Close, But No Cigar

In the U.S. this is considered a pile of folded pants. (Esquire.com)

If you’re popping across the Pond (apologies to anyone who loathes that word), you’ll discover quite a few words and phrases just guaranteed to cause confusion. Several words sound exactly the same on either side of the Atlantic, but their meanings are quite dissimilar.

1. Anxious
This word is defined both as “nervous” and “eager” in dictionaries. I came across the latter meaning when I first moved to the States and lived in the South. There, every other person seemed to be of a nervous disposition, announcing “I’m anxious to meet her” or “I’m anxious to get started”. To me, they looked like they were really looking forward to the event in question, but what Americans often mean by anxious, is that they’re eager for something or other to happen.

2. Fanny
Now, many people these days know that in the U.S. a fanny is one’s rear-end, and in the UK it’s ahem, a lady’s genitalia. Nevertheless, if you’re British it’s worth reminding yourself of the more casual American meaning before you hit these shores; when you first hear a mother talking to her child in public about his or her fanny, it can still come as a bit of a shock. And if you’re an American visiting the UK, don’t be surprised if the Brits giggle nervously for a second or two when you use the word. Brits can also use the word in the phrase fannying around, which isn’t inappropriate and means messing around or taking ones time to get something done. (“Stop fannying around, we haven’t got all day.”)

3. Holidays
If you’re in the States at the moment, you’ll probably hear quite a few references to the “holidays”, for example, “What are you doing for the holidays?”. This refers to Thanksgiving, which is a huge deal here, and then to the Christmas/Hanukah and New Year period.  The 1995 film Home for the Holidays was about a mildly dysfunctional family getting together to celebrate Thanksgiving.  In addition, Americans sometimes use the word when referring to other public holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day. When a Brit talks about holidays, s/he is referring to what an American would call a vacation. The question in such a case would be “Are you going anywhere nice for your holidays?” or “Have you booked a holiday yet?”

4. Pants
This word can cause no end of confusion as Brits can either use it for underwear, or to describe something that doesn’t impress them. “That’s pants” would indicate the speaker’s disgust or disappointment in something, whereas “He wasn’t wearing pants” would mean he was going commando. In the U.S. on the other hand, pants refers to trousers and not to underwear, although ladies underwear is called “panties” among other things.

5. Pissed (off)
In the U.S., being pissed usually has nothing to do with alcohol; the word is used where a Brit would say “pissed off”. The potential for misunderstanding however, arises when a Brit uses the word pissed. As my American husband discovered on his first working day in London, asking a Brit “Why” when he tells you he was pissed the night before, usually gets you some very funny looks. Being pissed in the UK means to be more than a little inebriated.

6. Tick off
Since the rise in popularity of the British phrase “ticking all the boxes”, confusion around this word has increased dramatically. In the UK, if something “ticks all the boxes”, it’s doing everything right for you or meets all your requirements. That particular “tick” is the same as an American check mark. But the differences don’t stop there. If you tick someone off in the UK, you give them a right old telling off. If you tick someone off in the U.S. you’re really annoying him or her (and will probably get ticked off by them.) Americans also describe themselves as “ticked” when they are pissed off about something.

7. Tow-head versus toe-rag.
Americans use the term tow-head to describe a very blonde person; the word “tow” referring to fibers such as flax or hemp. Brits use the term toe-rag as an insult, to describe a scoundrel or a worthless person. The term comes from olden times when convicts and vagrants would tie rags around their feet as substitute socks. Quite a difference, and you can imagine the look on my face when one of my children was first called a tow-head in the U.S.A!

What word or term has cause the most confusion where you live?

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • ponyboy

    Lol “fannying around” sounds like the British version of the US slang “dicking around” — I had no idea fannying around was a term!

    • http://twitter.com/gladleynet Gillian Ladley

      I use this phrase quite a lot and it’s taken a while for my US family to get used to it. It’s also used as a light insult in Scotland, so my husband had to get used to being told “stop acting like a fanny” :D

  • AlmostAmerican

    I remember when my first US employer didn’t pay us at the end of the first week because vital paperwork hadn’t been completed, one of my colleagues commented as we got to the end of the second week, “They’d better pay us this week or I’ll get really pissed!” I couldn’t understand how he was going to get pissed if he had no money to buy alcohol!

  • http://twitter.com/JackieOMoleski Jacqueline O Moleski

    Fun, except I think he’s off on, um no disrespect intended his definition of “pissed”. In the US, “pissed off” means ANGRY. As in, “He just pissed me off.” In the UK, to be “pissed” is to be drunk. Americans do sometimes say just “pissed”, as in “I’m pissed.” also. But the rest of this is fun.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017442067 Brent Rossow

      Which is exactly what the author said in the first sentence in that section:

      In the U.S., being pissed usually has nothing to do with alcohol; the word is used where a Brit would say “pissed off”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.m.kaiser Scott Kaiser

      As far as I (an American) remember, “pissed” started out as the full “pissed off”. It could be shorted over time because “pissed” wasn’t already in use. I assume the Brits didn’t do that because “pissed” already meant something else. IMHO. :-)

  • Iota

    Is “going commando” a phrase that Americans understand?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Moattari/769315711 Alex Moattari

      If that’s supposed to mean not wearing underwear(pants) then yes most men understand that phrase.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jromeyrn Jane Romey

      Oh, yes. We understand that :)

    • N0AAA

      No (age 67, midwest).

    • stella

      yep.
      They even discuss it in a “Friends” episode.

    • Musica1

      Yes. Every American I know understands “going commando.”

    • disqus_6wr0W9G10u

      yes it does

    • Diann

      Yes we do…. In as much as here in America, It means to go without underwear.

    • ailurophile

      Radio talk show host Kim Komando once advertised caps on her web page that said “Goin’ Komando!” They were removed quickly. Apparently she wasn’t familiar with the phrase!

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com SmittenbyBritain

    I’ve never heard the term ‘tow-head’ used by an American, but then it could be a regional thing.

    • Liz in Gaylord Michigan

      In the 50′s. that phrase was often used , esp to describe blond or light-haired tots under the age of 5.

      • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

        Oh, so it’s an age thing! ;-)

        • AGroves

          It really is used more for children, especially boys or girls who are tomboys, and I have always understood it to have some vague connotation of mischievousness. Huck Finn was a tow-head, and in my mind defines the term.

    • http://www.facebook.com/linleym1 Linley Marcum

      It’s also a Southern thing – I’m 37 and I’ve heard tow-head all my life; even used it quite a few times myself.

      • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

        Ah, yes, well, I’m a northern girl so there you go. It’s so interesting to find out the type of things that are said in one are of the country compared to another. Will probably never know them all! It’s like the soda – pop thing. Some parts of the country people say soda, others pop.

        • Musica1

          Growing up in the southern US, we never said “soda” or “pop” for soft drinks. They were “cokes,” as in “Would you get me a coke when you go?” “What kind?”
          “A Dr Pepper, please!”
          Or “I’m getting cokes. What would everybody like?”

          I did hear “soda” occasionally but never heard them called “pop” until I went north the first time. Was very confused when someone asked if I wanted a pop.

        • disqus_6wr0W9G10u

          In the Southern states it is called “pop” and in the midwestern area I think It is soda pop. Having worked in retail I started (and still do) call it soft drink

          • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.r.davis.1 Debbie Riddle Davis

            From the south and have NEVER used the word pop and only occasionally have heard the word soda. Musica1 is absolutely correct…we call them cokes…

          • Cathy

            I live in the Midwest and everyone refers to it as pop. I’ve been back East and everyone there called it soda pop. I thought Southerners called it sodas. If I was in a cafe in NYC and they referred to it as soda I would know what they meant; however, I can see how they would be confused hearing it called pop.

      • N0AAA

        Midwest, age 67. Don’t have a clue what it means.

        • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

          Glad I’m not alone. I asked some friends on FB and got three different reactions. Some have used it, some have heard it used and some have never heard of it. I guess it just goes with your experience. I don’t remember knowing any “tow-headed” children so maybe that’s why I didn’t hear it. I also wonder how many people who have actually “heard it” compared to just seeing it written in literature.

          • http://www.facebook.com/smaccallumdunlap Sandi MacCallum Dunlap

            My brother was a tow-head, hence the reason I heard it often.

          • Diann

            In a Family of all Blonde children “I” am the only one in the family that is a brunette. Hmm

      • John W

        You mean, it’s a Southern thang!

    • http://www.facebook.com/jromeyrn Jane Romey

      I still hear the word tow-head a lot. It’s usually used to describe children with hair so blonde that it’s almost white.

      • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

        I think it’s a regional thing Jane. I live in the north and I’ve never head it used in my life.

        • stella

          I lived in Utah (West) for 22 years and now in Virginia (East).and know it in both places.

          • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

            Nope, never heard it used. Guess I’ve lived a sheltered life.

        • http://www.facebook.com/smaccallumdunlap Sandi MacCallum Dunlap

          I grew up in the north-east and have heard the word tow head to describe a blonde child.

          • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

            Not me, ever but I have friend at work who told me that when she gave birth to her son the doctor said “You have a tow-head!” Now imagine, me, having never heard that word before, hearing my doctor calling my child a tow-head! I would picture my child’s head looking like a large toe! LOL

          • Cathy

            Using tow-head is quite common but I think it’s usage is more related to which generation you grew up in. My grandparents/parents used the phrase frequently but I don’t recall any of my friends or my children/their friends using the term. Even though I know what the word means it’s not a word I use either.

    • http://twitter.com/MizFurball MizFurball

      I have lived in Chicago and Los Angeles and have heard it used both places.

      • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

        My husband who grew up in Pa. and WAS a tow-headed child said he’s never heard the word either. He was surprised when I told him.

    • MariahEliza

      I’m from the Mid-West and have always known what tow-head means, but when I use it nowadays, no one seems to know what I’m talking about. Must’ve learnt it from my mother- so maybe the term is dying out up North.

    • disqus_6wr0W9G10u

      I live in the South and have all my life and it is quite common here

    • Diann

      Tow Head is a highly LOVED Southern US term. I find it a strange one though most of my family originates from the Southern states. Why they can not simply say that the child is blonde? I have no idea.

      • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.r.davis.1 Debbie Riddle Davis

        Because children who are tow headed have more white than blond…

  • http://aboutlastweekend.com/ Jody Brettkelly

    Toni – you are claaaassic. Not sure if that is New Zealand-ish or Oakland-ish where I now live, but I love that you make me aware of stuff I’m surrounded by. I actually have been re-incarnated into a 13 year old boy so I am snachorkling every time someone says “fanny”.

    • Lisa

      “Snachorkling”!!! Not a word I’ve ever heard before but you’d better believe it’s going to be used at least once this week. I’ll find a way…. ;)

  • Bluestem Pond

    As an American living in Dublin, it took me a long time to grasp the meaning of “half-three” or “Friday-week”. (Meaning 3:30 or a week from Friday, respectively.)

  • Bertie

    Fanny – and it’s different meaning always made myself and my American friends laugh, especially on a trip when we saw a Canadian wearing a fanny pack / bum bag with the the name grand canion on.

    • stella

      LOL!

    • Shabbadeux

      I had a coworker who named a lovely French lady named Fanny. Her married name became Fanny Scales…

  • Charlie

    to make things more confusing for Americans, we also use pants to mean trousers especially in northern England. or we say cargo pants not cargo trousers. it isn’t as clear cut as that. the more important differences should be sidewalk of which we say pavement. or diaper we say nappy, pacifier we say dummy.

  • stella

    I have a hard time with “que”. I can’t seem to use it properly. Que means to line up, correct? But someone asked me once if I was queing and I just stood there lookin’ at him like a fat idiot trying to figure out what he meant. So a line is a que and if I’m standing in the line then I’m queing, right? Or could I also say ‘Im in the que’ or ‘I’m standing in the que’?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503370490 David Vandervliet

      the word you are talking about us Queue

    • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.tyson37 Rachel Tyson

      Yes “Are you in the que?”= “are you in line”
      You are in the que (line) and are queing (waiting in said line)

    • deedrdo

      cue is a word. que is not a word. queue is a line of people.

      • Hillary

        Well, que IS a word, just not in English.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.klipfel.5 Brian Klipfel

      It’s spelled queue, and it refers to the tail of a capital letter “Q”

  • http://twitter.com/MizFurball MizFurball

    You left out “got a leg up.” In Britain, it means you had sex with someone. In the U.S., it means you made progress (as another rung on a ladder).

    • Nat Godley

      I think the British phrase you are thinking of is “get a (or your) leg over.”

  • Jo Sanders

    So fanny means to the Brits the same thing cunt means in the US? They seem to use that word casually. Thoughts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.klipfel.5 Brian Klipfel

    A “fag” in Britain is, of course, a cigarette. In America, it’s something quite different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.klipfel.5 Brian Klipfel

    “Getting your end away” is a British phrase I’ve never really understood. I mean, I know what it means, I just don’t understand why.

  • cmulvin

    I was quite taken aback when an Irish friend told me he’d come by to “knock me up” in the morning. He just meant knock on my door. It has a different meaning in America!

    • Musica1

      Hahaha! That is a funny one!

  • colinmeister

    I always thought a toe-rag was a pathetic private soldier who licked the sergeants’ boots.

  • Bitterblackale

    Don’t forget, the American continent is quite large and some words don’t get around. I was born here, and have never heard of a “tow-head”.

  • Matt

    The pants=underwear thing never hit me until I watched “Green Wing.” It took me a while to get a handle on it. I guess I usually watched tamer UK fare.

  • Musica1

    One that confused me at first when talking to a Brit was “pavement.” She said she was walking on the pavement, which in the US would mean walking in the street. Apparently across the pond it means walking on what we would refer to as the sidewalk.

    Another one was “boot.” She’s putting something in the boot, which in the US only refers to footwear. Apparently over there it also refers to the part of an automobile we call the trunk.

    Torch means flashlight. When they say “I need a torch,” they don’t want something that is actually on fire, which an American would.

  • Anthony

    My first fax pas in the States was trying to arrange my first date. She said she would call me in the morning. I could not understand how she could call me from six blocks away. her voice wasn’t that loud. In the end I told her I would come round and knock her up in the morning. “My goodness” was her response, “You British are really forward.” I had to explain that ‘knocking someone up in the morning’ came from Victorian times when the lamplighter would give people an early call by rapping on their bedroom windows with his long pole that he used for turning on and off the gas lamps.

  • Gila Monster

    On my first day at work in America I went to my secretary and asked her for a rubber.She seemed somewhat put out and asked me what I wanted. I repeated the request for the rubber and this went on for some time with my secretary becoming increasingly disturbed. Finally I really needed a rubber to rub something out. With great relief she said “Oh, an eraser” and at that point I realized my mistake. She later told me that the secretaries had been warned that there were several Europeans coming to work there and that they might find that we had some unusual requests – be she never expected to be asked to provide a condom!

  • ian stone

    How could you overlook the confusion of ” getting your pecker up ” meaning having an appetite and describing an erection!

  • Caren

    How about shattered? Broken hearted in the US, drunk + in the UK?

  • ailurophile

    When I heard the phrase “I’m a chav!” on Doctor Who, I was confused. I had to look it up. I’ve been a fan of British TV since Monty Python hit the airwaves in the late 70s, so I thought I understood British. I’m still learning.

  • Tim

    I was on a tour in England and first morning in London, our group overheard an American family with a small child
    requesting “jelly” with their toast. The waiter was TOTALY
    confused as to why someone would order a Gelatin at breakfast, until one of our party jumped in to point out to all concerned that the child wanted clear jam, not Jello.

  • New Yorker

    One of my favorites happened in Ireland when the friend we were staying with asked, “Would you like to be knocked up in the morning?”

  • Scout

    The word “redundant” to mean fired or let go from a job. That term always sounds awkward to me – no matter how many times I hear it.