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Exploring Cultures
August 28, 2021

“British-isms:" the NameShouts Guide to British expressions and phrases.

Kate Spree
Kate Spree
PR specialist | Guest blogger
min read

We talk a lot about the need to belong, to be one's true self, and to respect other cultures and languages. But even English can be different depending on where you're from. Contributor Kate Spree takes us on a journey to translate British expressions to American English.

Before moving from the UK to Canada, I was almost 100% certain that the only comprehension issues I’d be having would be in French.

Like everyone, I knew the main differences between British English and American English as I’d grown up reading American authors like Meg Cabot and watching TV shows like Friends. An aubergine was an eggplant, a plaster was a bandaid, and a pavement was a sidewalk. What I wasn’t prepared for was people not being able to understand me.

I’ve been living and working in Canada for three months now, surrounded by friends and coworkers from right across North America, and almost every day I encounter another new linguistic difference that makes me question if I’m even speaking the same language.

Below I’ve put together a list of some of the most commonly misunderstood British expressions (or "British-isms") and their American translations:

Bagsy, or dibs:

I had no idea that “bagsy” was a British word until trying to claim the (heated) front seat in my friend’s car – cue blank stares from my two American friends, who ask me, “Who is Bagsy and why does he get the front seat?”

No, bagsy is not a person, it’s just the British equivalent of “dibs.”

Are they chips, or are they fries?

Chips, or fries:

I knew before moving to Canada that chips were crisps and fries were chips here, but I still get confused every time. Trying to order chips – sorry, fries – is a nightmare, as nine times out of ten I’ll accidentally get a cold packet of crisps rather than a delicious plate of hot potato-ey goodness.

Chinwag, or a chat:

Chinwag is one of those great British expressions that you would never hear in North America. A few years back, Obama famously used the word following a conversation with Australia’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an attempt to use more “Aussie slang.”

To me, it makes total sense, and I love the image of two people wagging their chins. Similar to a “natter,” we have a lot of great colloquial phrases that just mean a good chat, normally over a cup of tea.

Fit, or attractive:

This one is especially confusing because when I describe someone as “fit,” I mean “attractive.” However, here everyone thinks I mean that they’re athletic and go to the gym. My close friends now know to check - “wait, do you mean British fit or regular fit?”

 Flapjack, or a tray-baked oat bar:

I worked as a barista for my first few months in Canada, and it was a great learning experience in terms of the many different words for food. I was trying to explain the new cereal bars we had in stock to a customer, and compared them to a flapjack.

Turns out that “flapjacks” is a pancake place in the US, and not a sweet oat snack. Ask any American or Canadian you know if they know what a flapjack is and I guarantee they will say “like the pancakes?”

Fortnight, or two weeks:

A fortnight is equivalent to two weeks and comes from the Old English term “fēowertyne niht,” meaning fourteen nights. In Canada they say "bi-weekly" rather than "fortnightly," whereas in the UK bi-weekly means twice a week.

 Jammy, or lucky:

If someone is "jammy," it means that they are lucky. It’s usually used in a slightly begrudging tone, for example, if someone gets away with something. It can also be extended to "jammy dodger," after one of the world’s greatest biscuits.

Having a chinwag, or a chat, over tea is another one of many British expressions
Not that tea is an essential part of British life... but tea is an essential part of British life.

Knackered, or tired:

After a very long day at work, I collapse onto the couch and announce to my housemates that I am absolutely knackered. No one understands what I mean.

Knackered is a better way of saying tired, or exhausted.

Loo, or toilet:

I only realized that this was actually a British expression when saying the word "portaloo" on a hike up Mont Saint Hilare. My friends collapsed into laughter and couldn’t stop saying the word "portaloo." The American equivalent however is "portaporty," which to me is even funnier.

Mardy, or grumpy:

Anyone who’s a fan of the Arctic Monkeys will probably already be aware of the word "mardy" from their song "Mardy Bum." It’s mainly used in the North of England and means stroppy (another English word) or bad tempered. It apparently comes from the 19th century word "marred" meaning "spoilt."

Miffed, or annoyed:

If you’re a Harry Potter fan you may already be familiar with this word, but to be miffed is to be annoyed at someone’s behaviour, for example: "Sir Nicolas looked extremely miffed, as if their little chat wasn’t going at all the way he wanted."

Mugged off, or made a fool of:

This British expression was everywhere during Love Island 2017, and for some reason is more prevalent in reality TV than anywhere else. It means for someone to make a fool of you, or to take advantage. The word "mug" has often been used to refer to someone who’s an idiot, with foolish characters regularly named "muggins" in old English literature, and so the phrase essentially means to "make a mug of someone."

these are jeans, not pants
These are jeans. But jeans are not pants.

Pants, or underwear (not trousers!):

There have been several hilariously awkward misinterpretations around this. When I say "pants,” I'm talking about underwear; when my friends here say "pants," they’re talking about their trousers.

I was getting ready for a party with my American friend when she said, "I’m thinking I might wear pants." Without thinking, I replied, "Yes, you should definitely wear pants,” before realising she means trousers rather than a skirt, not that she was considering going commando.

Rubber, or eraser:

This one first created confusion for me years and years ago when watching Mean Girls for the first time as a young teen. You may remember the scene where Coach Carr tells all of the students not to have sex because "you will get pregnant and die" before handing out "rubbers.”

None of my friends understood the reference and thought he was handing out rubbers as in erasers, like stationery. I now have to be very careful not to ask anyone for a rubber when I mean eraser!

Snog, or kiss/make out:

Thanks to the Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging books and film, which successfully made their way across the Atlantic, most people know what a "snog" is. Although it's probably better to use the word "make out" to avoid any confusion.

Whether you’re a Brit struggling to be understood in North America (like me), or an American or Canadian trying to understand the Brits (like my friends), this list of British expressions is a good starting point.

Let us know your favourite British-isms in the comments!

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