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Sometimes, in order to write about something, you have to go on a little voyage of discovery. So, having decided to research some words that are so common to British English it would hard to summon them without a reference point, but basically unknown over where you are, I had a quick squizz at Wikipedia’s list of British English words not widely used in the United States.
It would not be an understatement to say I’ve entirely flabbered my ghast now. My bee is too fuddled to fly straight. How can you not know what abseiling is? Or clingfilm? It’s like I don’t even know you any more!
So here’s a list of the ten words or expressions I was most surprised to discover aren’t universal to all English speakers. Forgive me if any of these are, like, really common in your house. They are in mine too, if that’s any help.
Y’know that thing people do when they walk down the side of a building while holding a rope? Apparently you call it rappel? It’s abseiling. Let’s not argue about it, it just is.
# <– See this fella here? He’s not a pound is he? This –> £ <– is a pound. Also, no one on Twitter refers to the gatheration of tweets on a certain topic as being a poundtag, do they? So why persist in this nonsensical idea that this –> # <– is a pound sign? It just flipping well isn’t.
You win this round. Cotton candy is a far better descriptive name for those pink clouds of sugar you get at fairgrounds than candy floss. Look at it, it’s not floss. Quite the reverse, in fact.
On the other hand, plastic wrap, or Saran wrap are only acceptable terms for that translucent plastic you put on food to stop it going off if you don’t have the majestic clingfilm in your dictionary. Another round to us.
The problem with bangs, as a term for a straight line cut in the hair on your forehead so it doesn’t go in your eyes, is it’s plural. Consequently I used to think bangs were something that happened on either side of the face, like the side bits of a bob, because it couldn’t possibly refer to one single area. And it implies something a little more, I dunno, explosive than it looks. Whereas if you call that line a fringe, because you’ve created a new perimeter (or, y’know, fringe) for your hair, well that makes perfect sense.
Note: not Arctic, this is an abbreviated term for an articulated lorry. Y’know, a semi-trailer truck, driven by truckers. Some of the outlaw cool of American truckers – all that CB lingo, love of country music and general devil-may-care attitude – has rubbed off on their British counterparts, but once the Brits find a term they like, it won’t shift, so they’ll always be artic-hauling lorry drivers first, and truckers second.
Again, this one is perfectly straightforward, and I’m afraid once again you are wrong. Shoes that you would use while training for an athletic event should be called training shoes, which abbreviates nicely to trainers. If there were such a thing as shoes you would use while sneaking, those shoes can be called sneakers. Yes, trainers tend to be quiet underfoot, so you can sort of sneak up on people while wearing them, but is that really the first thing you’d think of as soon as you put a pair on? What does that say about your mentality as a nation? Not good things, that’s what.
I’m going to lose my patience in a minute. Yes, OK, it’s a more powdery form of sugar than granulated sugar, or caster sugar, but c’mon, you mix it with water to make… icing! It’s an integral part of the icing on the cake! It’s sugar that you use to make icing with. It’s icing sugar! Oh wait, is that what you call frosting? OK, as you were…
This isn’t a very common one in Britain any more, and it’s a little unseemly, but never mind. Two of the more easily confused euphemisms across British and American English are names: John Thomas and John Hancock. John Thomas means penis, whereas John Hancock, despite that second syllable in his surname, means a signature. Specifically the big swooshy signature he put on the Declaration of Independence. Knowing this, you must forgive the momentary confusion and horror on the face of that British guy you know, should you whip out a form and ask him to put his John Hancock on it. He’ll catch up in a second.
How can a country with such a well-established love of coffee not have a better name for the old plunge pot than French press? It’s a cafetière (pronounced caff-ett-ee-air)! And the reason we call it that is the same reason you call it a French press, because it’s French. So just as we don’t have English words for restaurant or cafe, and the French don’t have a word for cricket, there’s no reason to anglify their word for their own invention.
Fraser McAlpine is British, this explains a lot.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic