British English vs. American English: Which is less ridiculous?

This site is generally about the economics of world travel and I don’t usually stray far from that, but as an American anglophile who has been spending most of his time with Brits (in Turkey) lately, I’ve decided to examine many of the expressions we each use differently.

When we are young, the normal first reaction is to assume that our own usages make perfect sense and that on the other side of the Atlantic they are twisting things just to be different. But when you think about it with a little more distance, both versions are often silly, confusing, or misleading in a literal sense.

So let’s dissect 10 of the most common examples where one expression is far more common in each country than the other, to see which version is really less ridiculous.

Trainers vs. Sneakers or Tennis Shoes

This is an easy call because trainers not only makes sense (short for ‘training shoes’) but it also sounds cool. And when they are actually on the pitch/field they are likely to be wearing some kind of football boots instead of trainers, so it wraps up nicely.

Sneakers on the other hand, sounds like we Americans are trying to get away with something (with little success, I might add). And especially in the western United States, tennis shoes seems to be an even more common name for athletic shoes. Unless you belong to a country club or you are one of the Williams sisters, when was the last time you actually played tennis?

Advantage: UK

Lorry vs. Truck

Here’s one where the individual words might not have another deep meaning, but just the sound of each of them is enough to make a decision. Truck sounds like tank. It’s tough. A truck driver is someone you don’t mess around with unless you know one or more martial arts because even if they can’t fight, they can smash up your pathetic vehicle without even realizing it.

Lorry is a girl’s name and it sounds like fairy. If I were a lorry driver in the UK I think I’d make a point of trying to get truck into full use ASAP.

Advantage: USA

Football vs. Football

This one is completely ridiculous if you really think about it. The game Americans call “soccer” (an early slang of Association Football -> AsSoc -> Soccer) is clearly named perfectly in the UK and most of the rest of the world. The foot actually touches the ball almost every second of the game.

On the other hand, the American version of football seems like someone came up with the name just to fuck with people who already had a sport by that moniker. Out of a 60-minute game a foot touches the ball maybe 15 to 20 times, and about half of those involve short-term surrender.

Advantage: UK

Car Park vs. Parking Lot

This one might seem like a close call at first, but car park has a huge advantage on the imagery side of things if you really think about it. A car park sounds like a dog park or a kiddie park. When you have gone into your office or the shopping center, wouldn’t it be nice to think that all the cars left behind were enjoying each other’s company?

lot on the other hand sounds extremely bland and like no fun at all. Your car does a lot for you. Doesn’t it deserve a bit of fun when it’s waiting?

Advantage: UK

Main Course vs. Entrée

This one is an embarrassment for us Yanks. Somehow we twisted the meaning of a word around to use it almost as the opposite of the actual translation. Entrée, is obviously a French word, and in French dining it represents the first course, which Americans call the appetizer and Brits usually call the starter. How did we get it so wrong?

If an American goes to France and tries to be “Continental” by ordering in English but with a French accent, they’d likely be laughed out of the restaurant if not for the fact that it must happen every day. Ordering an appetizer before an entrée will rightfully make the French feel smug about their place in the culinary world.

Advantage: UK

Petrol vs. Gas

The fact that gas is a shortened version of ‘gasoline’ at least helps explain how Americans began referring to this controversial liquid by this misnomer. Still, it doesn’t really help, and it probably confuses an endless string of school children who are struggling to stay awake in chemistry class while learning the difference between gases, liquids, and solids and whatnot.

Petrol on the other hand, which is a shortened version of ‘petroleum’ (crude oil), not only makes sense, but it sounds kinda cool too. This one is clearly worth the extra syllable, although it’s obviously far too late.

Advantage: UK

Fit vs. Hot

When an British person sees a sexy member of the opposite sex, they declare them fit, but that’s way too close to ‘physically fit’ to not be confusing. Kelly Brook is always sexy, but she may not look physically fit in every photo. A 75-year-old marathon runner certainly looks fit, but never sexy. You get the idea.

Hot on the other hand obviously means something else as well, but there’s no chance of confusion. And it allows you to rank the ‘hottest’ celebrities and the ‘hottest bartenders’ without worrying about how many push-ups they can do. Being hot is clearly cooler than being fit.

Advantage: USA

Flat vs. Apartment

flat in the UK seems descriptive enough in context, as (typically) a small living space on a single floor. It sounds pretty cool too. In addition, it’s short and efficient as well. As if “my flat” or “my house” weren’t short enough, the Brits usually take that down to simply, mine. Well done, Brits, so now it’s time to start getting rid of some of those extra “U”s you’ve got in colour and the extra letters in tonne etc.

Admittedly, apartment isn’t bad either, and it sounds like compartment so it’s also pretty descriptive. Still, why say in three syllables what you can say in one?

Advantage: UK

Jumper vs. Sweater

The lesser-used pullover would be a good compromise, but the most popular terms in each country both have problems. Think about the word sweater for a moment, and consider that if you actually started sweating in the thing your first reaction would be to take it off. It would be better if it were called a ‘warmer upper.’

And jumper also means something else and has absolutely nothing to do with the function of the garment. To an American’s ears jumper sounds like an infant’s activity toy, if not a person about to kill himself. Let’s just get rid of both of these and start calling them pullovers or overshirts.

Advantage: Draw/Tie

Pudding vs. Dessert

“How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” the mean headmaster would shout at the school boys in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (Part II), and it didn’t seem like a big dilemma until many years later when I learned that pudding means ANY kind of dessert. Now I understand. These little fellows might have been denied ice cream or tiramisu had they been unable to choke down that grisled so-called meat.

Seriously England, you’ve got blood pudding (which is sausage), Yorkshire pudding (a pastry served with beef and gravy), and you’ve decided to also call every post-meal sweet a “pudding” as well? The custard-without-eggs-type pudding deserves its own name, even if you don’t eat much of it.

Advantage: USA

Final score: UK 6, USA 3, draw 1

In reality, it seems like the two divisions of English are rapidly merging lately, and probably tipping more American due to the cultural bulldozer that the USA drives around the world in. So most people I meet are well aware of both versions and sometimes switch on their own to the less familiar one.

Weirdly, calling a red-haired person a “ginger” would never have happened in America as of a few years ago, but now people are using it like they grew up with it, so you just never know.

Additional photo credits: 1234568910

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  1. UKate says:

    I second the motion that this needs another round! I’m new to the UK and am constantly amazed by the Britisisms – they *sound* like English, but have absolutely no meaning in my American brain. More, please! 🙂

  2. Jade Johnston says:

    You forgot “pants” and “underwear”. It can be a very embarassing mistake when you compliment someone on their “pants” in the UK, and you end up looking like a perv.

    Jade Johnston –

  3. Joe says:

    I’d love to see a second round of this. so many other words to compare – skip/dumpster, fag/cigarette, chip/crisp, french fry/chip, cookie/biscuit, biscuit/scone, dentist/unnecessary mouth doctor, etc.