There are certain groups of words that are much more likely to vary between British and American dialects of English.

  • terms relating to cars, trains and roads (boot/trunk, bonnet/hood, railway/railroad, brake van/caboose, points/switches, pavement/sidewalk, road surface/pavement)
  • cooking and food terminology (corinader/cilantro, barbecue/grill, grill/broil, /barbecue)
  • education (university/school, form/grade, invigilate/proctor)

have big concentrations of dialect differences, while computing has very few.

Is there a systemic reason why some subjects have many variants between the two dialects and others have very few variants?

If not, what other subjects have large concentrations of dialect differences for the unwary to pay attention to?

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    For coriander/cilantro, coriander was taken from French coriandre, which came from Latin coriandrum, while cilantro was borrowed from the Mexicans; the Spanish word also came from the Latin. Same for the two pronunciations of oregano; the U.S. puts the accent where the Italians/Mexicans do, while the U.K. puts it where the French do. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 13:26
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    I didn't know until now that coriander and cilantro were the same thing. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:07
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    @JSBᾶngs Strictly, they aren't. Coriander in BrE is the whole plant; cilantro in AmE is just the leaves. Dried, ground coriander seeds are used as a spice in Indian cooking, and are referred to as coriander in both British and American English. Coriander leaves are used as a herb, a garnish or as a salad vegetable, and are called cilantro in American English. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:11
  • It would be more appropriate to compare the dichotomous pair university/college rather than university/school. It is quite common for a young person in America to say something like, "I am the first in my family to go to college". School implies a trade or technical school.
    – Firstrock
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 22:51
  • @Firstrock "Which university do you go to?" (BrE); "Which school do you go to?" (AmE). Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 7:42

3 Answers 3


terms relating to cars, trains and roads (boot/trunk, bonnet/hood, railway/railroad, brake van/caboose, points/switches, pavement/sidewalk, road surface/pavement)

These were invented after America was settled and had developed into a large enough community to have its own words. The early settlers had no reason to stop calling a plough a plough just because they had arrived on a new continent (although they might misspell it).
But someone inventing bits of railway technology in America has no reason to use the same word as an engineer in England was already using. Even if, in the days before easy communication, they knew about it.

There are some examples of older English words in America (eg comptroller) that happened to stick because the first settlers used it. Or words from particular regions of the UK that the first settlers came from.

cooking and food terminology (corinader/cilantro, barbecue/grill, grill/broil, /barbecue)

Different immigrant groups. Cooking in England adopted French as the language of sophistication and high class (!). There is no reason why an Italian immigrant to New York should rename their vegetables to the French terms just to copy that

education (university/school, form/grade, invigilate/proctor)

This is more interesting. American higher education started relatively recently from a small pool. A lot of the terms like campus (from the latin for field - because the university was built in a field, but field is a bit downmarket) were simply invented by one person and like all good marketing slogans - stuck.

So terms were copied, whatever Harvard or Yale coined - a new university starting up a generation later is also likely to use to help its credibility.

  • So there isn't a systematic explanation, but a series of separate ones. Interesting. Campus, by the way, is BrE for "university that is on a single out-of-town location"; my understanding is that the AmE is that campus means "location of the university buildings", with e.g. CUNY having several campuses scattered around New York. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 16:58
  • The word was coined at Princeton, it wasn't common in UK until the 1960s when the first campus universities were built
    – mgb
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 16:59
  • But some rules of thumb: Fields invented or developed during the (approx) 1750-1950 period when American and British language weren't in close interaction (for newer concepts, TV, film and the internet carry them across the Atlantic too quickly for separate words to develop) tend to have different words (e.g. much cooking, as really we only had "roast" and "boil" before 1750, e.g. motorised transport). Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 17:04
  • Fields where words were imported separately from foreign languages - e.g. Southern European immigration in America, the empire bringing in Indian words in British English (bungalow, kedgeree) Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 17:07
  • Fields where the separate systems of government make for differences (e.g. "county" means rather different things) Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 17:09

Communication ease/speed at the time when the terms were invented (computer vs car) or when the speakers separated (education and cooking) should explain it.


The peoples speaking the two dialects split off roughly in the vicinity of the 17th century. During that time intercommunications between them across the Atlantic wan't the best, and remained difficult until quite recently (let's use the year 2000 as a nice round number here).

That means anything that was either developed or undergoing rapid change in both places during those four centuries had to have its accompanying lingo developed relatively independently in both places as well.

So let's go through your list:

A particularly enlightening example is actually clothing. The grand champion of messed up meanings is clearly the names we use for articles of clothing. It isn't that we have different names for things that makes it so bad, but rather that we use the same words for completely different articles of clothing.

So how did this come about? Well, clothing certainly existed becore the 1600s. That explains why the words are the same on both sides. But fashion itself is about as rapidly-changing of an industry as can be imagined. So much so that the word has become synonomous with something that is liable to change drasticaly in a short period.

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