There are many opportunities for linguistic confusion between Brits and Americans—slang, Southern slang and pronunciations can all cause blank looks, but there’s a whole category of words poised to confuse, of which we’re often not aware.
In the U.K., this verb means “to hit on” or “talk flirtatiously” with someone. In the U.S. however, it is used quite frequently to mean having a light, casual conversation or talking positively about something in order to persuade others to like it or approve of it. Imagine my confusion when a friend once said she would “chat me up,” meaning that she would say nice things about me.
I once lost an earring at a party and was searching for it with no luck. “Oh no,” said my host, “Was it dear?” Given that this can mean “expensive” in the U.K., it struck me as a fairly odd question in the circumstances, until my husband translated, “She means did you really like it? Was it treasured?”
When my eldest was a baby, someone asked whether she favored my husband or me. My rambling answer was “Well, she spends more time with me so she’s probably more attached to me right now, but I wouldn’t say she necessarily prefers me.” Doubtless the other person was thinking, “What is this idiot Brit talking about?” since “favor” in this situation meant “to bear a physical resemblance.” Facepalm.
To my mother’s eternal embarrassment, on her first visit here, she turned to my brand new American husband and asked if he wouldn’t mind knocking her up in the morning. Fortunately he had lived in London and knew she meant, “Please knock on my door to wake me up,” rather than er, well…
It wouldn’t be at all out of place in the U.K. for a mother to hand her baby over to a friend or relative with the words “Would you mind nursing Charlie for a second?” The British meaning, vis à vis babies, is to hold and cuddle them rather than to breastfeed them. (I’m just glad I learned that one before I had children!)
When my husband first landed in London he was taken to lunch by a rather hung-over colleague. “We all got a bit pissed last night,” he explained. “And then what happened?” my husband asked. “Well, nothing, we just got pissed,” came the reply. And so it went on; not sure if they ever realized that “pissed” in the U.S means “annoyed” or “angry,” while in the U.K. it means “inebriated.”
The misuse of this word can really convey the wrong meaning. If a Brit describes something as quite good, it means s/he thought it was “just OK.” When an American uses the word, it’s usually signifies the opposite – the speaker was really pleased or impressed with something. Brits should probably use “so-so” or “meh” to indicate being underwhelmed.
It always brought a smile to Americans’ faces when my oldest son used to protest at wearing a smart (collared) shirt. Calling someone smart in the U.K. can mean intelligent or quick-witted but is just as likely to mean well-dressed. Interestingly though, there’s a Smart Car on both sides of the Pond.
Is it intelligent, dapper, or both?
Here’s one word that, when used in the British way, completely falls flat in the U.S. Brits grew up with a matching card game called “Snap” so it’s used when we say something at the same time, have a similar experience or walk into a party wearing the same outfit. In the U.S., it can replace “wow” (especially when said as “Oh snap!”) and expresses anything from surprise or dismay, to annoyance and exhilaration.
My first confusing experience with this word was when my grandmother-in-law (a Texas lady through and through) asked me to visit with her. Had she not patted the empty seat next to her, I would have picked up my coat and waited at the car, assuming we were going out somewhere. In the U.K. you visit people, castles and seaside resorts, but the act of sitting and chatting is not included in the meaning. In the U.S., if someone says “we visited for a few minutes,” it means they chatted. There’s a much fuller discussion of this verb here.
Have more examples of word confusion between Brits and Americans? Join @MindTheGap_BBCA and language expert @LynneGuist on Twitter Wednesday, November 12 at 2-3 pm ET to discuss using hashtag #MindTheChat. Participants using the hashtag could win one of two DVD copies of SundanceTV’s acclaimed The Honorable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.Read More