspend consideration of a pending motion.
  • In the United Kingdom and the rest of the English-speaking world, a motion to place upon the table...is a proposal to begin consideration of a proposal.
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It's relevant beyond parliaments. I was at a meeting of Canadians and Americans when the word "table" was used. This resulted in a bit of confusion. –  broiyan May 3 '11 at 6:37

I may be mistaken on some of these, but:

Homely apparently means "ugly" in the US, but "pleasant" in the UK

Table means "propose" in the UK, but "set aside" in the US.

Quite means "completely" in the US, but often means "slightly" in the UK.

I read somewhere that Bomb is a failure in the US, but can be a success in the UK (although I have only ever heard the US meaning here in England).

Citation: a note accompanying an award and (in the USA) a written record of an infraction : praise and penalty.

Gas seems to be a liquid in the US (petrol), but is always a gas in the UK.

Wicked can mean both good and bad, but I don't know if that is a regional thing.

Walk to the shops is supposed to be a good thing in the UK, but a friend from the US was horrified when I suggested it!

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Love that last one especially! Was your friend from LA by any chance? :-) –  Steve Melnikoff Sep 7 '10 at 17:52
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"gas" is not a liquid in the US, it's just that they shorten "gasoline" to "gas" - it's a coincidence it sounds/spells the same as the word "gas" –  Jeffrey Kemp Sep 15 '10 at 12:10
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Bomb reverses meaning depending on its part of speech: to bomb is bad, the bomb is good. –  Marthaª Oct 28 '10 at 23:17
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“Quite” can be a really confusing one! I (from the UK) went on a first date once with an American girl, and was awfully disappointed at the end when we said goodnight and she told me it had been “quite nice”… Fortunately I found out a few days later that this was, in her dialect, not such faint praise for my company as I’d thought :-) –  PLL Dec 11 '10 at 19:57
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Anyone who endeavors to walk somewhere in the USA, unless they are obviously dressed for exercise, will be taken for a poor soul whose car has broken down. Anybody who recognizes you (and if you are female, many who don't) will pull over and offer you a lift. Explaining that you don't want one is like trying to explain Relativity to a Bantu herdsman. –  T.E.D. Aug 17 '11 at 13:10

The word watershed started out in 1803 meaning the dividing line between two drainage basins (etymologically, the place where the waters separate). Many references still indicate this as the modern British meaning.

Over time, the word slipped to mean the slope down which the water flow until it settled to mean a drainage basin, the opposite of the original meaning. This usage is prevalent in American references, but the shift in meaning could be observed in Britain through the 19th century, as shown by OED citations:

To the south-west of Kington the lower beds of the Old Red Sandstone (…) have been the sub-aqueous water-shed, down which the coarse detritus has been swept.

(Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, The Silurian system, founded on geological researches, 1839)

“Watershed” is a word which has been borrowed from German geographers. The verb scheiden signifies “to separate,” and die Wasserscheide is simply the “water-separation” or the “parting of the waters” — the old Divortium aquarum. But many writers, looking at the common meaning of the English verb “to shed” have used the term “watershed” to denote the surface from which the waters are shed, or the slope along which they flow. (…) To avoid all ambiguity, it is perhaps best to set aside the original meaning of "watershed," and employ the term to denote the slope along which the water flows, while the expression "water-parting" is employed for the summit of this slope.

(Thomas Henry Huxley, Physiography: An Introduction to the Study of Nature, 1881)

In its figurative meanings, the word always indicates a dividing line.

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nonplussed generally means "bewildered", but means "unfazed" in the US.

moot means "able to be discussed" in the UK, but means "irrelevant" in the US, leading to ambiguity about the phrase "a moot point".

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Interesting. I was totally unaware of the other (UK) meaning of "moot" and the resulting ambiguity of "moot point". –  Jonik Sep 15 '10 at 0:36
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"Nonplussed" does not mean "unfazed" in the US. At least, I'm in the US and have never seen it used like that. –  kindall Sep 29 '10 at 19:43
    
@kindall Well, I have heard it used that way in LA, at least. (And Wiktionary does give cite some examples) –  waiwai933 Sep 29 '10 at 22:37
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The unfortunate American usage of nonplussed to mean "unfazed" is probably due to us yanks being ignorant and too lazy to look it up in a dictionary. I'm guessing people just see the word, look at the "non" prefix and unconsciously associate it with the "un" in unfazed. –  A. Levy Dec 18 '10 at 15:11
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I'm with kindall. I'm in the US and have never heard nonplussed to mean 'unfazed' but frequently hear it to mean 'bewildered'. I'm not doubting you or the Wiktionary, but it's not as absolute as your post suggests. –  bev Mar 2 '11 at 0:22

My favorite self-contradictory word is 'cleave'. It means both to divide, and to unite.

This is in all variants of English, though.

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How about the phrase 'in charge of'? In British English, if X is in charge of Y, it means that Y is in the care of X. In US English, if X is in charge of Y, then X is in the care of Y.

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Are you sure you don't have those reversed? In US English, "I am in charge of this kitchen" doesn't mean that I am in the care of the kitchen, but that the kitchen is in my care. –  A. Levy Dec 18 '10 at 15:16
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are you sure this isn't "in charge of" vs "in the charge of"? –  Lie Ryan Dec 19 '10 at 21:03
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@Levy: Yes I have heard the usage "The prisoner is in charge of the guard" in US English. It probably isn't universal, but it is documented on this page: thefreedictionary.com/in+charge "in charge of a. having responsibility for b. US under the care of". –  chimp Dec 20 '10 at 9:53
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In the US I've never heard "the prisoner is in charge of the guard" and it would sound like you're making a joke or explaining some very messed-up prison. However, if you said "the child is in the charge of her grandmother" it would sound perfectly natural, indicating that the grandmother had responsibility for the care of the child. –  Matthew Frederick Jun 14 '11 at 7:03

In the context of performance or sports, I've seen the British use torrid to mean "very bad". In America, torrid means "very good".

Especially when it comes to racing, for example, the American usage makes more sense to me. A "scorching lap" ought to be a very fast one, no? I wonder if the British have confused torrid with horrid.

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We British don't fare too well in hot climates, so torrid is always a bad thing ;) –  chimp Jan 8 '11 at 8:52
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Torrid means "hot". If you like hot, you'll love torrid. –  Malvolio Mar 16 '11 at 20:03
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I don't agree that torrid means "very good" in the US; rather, that it means "very intense". A "torrid affair" is intense but could easily be, in retrospect or from the perspective of the person being cheated on, "very bad". –  Matthew Frederick Jun 14 '11 at 7:05
    
@Matthew Frederick: How does that relate to sports? If you look at articles on sports written by Americans, you will see that torrid, if used at all, means hot or scorching (which makes perfect sense). If an athlete is hot or on fire, putting on a torrid performance, it means they are doing extremely well. However, reading British racing news (for example), torrid almost always means very bad. –  John Y Jun 14 '11 at 21:16
    
@John Y: It doesn't relate to sports (or performance); you connected sports to the British usage, but I don't see the same connection in your sentence, "In America, torrid means 'very good'", which is what I'm responding to. –  Matthew Frederick Jun 15 '11 at 4:48

There is a whole class of words (called "contranyms" or "antagonyms") that are actually their own antonym.

The two I come across the most often are cleave and sanguine. "Sanguine" in particular gives me fits, because it is typically used devoid of the context required for figuring out which meaning was intended. I'm undecided if it should be banned, or kept around just to mess with people.

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"Cleave" seems to come from two similar-sounding words with possibly opposite meanings. –  oosterwal Aug 17 '11 at 0:35
    
Also, "sanction" is used with opposite meanings (approve, or disapprove). –  Hexagon Tiling Feb 10 '12 at 23:46

just now

In South African English this phrase means "later", whereas in American English it means "in the very recent past".

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It also means in the very recent past in the UK. –  TrevorD May 19 '13 at 0:34

How about "sick" and "bad", both of which, contrary to their literal meanings, are complimentary in vernacular American English.

Dude, your crib is bad ass.

Translation:

Nice place you got here.

And:

That is one sick ride.

Translation:

 Sub woofers, shiny rims and furry dice? Very nice.
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That's more slang adapting a word, to give it another meaning, as opposed to, say, "fanny" –  Rory Aug 17 '11 at 14:11

In the region I grew up, we had the very localised sense of doubt which meant to believe.

I've been told this comes from Ulster-Scots, which is plausible; some other terms common in the region are definitely of Ulster-Scots origin (some Hibernicisms, and some retentions of terms that were once more common throughout English).

The confusing bit was that we also had doubt in the more common sense of "disbelieve", and one had to detect from context which of the two opposing sentiments where being expressed. Though "I doubt it will rain" always meant that you thought it was going to rain, but that may say more about the climate than the dialect.

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One such example comes to mind, especially for those familiar with snooker commentary (few and far between as we may be):

just about , as in "He's gone for the long red in the corner...and he's just about got it!"

In Britain this modifier means something positive; that is, the ball went in the pocket, but not cleanly. In America, just about means something more like 'almost there, but not quite' and so is on the opposite side of completion. Of course, this is more an aspectual modifier, but the opposite meaning is there.

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