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British vs. American English 0

By Val Boyko


Summary: A light hearted look at differences across the Atlantic - British English vs. American English.

The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw once said: "England and America are two countries divided by a common language"

Most English speaking people don't realize how great the differences are between British English and American English. I certainly didn't until I moved to the US over 10 years ago. That was when I was surprised to discover that we do speak a different language. Did you know that there are over 4000 words in everyday use in the United States that are not in British English. That's a lot! Words like bleachers, busboy, podiatrist, odometer, valance and, one of my favorites, rutabaga were all completely foreign to me.

When I read the quote from George Bernard Shaw I started to wonder about how these differences had come about, and what impact they have on communications between the British and Americans today. Are we still two countries divided by a common language?


We all know that there were settlers in the New World who came from parts of Britain. What is easy to forget, is that in those days, they were cut off from the folk they left behind and had no VERBAL contact. Their language became isolated and so the division of the language began. Words that have survived from this era - like "gotten" may actually be more proper, although they sound grammatically wrong to British ears!

Over the years other nationalities settled in America, bringing their languages with them. English was the dominant language but there were also German, Dutch, Spanish and French colonies, as well as Jews speaking Yiddish and other minorities adding to the mix. New words and phrases started to be incorporated into everyday speech. For example - Did you know "coleslaw" and "waffle" come from Dutch? "Coyote" from Spanish? To "nix" something is German? A "tush" is Yiddish? And yes, "entrepreneur" is a French word Mr. President.

Eventually, the pronunciation of the words themselves changed as people from different countries arrived here and learned English. Brand new words and expressions started to come into everyday use.

After the revolutionary war it wasn't surprising that Americans liked the fact that their English was different from British English. Noah Webster chose spelling that was simpler and more phonetic in the first American dictionary, which was aptly named Webster's, and was published in 1828.

Since the industrial revolution, new technologies and inventions have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic - with Americans and the British creating new words for things. For example: relating to electricity, plumbing, railways - or should that be railroads, and the car industry - or should that be automobile manufacturing(?)

It made the differences even more distinct.


So, what happens when an American and an Englishman start talking, and think they are speaking the same language, but in fact, don't understand everything that is being said? It can lead to confusion, frustration, embarrassment and sometimes hilarity.

As a coach and intercultural specialist I work with people on both sides of the Atlantic and have learned to use British AND American words at the same time. For example: Car park - parking lot; handbag - purse; boot - trunk; lift - elevator; And I am also aware of different pronunciations of things including fillet, ballet and basil.

But even with years of exposure to both kinds of English I can still find myself coming a cropper, throwing a spanner in the works and getting into a real pickle! In business the consequences can be dear or costly.


In Britain, to table something means to bring it TO the table for discussion In the USA it means to put it aside. I was in a meeting when an American suggested tabling a topic - and a British colleague opened a whole discussion around it. The outcome wasn't as planned. The American got annoyed with what he saw as English arrogance and someone who deliberately did it to make him angry, while the Englishman was bemused at the lack of interest and hostility around the table.

Another story comes from an Englishman who was at his wits end with an admin assistant who never got around to doing his work. His American colleagues always seemed to get preferential treatment. What was really happening here? He would ask "Would it be possible to get this fax out today?" and she would put his request at the bottom of her pile of work. The Englishman meant "this fax is urgent and must be sent before 5.00" in American English.

When Americans interact with the British, there are many subtleties to consider.

I worked with an American who had expatriated to London and would tell people how great it was that his British colleagues called him a "cowboy". Cowboy, however, in Britain refers to someone who does poor quality work because they rush at things and don't plan ahead.

Americans can be on a sticky wicket when using SPORTS terms in business!

Here is a golden rule: Sports terms don't travel well in countries where the sport isn't played. So don't be surprised if you get a blank stare if you ask an Englishman to step up to the plate. We only know a plate as something to eat off. The world isn't involved in the World Series!

* It took me a while to figure out if STRIKING OUT was a good or bad thing.

* What is a curve ball anyway? - is it like going round the bend?


For those of us who have watched an Austin Powers Movie - the difference in language can also bring some very funny moments!

Here are a couple of examples for Americans to be aware of:

* Did you know that knickers are panties in Britain? It is funny for me to think about baseball players wearing knickers - on the outside too.

* Or did you know that an eraser is called a rubber in Britain? A good British Mum makes sure her children go to school with a rubber in their pencil case.

There are many more that are guaranteed to bring lightness to any occasion!


When we look at American English and British English, the differences are clearly there, and it DOES have an impact on how Americans and British people communicate with each other.

Do I agree with George Bernard Shaw? Are England and America two countries divided by a common language?

I would say that England and America are two countries who are confused and amused, but not necessarily divided, by a language that is clearly different on certain occasions, but don't quote me on that!

So - Is that a yes or a no in American or British English? I'll let you decide.



© Copyright 2005. Val Boyko, My Global Coach. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share this article with friends, colleagues, a group or an organization - providing you include this notice, of course.

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About the Author

AS Val BoykoVal Boyko is a Scot and an American, expatriate spouse, interculturalist and professional coach. As a Global Coach she supports individuals moving to and from the USA, giving them a jump start to integrate quickly and be successful in the new culture. Her passion is for her clients to discover new possibilities and a sense of purpose whilst overseas - and beyond!

Val is a graduate of Coach University, a member of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research and on the board of the Philadelphia chapter of the International Coach Federation. Find out more about Val and her approach at MyGlobalCoach.com.

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First Published: Jul 30, 2005

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