Five Tiny U.S. Phrases With Opposite Meanings In The U.K.
Two nations sharing a common language will always come up with regional variations in how they choose to express themselves, but some expressions appear to be trying to cause trouble, albeit in a really innocuous way.
Why else would simple words doggedly take opposite meanings, depending on where they are used? Why else would you try and settle your bar tab using words that describe both the paper that tells you what you owe and the paper that proves you can pay for it. Who can say they truly appreciate there being two very different uses of the word chips to describe fried potatoes? It’s an argument waiting to happen, is what it is.
Bills and checks
This is probably a distinction that is most keenly felt from a British perspective. If you’re in a U.K. bar or restaurant and ask for the bill, you get a paper account of what you owe (what Americans also know as the check). But only in America do you attempt to pay this with pieces of paper that are also called bills (y’know, of the dollar variety). British paper currency comes in notes.
And only in America can you attempt to settle the check—with a check. In Britain, the only checks (or, more properly cheques) are those personal paper payments that come in books.
In meetings, it’s quite common for people on both sides of the Atlantic to talk about tabling a discussion. That’s the kind of crazy thing high-minded businessfolk do, imbue a well-known domestic noun—like chair—with all of the qualities of a verb and see if it sticks (a process known as saucering*).
However, just be aware that if you want to table a discussion in Britain it means you want it ON the agenda for the meeting, and if you want to table a discussion in America it means you want it OFF the agenda, pending further developments or research.
This one is specific to the old railroad (or railway), and in particular the little cabin at the front of the train (or choo-choo). In American English, the engineer was always the person driving the train; in Britain, the engineer is just the person who helped build it. They can drive the train too (just as not all American engineers are Casey Jones), of course, but then they’d be called a train driver.
Getting the hang of this now? Well here’s a curve-ball (or banana-shot). Be careful when British friends use the word quite in your presence. Unless you know them pretty well, there’s a lot of scope for misunderstandings, given that the American use of the word in a sentence like “you’re quite hostile” just means very and that is that.
Brits use the word more subtly. It can be used to add emphasis—as in “quite sure” or “quite the belle of the ball”—but it also turns up as a way of subtracting emphasis, as a natural and mild opposite to not quite. If someone says they’re “quite tired,” that could mean they’re very tired, or only a little bit tired. Same with “quite drunk,” “quite loud” and messily enough, “quite sick.”
Factor in the British tendency to express things using reserved speech and you’ve potentially got quite a mess on your hands.
This is just one of those weird moments of cultural asynchronicity that should not be as irritating as they are. And yet…
Suppose you are meeting a friend for a drink, and they have suggested a place on the first floor of a tall building uptown. Should you look for the stairs or elevators as you enter the building or not? If your friend is British, the answer is yes. The floor at ground level is called the ground floor, and the floor one level up is the first floor. So British elevators have a G or a 0 for ground level, and then 1, 2 and so on.
However, if your friend is American, you’d start looking as soon as you’re in the building. The first floor is the ground floor, and the elevators start at 1 or G or L (for lobby). Press the L on a British elevator and you are headed for the Lower Ground floor, if there’s another entrance on a different level.
Tell you what, just ring your friend and check before you set out, it’s easier.
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* Not really.