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.


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
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  • Molly

    HAHA! I’m an American, sort of obsessed with British-ness, but I love this conversation. I’ll go at it from an American “Gavin and Stacey” viewer’s angle:
    -“whinging” in UK = “whining” in US

    -“fit” to mean sexy, rather than muscular
    -“fair play” vs. “fair enough” (LOL- maybe I just love this from Nessa on Gavin and Stacey)

    -the pronunciation of the word “burn”– it just sounds better in British

    -“don’t take the piss”
    -obviously fanny and f-g (LOL I legit feel weird typing it here because it’s a slur over here!)

    I <3 being a (self-diagnosed) Anglophile!

    • expatmum

      Why is “burn” so funny? Must be like that thing my kids do – make me say “squirrel” (pronouncing both syllables, thank you) and they just collapse into giggles.

      • Molly

        Oh, it’s not FUNNY, i just think it sounds nice in British. I’m American yo

  • Maria

    You know, it’s funny. I’m an American who lived in England for a number of years whilst growing up. I’ve always said fusspot & until reading this, never even heard of the term fussbudget.
    I still have several British words & phrases I use often. Some my kids comment on are torch vs the American flashlight, pants instead of the American underwear, crisps instead of chips, & chips vs fries. My 6 year old always questions fish fingers & tells me they are fish sticks.

    • James Williams

      I’m guessing that you’ve never read a Peanuts comic strip. Lucy is often referred to as a fussbudget.

  • Belinda

    How about “I’m just venting” vs. “I’m just having a moan”. Many Americans look at me like I’ve just said something provocative.

    • expatmum

      Or, (UK) “having a rant”.

  • James Williams

    American is aluminum where the Brit term is aluminium.