But there is a more select group of words that mean one thing in Britain and another in America. It's as well to be on your guard if you don't want to be misunderstood.
Walk into an American building and you're already on the first floor. In the UK, that's called the ground floor: you have to take the stairs to get to the first floor. I've been told that for superstitious reasons American buildings sometimes missed out the 13th floor, so by the 14th floor the British would be two floors behind. Be that as it may, if you were to jump from the 14th floor of a building, the result would be pretty much the same whichever side of the Atlantic you were on.
If you really want to get onto a different plane, I recommend the 13th Floor Lifts … sorry, Elevators.
Speaking of heights, if your captain announces that you'll be taking off "momentarily", you'd better pray you're on an American airline. The people unbuckling their seatbelts and scrambling for the exits will be British, for whom 'momentarily' doesn't mean 'in a moment', it means 'for a moment'.
This is a slightly different distinction, but one that journalists especially need to be aware of. You need to know if you're reading a British or American source, because an Imperial gallon is 20% bigger than an American one. They're both eight pints, but that's because Imperial pints are also 20% bigger.
There's no point me listing all the conversions; you won't bookmark this page just for that. Just bookmark ConvertMe instead. It gives you every conversion at once, so if you read a suspiciously accurate-looking number, say 24.2 gallons, you'll immediately see that that's 100 litres, so it's a good guess that you're dealing with American gallons (and that 24.2 gallons is misleadingly precise for what was probably only an estimate in the first place).
It's about two decades since Britain's most conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, bowed to the inevitable and adopted the US billion (1,000 million) instead of the British billion (a million million, now generally known as a trillion). If you're more conservative than the Daily Telegraph, then the 21st Century really isn't for you.
The only reason for bringing this up is that you'll occasionally come across 'milliard', which is the old-fashioned word for what (nearly) everyone now calls a billion and is still used in many European countries. This is because Europeans take great delight in being incomprehensible to the British and Americans, going so far as pretending to have their own languages just to annoy tourists.
Shipping and transportation
I work in the shipping industry. Being British, that means I'm involved with maritime transport (not transportation: that's the carriage of convicts to the colonies). It's an annoyance, because a web search for my industry turns up all sorts of American retailers, because for them 'shipping' simply means what the British usually call 'delivery'. This seems odd, since ships are highly unlikely to be used for delivering anything in the US, given the geography of the place and the dead hand of the Jones Act, but Americans don't have a monopoly on illogical terms, as anyone who has been to a British public (i.e. private) school will attest.
|English public schoolboys smoking, 1980. |
I often wonder what happened to Nigel Farage (left)
State-run schools are called 'comprehensives'; the idea being that everyone gets a comprehensive education in everything that this week's minister of education thinks is important, based either on his experiences at a public school (if he's a Tory) or his experiences in the National Union of Students (if he's Labour, having vigorously rejected everything he learned at his own public school).
For a brief period in the 1960s and 70s, the government paid for less well-off kids to go to public schools, which is how I ended up knowing a bit of Latin, while also getting the chance to take the sort of photo (above) whose blackmail value I have never properly exploited.
If you're going to be strict about it, one of the two uses of this word is correct and the other isn't. If you're American, you might be irritated to find that the popular American usage is technically wrong.
A 'moot point' is a point that is open to further discussion. In Anglo-Saxon England, the 'moot' was the meeting of elders and wise men (the word has the same origin as the modern English 'meet'), so a 'moot point' was a point that was to be decided at a later date. So, in British English a moot point is a matter that is undecided.
In American English, a moot point is one that is unworthy of further discussion. This developed from the moots of law societies, whose meetings never decided anything. In this sense, it mirrors the difference between the British and American uses of the verb 'table'…
In Britain, an issue that has been tabled has been put on the table for discussion. Effectively, it's a live topic. In the USA, an issue that has been tabled has been put aside, so it's a dead topic. The meanings are the complete opposite of each other. An English reader seeing the word 'tabled' in a US publication should substitute the word 'shelved', replacing one piece of furniture with another.
Both continents use "pissed off", meaning unhappy and disillusioned. The shorter "pissed" has the same meaning in America but is quite different in Britain, where it means inebriated. This probably causes more amusement in Britain than America. For an American, getting pissed with your lawyer is the normal state of affairs. To British ears, it sounds like the entire plot of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas.
Follow the signs into a subway in London and all you're likely to find is a tramp (or bum: see below). You might also stumble across an underground railway, but that would be a happy coincidence because a subway is just an underground road crossing.
This is a meatball, or a bundle of sticks for lighting a fire, although most Britons understand that it means something quite different in America. It is not to be confused with 'fag', which as everyone knows is a cigarette. Despite the growing intolerance shown towards cigarette smokers in the UK, smoking fags is far more anti-social in the USA.
Since this post is rapidly degenerating into a carnival of crude slang, it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore the fact that a 'fanny' is roughly the American equivalent of the British 'bum'. What Americans call a bum, the British would call a tramp. What Americans call a tramp, the British would probably call a slut (if they were ill-mannered enough to use the word at all).
As for the British 'fanny' … well, how can I put this delicately? If you touched an American fanny without permission, you'd probably get a slap. If you did the same to a British fanny, you'd probably get three years.
Moral: Know your audience