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?