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Surprising words in British English
Learning the way locals speak in the UK
One of the best parts of traveling in Great Britain, especially London, is hearing the people talk. I find myself listening in on conversations at the table next to me or in line—simply tickled by the way they speak. Being a linguist at heart, I can’t help but want to learn the local lingo and to try on the local accent.
There are great differences in the way people speak in London depending on where they are from and their upbringing. It’s hard to pick just one accent or set of slang words to adopt, but generally there are words in British English that are commonly different (or used differently) than American English. In fact, there are far too many to put in this article, but here are a few that may help on your next trip.
Words related to travel
In the UK, you don’t go on vacation, you go on “holiday.” When you take the subway, it’s referred to as “the Tube” or “the Underground.” When trying to exit the airport, a tube station, or any building, look for the signs that say “way out” instead of “exit.”
Viewfinder Tip: In London, say “cheers” in place of the word “thanks” to sound more like a local.
When you need to take the elevator to another floor remember that the word for elevator is “lift.” And once you are inside that lift, don’t get confused by the floors. Across Europe, the ground floor is marked zero. And what Americans call the second floor is really the first floor here. If you are visiting someone at their apartment, they’ll refer to it as their “flat.”
There are all manner of car-related words that are quite divergent from American English. If you need to fill your car with gasoline, know that it’s called “petrol” here. The trunk is referred to as “the boot.” And the hood is called “the bonnet.” If you need to find the parking lot, you’d best be looking for signs that say “car park.”
More useful words
In restaurants that serve cuisine you are familiar with, you might have little trouble decoding the menu. But there are some rather surprising and random words to know. For example, an eggplant is called an “aubergine.” A zucchini is a “courgette.” A cookie is a “biscuit.” And when your waiter asks if you would like “chips” with your order he is referring to french fries! But don’t get those confused with “crisps,” which are potato chips.
If you go shopping for clothes, there are a few words you’ll want to be straight on. A sweater is called a “jumper.” The word “pants” refers to underwear—and “trousers” is the right word for pants. If you are buying a “dinner jacket,” you are purchasing a tuxedo. And another name for a backpack is a “rucksack.”
More words to know
There are some terms that I find rather amusing. The word “fiver” I learned when walking through the Columbia Road Flower Market in London where florists were yelling out prices for bunches of flowers on sale. One seller looked me right in the eye and almost incomprehensibly said, “a dozen tulips for a fiver.” I realized then a “fiver” meant five bucks (or rather five pounds).
When hanging with a local friend, waiting in line for some food at Borough Market, she noticed that someone up ahead had cut. She seethed, “Oh that’s a real bugbear of mine.” Then I learned “bugbear” means pet peeve. And the English really do take lining up seriously. They even have a custom verb for it: “queuing.” If someone said, “you must queue over there,” then they mean to go stand in line over there.
Do you know any other words different in British English and American English? I’d love to hear them!
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