Close, But No Cigar: British vs. American Idioms

(Whatever Pictures)

This film borrows the British idiom coined by William Shakespeare for their movie title.(Whatever Pictures)

British English and American English have a number of phrases that mean the same thing and are so similar in wording, after a few years as an expat, you forget which one’s which. While these phrases don’t usually cause much confusion, it’s interesting to note the differences.

For example, where Brits will say “peaks and troughs,” Americans say “peaks and valleys,” and the British “spanner in the works” becomes a “wrench” or “monkey wrench.” A British “know-all” often becomes a “know-it-all” over here, and hilariously, a “fuss-pot” is now a “fussbudget.” (Love that phrase.) As I said, apart from the word “spanner” not being widely used here, the differences don’t derail conversations, although a small smile might appear on the faces of Americans when they hear your quaint expressions.

Other phrases that come close to the British version include taking something with a “grain” rather than a “pinch” of salt, finding skeletons in the “closet” rather than the “cupboard” and sweeping things under the “rug” as opposed to the “carpet.” The first time I visited the States, my friend’s friend used the term “six and one half” all the time. It took me a few days to realize that she was truncating “Six of one and half a dozen of the other.” which isn’t necessarily American or British, but was strange to me since I was brought up saying “Six and two threes”. That phrase, incidentally, is usually met with the smile I mentioned earlier.

One Americanism that brings that same smile to my face is the alternative to the British “be all and end all”. Quite often in the States I’ll hear “It’s not the be all, end all” and just as frequently, “end all, be all” which, from a chronological angle, I just don’t get.  Again however, just because “be all and end all” originated in Shakespeare’s Macbeth doesn’t mean it’s not an odd-sounding phrase when you step back and think about it. Being aware of these slight differences in wording has made me realize that British English can be just as nonsensical as American English. Just because I grew up hearing “fuss pot” doesn’t mean that it isn’t a thoroughly ridiculous moniker.

One British English word that’s definitely close-but-no-cigar and will have Americans laughing rather than smiling, is our pronunciation of  “lasso.” The American pronunciation is “lasso” rather than our “lassoo” (rhyming with tissue) and given that there are more cowboys here than in the U.K., we should probably give them that one.

Two nations separated by a common language, indeed. What British words and phrases do Americans not understand? Join us for a #MindTheChat on this topic, Friday, August 9 at 1 pm ET. Follow us on Twitter for more.