Grammar American vs. British English: Vocabulary |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

American vs. British English: Vocabulary

Our last discussion of U.S. and Commonwealth English focused on word spellings between the dialects. We’ll next review variances in vocabulary.

Understanding how the U.S. and the U.K. approach the naming of words is a great opportunity to embrace the richness of our shared language. Stateside, we enjoy and appreciate how Commonwealth writers and speakers refer to some of the thoughts that are common to us all.

Soccer vs. Football
Many conversations about American and British vocabulary might often start here. In America, watching local, college, and professional football teams is immensely popular. Playing tackle with pads and a pigskin is also the pursuit of millions of fans nationwide.

That being said, the word football has its colossal cultural use in the U.S. However, particularly in America, one may still wonder why we use soccer for a game called football in many parts of the world.

Some might be enlightened to learn that soccer has its origin in the U.K. During the 1800s, British universities started playing variants of a medieval game known as “football.” One such version was referred to as “association football,” which the English called “soccer” for short.

When the modern game reached America in the mid-1800s, the name “soccer” followed from the U.K. Back in Britain, soccer and football remained interchangeable for a time. Although steadily decreasing, references to soccer might still be heard until the 1980s, when football became more fortified as the singular term.

Dual Ways with Words

The following partial list offers a look at how American and British writers and speakers express several of the same things differently.

U.S. U.K.   U.S. U.K.
apartment flat cookie biscuit
adhesive bandage plaster diaper nappy
bathroom, restroom toilet, WC, loo drugstore chemist’s
bike, bicycle bicycle, push bike drunk pissed
candy sweets elementary school primary school
cart trolley, trolly elevator lift
cash register till eraser rubber
cell (phone) mobile flashlight torch
chips crisps fries chips
college university garbage (trash) can (dust)bin
U.S. U.K.   U.S. U.K.
gas petrol stroller pram
high school secondary school (to) study revise
(car) hood bonnet subway tube
mail post sweater jumper
(the) movies cinema trash rubbish
pants trousers truck lorry
parking lot car park (car) trunk boot
period (.) full stop vacation holiday
purse handbag vacuum Hoover
sidewalk pavement wallet, change purse (women) purse
sneakers (tennis shoes) trainers zit/pimple spot

American and British English also appear to differ in the treatment of further and farther. Although current American use has blurred the line and made the words more interchangeable, prescriptivists will typically maintain farther to describe physical distance and further to indicate “more” or “to a greater degree or extent.” To our understanding, U.K. English uses further to depict both distance and extent, and farther has become antiquated.

What are some of your favorite words over the pond? Stay tuned when our series continues by exploring variations in grammar between the U.S. and the U.K.

(Special thanks to Anglophiles Megan C., Emma C., and Rachel M. of Illinois, USA, for their contributions to this discussion.)

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

15 responses to “American vs. British English: Vocabulary”

  1. Bill says:

    I still remember the day my new British colleague asked our secretary for a “rubber” and she turned bright red.


    Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) recently had a thread about “make a decision” (U.S.) vs. “take a decision (U.K.). Some British speakers commented they’d never heard or used that phrase and that it wasn’t British. Others said in fact it was British. I often heard “take a decision” used by British (and other European) speakers while at international conferences held in Europe. It zapped my ear the first time I heard it, but I got used to the phrase. What do you say?

    • While we are not experts in British English, we have a feeling that take a decision may be used more commonly in some parts of Britain or in some part of British society than in others.

  3. Gemma Burke says:

    I enjoyed your comparisons between US English and UK English. I’m Irish and lived in NY for four years. I had to get used to using US terms in order to be understood – gas instead of petrol, hood instead of bonnet, trunk instead of boot, etc. There are others – eggplant/aubergine, cantaloupe/rock melon, make a deposit (bank)/make a lodgement. In Ireland football is (Gaelic) football and soccer is, well, soccer.

  4. Kay says:

    Try being Canadian and having a blend of these and a soupçon of our own words! It’s exhausting.

  5. Jane says:

    I suggest “pushchair” is a more accurate UK word for “stroller.” I’m a Brit and had a pram and a pushchair when living in the UK, but in my experience, prams are not that common in the US.

    Another UK word for “subway” (in addition to “tube”) is “the underground.”
    Here are a few more for your consideration.
    Anti-clockwise Counter-clockwise
    Gutted Really upset
    Knackered Tired
    Knock up To wake someone up in the morning
    Pukka Excellent
    Reverse the charges Call collect
    Rumpy pumpy Hanky panky
    Wellies (Wellingtons) Galoshes
    Aubergine Eggplant
    Beetroot Beets
    Clingfilm Plastic wrap
    Crisps Potato chips
    Off-licence Liquor store
    Braces Suspenders
    Bum bag Fanny pack
    Dressing gown Robe or bathrobe
    Trousers Pants
    Roundabout Traffic circle
    Solicitor Attorney
    Eiderdown Comforter
    Bill Check
    Private school Public school
    Public school Private school
    Sellotape Scotch tape

  6. Sandra M. says:

    I love these. This explains why I say the things I do (my great-grandmothers were from Great Britain). Even though I didn’t know my great-grandparents, the words (and spelling of those words) came down from my grandparents and parents. A huge thank you and a tip of the hat!

  7. Mary Madden says:

    Wonky is one of my favorite (or should I say favourite) Commonwealth expressions for defective, e.g., this cycle is wonky, needs grease. While here in the US we use wonky as an adjective to describe dense bureaucratic policies or arcane legislative proposals, e.g., the wonky ACA is a bureaucrat’s dream. (I watch a lot of TV from across the pond!)

  8. Amanda Karpinski says:

    Just to say, on the list of words that are different in the US and UK, the word Trolly should have an e. TROLLEY.

    • According to our references, “trolly” is an alternative spelling. We will add “trolley” to the table, however, as it appears to be the more common spelling. Thank you for the alert.

  9. Janice H. says:

    More fun with words! I was looking forward to Part II of “Over (or Across) the Pond” and there it is today. I have lots of thoughts about the word differences you list and also about differences in words for the same thing in various parts of our country. Also the differences in pronunciation of common words here, such as “water.” Yes, I digress. Back to U.S. and U.K. English.

    I had never known that the English referred to someone who is inebriated as “pissed.” Of course, over here, the inelegant word “pissed” or the expression “pissed off” means very annoyed or very angry. Is there a special term in British English for the latter?

    If the English use “revise” for “study, how would they say “I’d like to revise my remarks”? “Reword”? or “Edit”?

    About “pants” and “trousers”: I would never refer to my waist-to-ankle apparel as “pants.” “Pants” to me only means “underpants,” a word which naturally does not come up often in conversation. I use “slacks” as the term for the outergarment for legs and I use that word for women’s and men’s clothing. The word “trousers” seems a rather out-of-date term to me. Also, particularly in women’s clothing, there are terms for various types of leg coverings that do not reach the ankle, as: bermudas, capris, gauchos.

    My, there are quite a number of words here for “purse.” “Handbag” or simply “bag” or “shoulder bag” (the bag with a strap) come to mind, also “clutch” – for that tiny, semi-useless, often just decorative item that is regularly carried by women to evening occasions and that can hold perhaps a lipstick, a credit card, a twenty-dollar bill and a tissue. “Clutches” will likely increase in size to accommodate the cell phones that we ALL have to have these days almost 24-7. I now use a “cross-body bag,” a shoulder bag with a strap I put over my head to secure the bag to my person and allow my hands to be free. I switched to cross-body bags from handbags after my handbag was stolen totally silently on a quiet afternoon in an upscale grocery store when my bag was right next to me, but not being held. A valuable – and expensive – lesson.

    I think we speak of both “college” and “university” in the U.S., a “college” often but not always (think of Harvard College, the undergraduate part of Harvard University) being an institution of higher learning which is smaller and has more limited offerings than a university.

    This is such an interesting topic today. So many of the words in the U.K. columns are in use every day in U.S. English too, but some of their words have very different meanings here, as: biscuit, plaster, rubber (oh my, that one could lead to embarrassing moments), bonnet and jumper (an item of clothing here, but very different from a sweater).

    I enjoyed this newsletter very much. I hope someday you will do a newsletter on differences in words for the same item in different parts of this country. I think of “soft drink” in the midwest where I grew up. In the east where my husband grew up that was a “soda.” The latter for me means “club soda.” In the Indiana of my childhood a bell pepper was a “mango” and I didn’t know what the exquisite tropical fruit was. I’m sure there are more of these.

  10. Kay says:

    I have never heard the use of cycle in the U.K. It should be bicycle or bike.

    A secondary school over here is more commonly called a high school. However, if your child is moving from primary school to secondary school, then they will be going to the big school.

    If a woman’s purse in the U.S. is called a wallet, what is a man’s wallet called in the U.S.?

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