Tag Archives: British American words

Divided by a common language

As George Bernard Shaw famously noted, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Most of the time we know exactly what our friends across the sea (or ocean) mean, and our vocabulary, grammar and phraseology are sensibly in synch with each other. But every now and then, our innocent comments or statements can cause confusion or amusement — or at worst, offense — to those on the other side of the Atlantic, often because of a simple, tiny word. A Brit complaining that his roommate can be “a complete twat” will undoubtedly raise a Yankee’s eyebrows. (Br. Eng.: fool, idiot; Am. Eng.: vulgar slang for vulva). The British Prime Minister and I have both regretted joking publicly about the word being the past tense of “tweet”, little realizing how smutty we sounded at the time.

Here are some expressions and basic vocabulary that can seem a little weird, stilted, silly, or downright rude and smutty to the ears of our friends across the pond.


I live in that street.      I live on that street.

I quite like it.    I quite like it.

I’m having faggots for tea   I’m eating meatballs for dinner.

Tea or coffee? I don’t mind.    I don’t care.


She has a new lease of life.   She has a new lease on life.

I’m getting the lie of the land.      I’m getting the lay of the land.


We’re visiting her in hospital in a fortnight.  We’re visiting with her in the hospital in two weeks.


No fear!     No way!

I’m meeting my husband tomorrow.  I’m meeting with my husband tomorrow.

I borrowed my teacher’s rubber.     I borrowed my teacher’s eraser.

I’m taking my bum-bag when I go on holiday.   I’m taking my fanny-pack when I go on vacation.

He has his dog on a lead He has his dog on a leash.

He went to public school.      He went to public school.


I take it in my stride.   I take it in stride.

The dog is definitely on heat.     The dog is definitely in heat.


I’d like to talk to him.    I’d like to talk with him.




Homely: plain ugly, or just plain?

In a recent review — written by an English critic — of a production of La boheme, the soprano in the leading role was described as “well suited to the role of Mimi in her homely, demure appearance.”  Is the use of the word homely here a compliment or an insult — or neither? Well, it depends on who’s reading it…  To British-English readers, and especially to those familiar with the character in question, the meaning is fairly clear: she was presumably simply dressed and not striking in looks, as befits the character of Puccini’s ailing and unassuming seamstress.  But North American readers might have been surprised by the reviewer’s assertion that a “homely” appearance was well-suited to the doomed heroine, since we don’t generally think of Mimi as being ugly.

The OED explains the word’s different meanings on either side of the Atlantic:  1. Brit. a. simple, plain.  b. unpretentious.  c  primitive.   2. N. Amer. (of people or their features) not attractive in appearance, ugly.  3. comfortable in the manner of a home, cosy.  4. skilled at housekeeping.

Curiously, the word plain — one of homely‘s synonyms — is understood by both Brits and Yanks when describing the fairer sex (and the adjective is rarely if ever used to qualify the looks of a man or boy) as not just ordinary or undistinguished in countenance, but as positively unattractive. “She’s no oil painting” could be said of all the plain women of the New World and the old.

When William Wordsworth wrote his poem To the Daisy, the English poet was surely finding a certain beauty in “that homely face” that populates the lawns of English gardens, rather than dismissing the white-petaled weed as unbecoming.

With little here to do or see
Of things that in the great world be,
Sweet Daisy!  oft I talk to thee,
For thou art worthy,
Thou unassuming Common-place
Of Nature, with that homely face,
And yet with something of a grace
Which love makes for thee…

When Benjamin Franklin mused “Let thy maidservant be faithful, strong, and homely“, he was presumably playing on the word’s different meanings — namely, skilled in housekeeping, and safely unattractive.


Face to face, one on one


One on one ……….                                or     One to one?

PBS Newshour is reporting this evening that “President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have agreed to negotiate one-on-one in an effort to broker a deal to prevent the country from going over the so-called fiscal cliff at year’s end.”

Don’t worry: this isn’t a post about the fiscal cliff — even though we are all wondering what exactly this econo-geographical phenomenon actually is, and we’ve all probably imagined what it might look like …


No, let’s get back to this interesting meeting. Other US news media outlets are also reporting on and speculating about this imminent one-on-one encounter,  focusing more on the issue of the steep drop ahead than on the manner in which the President and the Speaker will go head-to-head, face-to-face, man-to-man…

I expect most British-English speakers who have read this far are trying to rid their minds of more — let’s say — “intimate” images conjured up by the advertised one-on-one meeting.


Yes, in Br.Eng. we keep these meetings — these face-to-face, head-to-head, man-to-man, toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose, eye-to-eye tete-a-tetes — strictly one to another, never allowing the use of one of those highly suggestive conjunctions such as “on” that imply or even hint at the possibility of any undesirable physical contact.

A teacher offering her student a one-on-one tutoring session, or a vicar counseling a lost soul in his flock one on one*, would raise more than a few eyebrows (and probably a few temperatures) in that green and pleasant land called England.

We know exactly what our American counterparts mean, but we’re going to keep it strictly business: mind to mind, sword to sword, face to face. Save the ons for wrestlers and dolphins.


* the question of whether the expression should be hyphenated or not, as probably determined by whether it’s used as an adjective or an adverb, is for separate discussion

You say dressing, I say stuffing …


“Know your stuff, know what you are stuffing, then stuff it elegantly.“ — Lola May


Back in the middle ages in England, stuffing was known as farce, from the French farcir (derived from the Latin farcire), meaning “to stuff”. Farce also referred then to a brief and lighthearted dramatic interlude or play ‘stuffed’ for light relief between more serious religious presentations in order to hold an audience’s attention, and that meaning survives in a more comedic version today. As well as farce, forcemeat was another term used for the spiced meat mixture that was so called because of the way it was forced into the cavity of the bird for cooking.

Stuffing first began to be used in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII (the word was first seen in print in 1538). However, a few hundred years on, it was deemed too vulgar and descriptive a word for those in elegant Victorian high society, who began referring to stuffing as dressing — and this was the word that traveled across the Atlantic and is now used widely in North America, although it was subsequently dropped from the vernacular in England where its more hearty antecedent was preferred.

When the American company Stove Top introduced its own brand of dressing in a box in 1972 (after Ruth Siems, a home economist, invented the instant version of the product) and called it “stuffing”, the traditional English name found its way into Thanksgiving turkeys and households around the United States. Stuffing tends to be heard more in the South and East, while dressing is the accompaniment of choice in the Midwest.

Happy Thanksgiving!


And now for something somewhat different …


This morning on one of American Public Media’s  radio news shows I heard a commentator say the following: “It’s somewhat of an exaggeration.” Would I ever hear those words said on BBC Radio 4, I thought? Probably not. But why not?

Something of and somewhat have similar meanings in different forms of speech: somewhat is an adverb used to qualify an adjective (“he is somewhat rude”) and something of qualifies a noun instead (“he is something of a jerk”) – although I’m not entirely sure what grammatical form something of is. (If you know, please let us know in the comments section: is it a prenominal adjective, or perhaps a prenominal noun, or simply a noun and pronoun?) Many would argue that somewhat of is an error, in which the two uses are wrongly confused and combined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat used as a noun/pronoun instead of something is archaic. But I believe this usage has become standard – if still somewhat colloquial – in American English, more or less supplanting something of in everyday speech, if not in writing. However, I think it’s  jarring to most British ears.

And this isn’t to say that there aren’t BrE colloquialisms involving the word something that strain the American ear. “My back hurts something awful!”: You would be unlikely to hear that in an American gym. But now let’s take a look at British regional dialects and accents, and we might get closer to understanding why something and somewhat have become somewhat interchangeable, at least on American shores. In Yorkshire, and perhaps in the West country (or in Hardy’s Wessex), you’d be likely to hear that sentence pronounced  somewhat differently: “Me back ‘urts summat awful!” Summat is the northern dialect version of the word something, and of course it sounds much closer to somewhat (and some would argue that it’s actually derived from somewhat, rather than something). Perhaps it lingers from the Old English use of somewhat in place of something – and it’s not unusual to find American words and pronunciations more closely resembling Old English rather than modern English.

Now let’s take somewhat, which in BrE is now considered rather formal, stuffy, or archaic. Unless they’re in the House of Lords, Brits tend to work with other words and expressions when they want to downplay or ‘de-emphasize’ the adjective that follows: “She’s a little shocked by the discovery,” or “he was relatively new to the industry”. Rather and quite are other modifying adverbs that  can take the sting out of an extreme adjective, but rather confusingly, they are both often used to add rather than take away emphasis. See this earlier post on Glossophilia: https://glossophilia.org/?p=77

Fowler was forthright (and somewhat scathing) in his derision of the word somewhat and other ‘shock-absorbers’ like it: “Somewhat has for the inferior journalist what he would be likely to describe as ‘a somewhat amazing fascination’. …What first moves people to experiment in the somewhat style is partly timidity – they are frightened by the coming strong word and would fain take precautions against shock – and partly the notion that an air of studious understatement is superior and impressive; and so in our newspapers ‘the intemperate orgy of moderation is renewed every morning’. Cf. the similar use of comparatively and relatively as shock-absorbers.”

I wonder if Fowler’s description is more about the English mind-set than its lingo: “timidity”, “studious understatement” and “intemperate orgies of moderation” sound somewhat British to me …


It’s fortuitous – but is it fortunate? Only in America, it seems …


In a recent e-mail to my Dad, I told him about an event that had seemed ‘very fortuitous’ to me (because of my understanding of the word to mean a mixture of coincidence and good fortune). He was surprised that I would have qualified such an adjective, which to his mind can’t be found in different grades or extremes: in the same way that something is either unique or it isn’t, he would argue that an event or happening either is or isn’t fortuitous.

Over to my Dad, Brian Barder, for his research and comments on the matter. It’s fortunate for me – and, I admit, in this case fortuitous – that I have an American passport: he’s let me off the hook because of it …


It’s interesting that you reckon that “fortuitous has extra connotations of luck or good fortune (unlike accidental or coincidental) – and there are definitely different extremes of good luck and fortune”, which is not confirmed by the big OED Online:

fortuitous   That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual. fortuitous concourse of atoms: see concourse n. 3a. fortuitous event (Law): see quot. 1856.

1653   H. More Antidote Atheism (1712) iii. xv. 135   This Argument against the fortuitous concourse of Atoms.

1712   J. Addison Spectator No. 293. ¶4   The highest Degree of it [sc. Wisdom] which Man can possess, is by no means equal to fortuitous Events.

1806   R. Fellowes tr. Milton Second Def. in Wks. (Bohn) I. 240   This extraordinary kindness..cannot be any fortuitous combination.

1823   Scott Peveril I. Pref. Let. p. iii,   A fortuitous rencontre.

1856   J. Bouvier Law Dict. U.S.A.,   Fortuitous event, a term in the civil law to denote that which happens by a cause which cannot be resisted..Or it is that which neither of the parties has occasioned or could prevent.

1865   Pall Mall Gaz. 27 Oct. 6   The epithet he [Lord Palmerston] applied to the coalition of parties against him on the China question in 1857—‘a fortuitous concourse of atoms’.

1877   W. Sparrow Serm. xviii. 241   Neither fortuitous nor necessitated, but entirely under the governmental control of the great and good God.


1855   H. Spencer Princ. Psychol. iv. iii. 530   All physical relations whatever, from the absolutely indissoluble to the fortuitous.

(“Fortune” in that definition obviously means chance, neither good nor bad fortune and certainly not luck as in ‘lucky’.)

Do you have a copy of Bob Burchfield’s 3rd edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which has an excellent essay on ‘fortuitous’?  As I thought, the idea that fortuitous has some connection with fortunate is an error that began to creep in towards the beginning of the C20 because of the coincidental (fortuitous!) resemblance between the two words, although they have completely different origins — fors (chance) in the case of fortuitous, fortunus (luck, fortune) for the other.  The first edition of Fowler described the use of fortuitous to imply fortunate as a straightforward malapropism.  Burchfield reluctantly admits that the error is now becoming so common that it’s probably in the process of becoming acceptable.  His entry concludes:

Plainly the new meaning is knocking at the door.  But readers of this book  are urged meanwhile to restrict the word to its traditional (“accidental, by chance”) sense.  When an intrusive meaning contains a seed of ambiguity, it is advisable to stay with the older ones.

I’m chuffed to see that Burchfield’s piece starts by quoting a letter of 1987 to him from a friend:  “How sad it will be to lose ‘fortuitous’ to the Visigoths.”  The friend who wrote that to him was me.  I’m still sad to see a good and useful word lost!  I hardly ever use it nowadays for fear that I will be thought not to know that in its original and most respectable usage there’s not a hint of good luck or fortune, and that that misapprehension arises purely from a kind of homophonic pun.

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors says briskly:  “due to or charaterized [sic] by chance: not fortunate or well-timed.”  The Times Style Guide says “fortuitous does not mean fortunate. It means by chance or accident.  Do not confuse.”  The Economist Style Guide says “FORTUITOUS means accidental, not fortunate or well-timed.”

However, I see with some gloom that Webster’s College Dictionary, 9th edition, a dictionary of American English of course, does give “fortunate, lucky” as a second definition of fortuitous.  Most of the (American) online dictionaries follow Webster.  But there’s also this rather good summary:

The traditional, etymological meaning of fortuitous is ‘happening by chance’: a fortuitous meeting is a chance meeting, which might turn out to be either a good thing or a bad thing. Today, however, fortuitous tends to be often used to refer only to fortunate outcomes and the word has become more or less a synonym for ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate’ ( the ball went into the goal by a fortuitous ricochet). Although this usage is now widespread, it is still regarded by some people as incorrect.

It seems that the word has already been lost, not to the Visigoths as I wrote to Bob Burchfield, but to the Americans.  So I suppose you’re off the hook.

You say beefsteak, I say cherry


Let’s face it: Brits and Americans speak a different language. And often, it’s all about size and number …


Stone/pebble Rock



Rock Rock


Prawn Shrimp


Shrimp Shrimp


small (drink) tall / medium (drink)


large (drink) grande / venti / SUPERSIZE (drink)

24 degrees (grab the suncream) 75 degrees (grab a sweater)


Size 12 Size 10


Maths Math


Sport Sports


First floor Second floor


Two a penny A dime a dozen


A penny for your thoughts Here are my two cents



Fancy a cuppa? Take five!


And it’s not just size or number; sometimes,  it’s all about the tense:


Momentarily (past) Just for a second (past)


In a second (future) Momentarily (future)




Brit-phrase Amerci-phrase

Do these expressions sound slightly out of whack to you? If so, you’re probably an American. If not, you must be a Brit.

  • I can’t make head or tail  of what you’re saying.
  • I couldn’t care less about his beliefs.
  • He takes his disabilities in his stride.
  • I’ve got pins and needles in my legs.
  • That series of lectures is right up my street.
  • Touch wood, I’ll pass my driving test this time around.
  • She placed it smack-bang in the middle of the circle.


In this case, if you’re surprised at the outcome you’re probably an American.

  • After my offensive outburst at work, I was given my marching orders.

And if this sounds weird to you, you’re likely a Brit.

  • We’re on pins and needles not knowing who won.


And here, if you’re wondering whether tenterhooks are very big pins and needles, or whether A-levels have something to do with camping, you’re probably an American.

  • We were on tenterhooks for days, until her A-level results came through.