21 US and British English

21.5 Lexical variation (word choices)

21.5.1 ‘-isms’

Words and expressions that originated, or that are used exclusively, in one variety of English are often referred to as ‘-isms’ of one kind or another: Canadianisms, Americanisms, Australianisms, and the like. Examples of the hundreds of such word pairs in British and US English, in which the dialects have a different word to designate the same thing, include aubergine/eggplant, braces/suspenders, flat/apartment, lift/elevator, nappy/diaper, torch/flashlight.

21.5.2 Words used in similar contexts

A few words have similar, contrasting, or quite different meanings in British and US English but are used in very similar contexts that may make it easy to overlook the fact that the writer intended something different from what the reader in another dialect would interpret. Common examples are set out in Table 21.3.

Table 21.3

Word

Usual British meaning

Usual US meaning

Asian noun

someone from India or the countries that border it

someone from China, Japan, Korea, or a neighbouring country

bailiff noun

executor of court orders such as eviction and repossession

court officer who maintains order and performs other duties in a courtroom

biscuit noun

a flat, somewhat dry, sweet cake (= US cookie)

a savoury quick bread, similar to a roll (like British scone)

carnival noun

seasonal celebration that typically precedes Lent

travelling, temporary amusement park (= British funfair)

chancellor noun

honorary patron of a university

senior administrative official of a university

chips noun

strips of potato fried in fat (= US fries)

dry, crisp snack food made from potato, cornmeal, or other vegetables (= British crisps when made from potatoes)

cider noun

fermented apple juice (= US hard cider)

unfiltered apple juice

corn noun

any cereal crop

Zea maize, as a human food, food crop, or industrial crop

crèche noun

day nursery; child care centre

representation of the Nativity

CV noun

summary of education, qualifications, employment (= US résumé)

similar to UK meaning, but typically used only in academia, medicine, and law

entrée noun

dish before the main course

the main course

football noun

association football (= US soccer)

American football

government noun

the government currently in power; roughly equivalent to US administration

the institution and its components at the state or national level that persists through changes of leadership

homely adjective

simply furnished and comfortable (= US homey)

plain and unattractive (of a person)

judicial review noun

a procedure by which a court can review an administrative action by a public body and secure a declaration, order, or award.

review by a higher court or by the Supreme Court of the constitutional validity of a legislative act

lemonade noun

clear fizzy drink with lemon flavour

still drink made from lemon juice, water, sugar

lime (tree) noun

a tree of the genus Tilia (= US linden)

a tree that produces limes, Citrus aurantifolia

mad adjective

insane

angry

mean adjective

selfish

cruel

momentarily adverb

for a moment

in a moment

moot adjective

subject to debate

having no significance

osteopath noun

health practitioner who does spine and joint adjustments (like US chiropractor)

medical doctor with additional qualification in spine manipulation

ouster noun

eviction from a property

removal from public office

pants noun

underpants

trousers

paraffin noun

liquid combustible fuel (= US kerosene)

inert waxlike substance obtained from petroleum

pavement noun

walkway beside a road (= US sidewalk)

roadway made of asphalt or concrete

pound sign noun

the symbol £

the symbol #

quite adverb

to some extent

very, really (see also 21.6)

smart adjective

fashionable

intelligent

solicitor noun

a lawyer who handles routine legal matters (= US lawyer or attorney)

a government lawyer, or in some contexts, a salesperson (e.g. on a sign that says ‘No solicitors’)

subway noun

walkway under a road

underground train or rail system

sycamore noun

Acer pseudoplatanus, the sycamore maple

Any tree of the genus Platanus (= British plane tree)

table verb

bring forward for discussion

remove from consideration

through predicate adjective

having successfully passed to the next stage of a competition

finished

trunk noun

luggage or storage container with hinged lid

storage compartment in the rear of a vehicle (= British boot)

21.5.3 Preferred inflections

A number of verbs show different behaviour between British and US English. Those that are merely spelling variants are discussed above in 21.4.1. Some other verbs have forms that are used exclusively or preferentially in only one dialect. A few verbs (some mentioned in 3.2.1) have a participle form ending in -t that is not used in US English when the verb appears as part of a finite verb phrase. These forms—burnt, leant, learnt, smelt, spelt, spilt, and spoilt—are not used in US English and should be replaced by their -ed equivalents when Americanizing text. Burnt is occasionally used in US English as an adjective.

Special attention should be given to the participles got and gotten, since British English does not use the latter as a past participle of get. When Briticizing text, all instances of gotten can simply be changed to got. When Americanizing, it is necessary to distinguish the various senses of get. US English uses got in verb phrases where the verb means ‘possess’ (I've got a beach house in Florida) and ‘have as an obligation’ (I’ve got to go to Chicago next week). Gotten is the preferred form when the verb means ‘obtain’ (Have you gotten your results yet?) and ‘become’ (She hasn’t gotten any prettier over the years). Gotten is also more usual in US English in a number of idioms and phrasal verbs containing get, such as get used to something, get over something, get through something, get rid of something, get nowhere/anywhere.

21.5.4 Variants with common etymology

Several word pairs in British and US English derive wholly or partly from a common ancestor but have settled on distinct preferred forms in the two dialects. These are laid out in Table 21.4.

Table 21.4

US English

British English

airplane

aeroplane

aluminum

aluminium

candidacy

candidature

centennial

centenary

costumer

costumier

deviltry

devilry

doodad

doodah

edgewise

edgeways

elasticized

elasticated

expiration

expiry

furor

furore

hauler

haulier

hodge-podge

hotch-potch

hydroplane

aquaplane

math

maths

normalcy

normality

orient (verb)

orientate

polyethylene

polythene

raise (in pay)

rise

sailboat

sailing boat

sequester

sequestrate

snicker

snigger

specialty

specialism

tidbit

titbit

21.5.5 Variability in function words

Although it rarely gives rise to a misunderstanding, there are several minor differences between British and US English in the choice of function words such as prepositions, conjunctions, and articles. The main points to be aware of are:

  • around/round US English does not use round as a preposition or an adverb; around is used in all cases.

  • around/about Many phrasal verbs in the two dialects differ only by British English preferring about, and US English preferring around, for the particle. Examples include mess around/about, hang around/about, lie around/about.

  • inside, when used as a preposition, may be followed by of in US English, but not usually in British English.

  • amidst/amongst/whilst These are generally not used in US English, which prefers amid/among/while.

  • • Both dialects use different from when contrasting two things. Different than is mainly used in US English; different to is used exclusively in British English.

  • • A number of idioms and set phrases use a different preposition in the two dialects: British at the weekend, US on the weekend; British at school, US in school; a vehicle on tow (British), or in tow (US).

  • • variable use of the definite article (British in/to hospital, US in/to the hospital; British at table, US at the table).

  • towards occurs in both dialects but toward, preferred in US English, is rare in British.

21.5.6 Offensive language

Language that may be offensive to some readers, or regarded as insensitive to its intended audience, is largely the same among varieties of English and careful writers avoid it. Words in Table 21.5 are differently perceived and used by Britons and Americans and so should be scrutinized carefully when editing text from the opposite dialect.

Humorous puns in informal writing that play on the ambiguity of slang and informal terms with variable meanings in different dialects—such as dick, fag, faggot, knock-up, randy, rear-ender, rubber, shag, willie—should probably be left alone in localizing text unless it is suspected that an offensive misunderstanding may result.

Table 21.5

Word

Use in British English

Use in US English

fit noun

a sudden attack of convulsions

(regarded as offensive when used with reference to epilepsy; use seizure instead)

fanny noun

vulgar term for female genitalia

informal or humorous term for the buttocks

spunk noun

vulgar term for semen

pluck; spirit; mettle


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