When you’re learning a language, there’s a lot of potential for miscommunication and misunderstandings. After all, every language has specific expressions that have different meanings or that just don’t exist in other languages.
What might be more surprising, however, is that this confusion can happen among speakers of the same language. Take American and British English: While they’re both types of English, they’ve developed differently due to history and geography. As a result, there are many American-only words that confuse Brits, and vice versa.
In this article, we present eight American words British people don’t understand!
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When you go to a hair salon in the US and ask for bangs, the stylist will cut the front strands of your hair so they’re covering your forehead and are usually at about eyebrow level. In the UK, you might get a blank stare if you say you want bangs—British people say “a fringe.”
Example: “Whenever I get bangs, I feel cute for about two days and then they just get annoying.”
In America, if you don’t want to be caught jaywalking—illegally crossing the street at an undesignated place—you’d better look for a crosswalk: those stripes painted on the street that indicate you’re allowed to cross. In the UK, however, asking where the crosswalk is will probably get you nowhere. You’ll need to call it a “zebra crossing.”
Example: “They need a crosswalk at this intersection. It’s unsafe to cross the street here.”
If you’re ever with a British person and you ask them if they’re mad, you might not get the response you’re expecting. While Americans most often use this term to mean angry, to our British friends, it means crazy. Keep that in mind so you don’t make a tense situation worse!
Example: “I wanted Saturday night off but now I’m scheduled to work. I’m so mad!”
Picture it: You’re holding a baby and he starts screaming. You look around for something to calm him down. You ask your British friend to pass you the pacifier—a little rubber nipple to suck on. Your friend answers, “Um… . . . the what”? Annoyed, you point to the pacifier sitting on the table. That’s when you learn that Brits don’t say “pacifier”; they say “dummy”!
Example: “I used a pacifier from birth until I was almost four years old. It damaged my teeth.”
Pants are a clothing item you wear to cover your legs, aren’t they? Well, not in the UK! Imagine you’re deciding what to wear to a party and you say, “I can’t decide if I should wear pants or a skirt.” Your British friend might say “I hope you wear both.” That’s because in the UK, “pants” means underwear!
Example: “Why do men’s pants have nice, deep pockets but women’s pants often have none at all?”
In America, if you’re angry about something, you can say you’re pissed. However, you might give a British person the wrong impression if you tell them that, as it means “drunk” in the UK. To avoid an embarrassing misunderstanding, it’s better to go with “pissed off, which is understood by Americans and Brits alike.
Example: “My boss just blamed me for losing an important client and it wasn’t my fault. I’m so pissed right now!”
7. Take a rain check
While the above examples have all been individual words, there are also plenty of American phrases that British people don’t understand—like this one. When an American is invited to do something but they can’t come, they might say, “I’ll take a rain check,” meaning that they’ll join some other time when they’re available. There’s really no direct British equivalent; a Brit would probably just say “I’m busy but I’ll join you some other time,” which is actually a lot less confusing.
Speaker 1: “Do you want to come to the bar with us after work?”
Speaker 2: “I’ve got plans tonight but I’ll take a rain check!”
8. The 411
This is a very North American slang term used to request information about something. This comes from the pre-internet days, when people would dial 4-1-1 on the phone to get information, such as the address of a particular business. So if you ask, “What’s the 411?” you’re requesting details about a particular situation.
Note: If you use this one, make sure you say “four one one” and not “four eleven.”
Example: “Hey, I hear the owner is reorganizing our department—what’s the 411 on that?”
Get the 411 on confusing words
Now that we’ve gone through some American words that British people don’t understand, the rest is up to you. Try learning about other confusing English words and phrases. Understanding regional differences in English vocabulary will help you improve your communication skills—and cut down on confusion!
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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.