For all the Mickey-taking on both sides of the water I suppose British and American speakers understand one another 99% of the time.

Can anyone think of any areas of vocabulary or grammar where serious confusion could arise?

The only word of which I am aware, which in America is the near antonym of its British meaning is nervy. To an American, saying someone is nervy means they have nerves of steel such as a high-wire performer. In Britain it means they are of a nervous disposition almost to the point of breakdown.

This question has been inspired by a European OP who has queried which form of English it is desirable to learn to avoid his worlds colliding.

Edit Clearly one could look up one of the many books on sale that provide translations from American to British and vice-versa. It was not my intention in asking the question, that we should compile yet another of those. What I thought would be interesting would be to hear of some actual instances of where you could get into serious difficulty, perhaps an anecdote or two.

  • I suppose it’s only serious to those of us who take haute cuisine seriously, but when my American mouth’s hankering for salty chips, savoury fries just don’t cut it!
    – Papa Poule
    May 19, 2016 at 16:46
  • I'm sure by now nearly everyone knows the more common US/UK differences (words like fag, pissed, pants) that used to cause so much sniggering in the past. But to be honest, I can't even remember a time when people on either side of the pond didn't actually know those words had different connotations on the other side. All that's changed is we've got bored with people making lame jokes about them. May 19, 2016 at 17:03
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    Many US speakers would not understand "mickey-taking". We say "Watch your head!" when warning someone not to bump their head.
    – TimR
    May 19, 2016 at 18:00
  • 1
    I'm in the US and to me, nervy means annoying (as in "they have some nerve to do that!") May 19, 2016 at 18:40
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    @Mitch That particular one has been done to death on this site. But good idea. Any thoughts?
    – WS2
    May 19, 2016 at 18:55

3 Answers 3


I remember reading somewhere that the opposing meanings of the term "to table" on either side of the pond caused confusion at meetings between the British and American heads of state during the second world war.

edit: found it, from Winston Churchill's book The Second World War, Volume III, The Grand Alliance:

The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions. The delays and often partial misunderstandings which occur when interpreters are used were avoided. There were however differences of expression, which in the early days led to an amusing incident. The British Staff prepared a paper which they wished to raise as a matter of urgency, and informed their American colleagues that they wished to "table it." To the American Staff "tabling" a paper meant putting it away in a drawer and forgetting it. A long and even acrimonious argument ensued before both parties realized that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.

  • It sounds as if "tabling" something in America would amount to what we would call "shelving it". If you "shelf" something it amounts to much the same thing as "kicking it into the long grass".
    – WS2
    Dec 15, 2017 at 16:18

A few examples right off the bat:

  • The word spunk has a secondary offensive meaning in British English

  • Pants are undergarments in British English and outer wear in American English

  • Floor numbering is different. Brits have a ground floor, just like Germans, the Dutch and other European countries. In America, the first floor is on the ground.

  • The C-word is a lot less offensive to Brits, although still shouldn't be used lightly

  • The word spaz is a derogatory name for a person having cerebral palsy, or, as an insult, a stupid person in British English. In American English it means to have a freakout and is more often used as a verb

  • (this came from some googling) the word quite has some hidden dangers ("quite good" might be understood as worse than just "good")

Bottom line: the most differing parts seem to be slang and swearing

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    As a Brit who's spent nearly 30 years on both sides of the Atlantic, the differences are far fewer than you'd imagine - grammar issues are limited to "likely" in the middle of a sentence, for example (it'll likely rain tomorrow), or "a couple" being used as an ordinal (a couple minutes). Most issues come from our old friend the idiom: sports analogies, particular sayings, etc. - so not the underlying formal language itself, as that's 100% intelligible from context if nothing else. May 19, 2016 at 17:44
  • Oh, and using spaz in the UK will get you really hard stares - it's equivalent to a racial epithet in most quarters. As for spunk... you mean it has a primary meaning in BrE that isn't vulgar? :) May 19, 2016 at 17:48
  • Clearly one could look up one of the many books on sale that provide translations from American to British. It was not my intention in asking the question to compile yet another of those. What I thought would be interesting would be to hear of some actual instances of where you could get into serious difficulty, perhaps an anecdote or two.
    – WS2
    May 19, 2016 at 18:07
  • Re. your assertion about the C word being less offensive in Britain, I'm not sure my auntie would have agreed with you.
    – WS2
    May 19, 2016 at 18:11
  • @ProfYaffle Re spunk: The "secondary" meaning you are thinking of, is only sense 5c in the OED. There are many earlier meanings from the 16th century - many to do with spark. Sense 5a, which was used by my headmaster in the 1950s (to our sniggering amusement) has to do with spirit, mettle, courage, pluck. It is totally out of fashion now. I also think it may have been used by Enid Blyton (though I have no reference) oblivious, it would seem, of the then current sense of the word, which had replaced mettle as slang for sperm.
    – WS2
    May 19, 2016 at 18:51

I might be mistaken, but my impression is that in England, to "knock (someone) up" means to go to their house and knock on the door. In America, it means to make someone pregnant.

Also "pissed" in England usually means drunk. In America, it's short for "pissed off", which means "very angry".

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