10 Things Brits Say…and What Americans Think We Mean

This is a pretty bird but “fit bird” has an entirely different meaning. (Photo/AP)

We may have invented the English language but that doesn’t mean our version is always understood by those who share our mother tongue.

1. What we say: “Sorry”
What Americans hear: “I sincerely apologize.”

Saying sorry is like a national tic, which means we Brits rarely use the word to convey a heartfelt apology. This is baffling to Americans who will, on occasion, reply with something like, “Why, exactly, are you sorry?” “I’m not,” you’ll say, confused. “Sorry.”

2. What we say: “How do you do?”
What Americans hear: “Please provide a rundown of your most recent medical.”

Despite how it sounds, this is a formal greeting and not an invitation for commentary on a person’s quality of life. But Americans sometimes take it literally and have no problem replying truthfully, with a list of ailments.

3. What we say: “Cheers”
What Americans hear: “To your good health”

In the U.S., this is what people say when they clink glasses in the pub. We do this too but Brits have other uses for this word, all of which will flummox your American friends. Like when we say “cheers” instead of “thank you.” Signing off a phone call or an email this way will leave U.S. folk wondering why you’re toasting them.

4. What we say: “You know what I mean?”
What Americans hear: “Did you comprehend what I just said?”

This British conversation filler isn’t even weighty enough to count as a rhetorical question. Nonetheless, Americans will take it at face value and seek to reassure you that they did indeed understand your last statement.

5. What we say: “I’ve got the right hump.”
What Americans hear: “I have a hunchback.” 

Sometime Brits see fit to borrow camels’ dominant physical attribute to help explain that they’re annoyed or frustrated. We’re not, in fact, opening up about a crippling disfigurement.    

6. What we say: “It’s a bit dear.”
What Americans hear: “It’s slightly adorable.”

When we Brits want to politely say something is too expensive, we might roll out this quaint old expression. Not a good idea if you’re trying to haggle with an American: they’ll take it as a compliment.   

7. What we say: “I got off with this fit bird.”
What Americans hear: “I disembarked with an athletic pigeon.”

Don’t expect Americans to even attempt a translation here. But if they do manage to guess that “got off with” means “made out with”, be sure to clarify that what you mean by “bird.”

8. What we say: “I went to public school.”
What Americans hear: “I went to a school my parents didn’t pay for.”

Americans with a snobbish bent will lap up tales of posh British schooling. However, your use of the word “public” may well throw them off. Begin by explaining that, in the U.K., public school is the same as private school. Or, decide not to have this conversation in the first place because it’ll make you sound like a twit.

9. What we say: “I’m easy.”
What Americans hear: “I always have sex on the first date.”

Even the ultra laidback Brits who use this expression might still take issue with the American translation. To avoid misinterpretation, plump for something more on the nose like, “I don’t mind.”

10. What we say: “All right, darling?”
What Americans hear: “How are you, love of my life?”

Save prudish Americans’ blushes by not directing this informal version of “How do you do?” at them. Worse still is the West Country version, which substitutes “darling” for the infinitely more bewildering and inappropriate “my lover.”

Have you had any issues with Americans not understanding your lingo?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis