Coming to America: 10 Everyday Phrases Brits Need to Know

It may not be politically correct but yep, this is Channing Tatum in a "wife beater." (

It may not be politically correct but yep, this is Channing Tatum in a “wife beater.” (Paramount)

Moving to the U.S.?  Think you speak the language?  Think again.  Here are ten everyday phrases that may cause concern or confusion to the uninformed immigrant.

Wife-beater
Don’t be alarmed if you overhear an American guy say that he’s going to go home and change into his wife-beater—it’s a common U.S. term for a vest (as Brits call it) or undershirt.

Mom-and-pop stores
No, this is not a place where orphans can go to purchase a mommy and daddy. In the U.S., independently owned businesses are affectionately known as “mom-and-pop” stores. They can be anything from cafes to grocery stores, clothing boutiques to pharmacies, comic book emporiums to toyshops. In major cities with high rents, mom-and-pop stores have suffered at the hands of gentrification and many once-thriving businesses have given way to 7-Elevens, Starbucks’ and Duane Reades.

Cooties
This highly contagious but fictional disease is the U.S. equivalent of the dreaded British lurgy. It thrives in the playground and can be transmitted via touching, sharing drinks, and smooching behind the school gymnasium.

Cookie cutter
If something is described as being “cookie cutter,” then said object is devoid of any originality and individualism because it has either been mass-produced or much imitated. The phrase is often used to describe housing developments in suburban areas where all the homes are built from the same blueprint. But it’s a versatile expression that can be used to describe almost anything where similarity can be found in abundance: guest rooms at large hotel chains, for example, could be described as being cookie cutter.

Cougar
The cougar is a dangerous species of middle-aged woman that preys on younger men. Their favored hunting grounds are nightclubs, and Bon Jovi concerts where they can be found stalking the vicinity for virile males 20 years their junior.

Panhandling
Panhandling is the American term for begging. But here’s the tricky thing: “tramp” in the U.S. refers to a prostitute or slutty woman and “bum” is the common word for a homeless person.  So telling an American colleague you gave money to a tramp during your lunch break may birth some undesired rumors.

John & Jane Doe
John & Jane Doe are placeholder names used in America when the true identity of an individual is either unknown or must be withheld for legal reasons. Like many perceived “Americanisms”, John Doe is, in fact, a British term. It originated during the reign of Edward III (1312 – 1377) amid legal disputes involving landowners and tenants known as the Acts of Ejectment. In the mock-up document, John Doe was chosen as the name for the landlord and Richard Roe for the tenant. Nobody knows why John and Richard were chosen as the given names but it seems most likely they were picked simply because they were common. “Doe” of course is the noun for a female deer, whilst “Roe” was (and still is) a common species of deer found in Europe, but again nobody knows why these particular surnames were settled on. Any ex-pat readers will know that John Doe is the U.S. equivalent to the British term “Joe Bloggs.”

Douche bag
It’s somewhat curious that an instrument used for feminine hygiene is an idiom for a sleazy, despicable guy. It would be like referring to an unpleasant, catty woman as a penis basin (if such an apparatus existed).

Miranda Rights
The first time I heard this expression I thought, “Who’s Miranda Wright and what’s she got to do with anything?” You will most likely know the Miranda Rights from American movies and TV shows. It’s the spiel cops give criminals when they arrest them. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Blah blah blah…”

Jump the shark
This Americanism refers to the moment in which a television show begins its decline towards the end. It is marked by a significantly preposterous scene written into the script in a desperate attempt to keep viewers interested. The term comes from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie (in trademark leather jacket) jumps over a shark on water skis. The term has evolved into a common idiom in the wider world of popular culture so that it is now often applied to bands, brands and celebrities. “Boy,” you might hear someone say, “I thought Kanye jumped the shark when he interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs, but have you seen his new video?”

Brits – Which U.S. phrases threw you when you first came to America? 

Americans – Which British phrases do you find peculiar? 

Tell us in the comments below:

See More:
8 American Sports Idioms Brits Won’t Understand
10 Common American Expressions That Baffle Brits
10 Things Brits Say … and What Americans Think We Mean

  • Sean

    I always wondered where the expression ‘jonesing’ came from

    • Jennifer Rada

      “Jonesing”is slang for “craving”, usually for a specific food or marijuana :) Not to be confused with “keeping up with the Jones’s” which basically means obtaining material goods to show off to others, such as buying a car that impresses the neighbors. Yeah, pretty lame, I know.

    • Pat

      Listen to this portion of the excellent radio show A Way With Words for an explanation of the origin:
      http://www.waywordradio.org/jonesing-origin/

      • MontanaRed

        Love that show!

  • Jake Tuff

    I could never understand why British people refer to a ‘remote control’ as a ‘smibbly bibbly’

    • expatmum

      Gosh, never ever heard that one before. I always knew it as a “dobber”.

      • MontanaRed

        I love all of these terms! Now if I can just remember them long enough to use them… I usually just say “thingie” as I scrabble for it on cluttered side tables or in the sofa cushions.

    • Milkeebar

      We call it various things, depends what part of the country your from.
      Every thing from ‘hoofer doofer’ to ‘thingmi bob’ are used.
      My preference is ‘the fat controller’.

      • therealguyfaux

        ‘the fat controller’.

        Which, oddly enough, is NOT how the American-accent Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons refer to the gentleman who runs the railroad– the term was thought needlessly offensive, and so he is referred to by his name, “Sir Topham Hatt.”

    • Mikey

      I’ve never heard it called at, most families have a different word for it, so that’s probably why

  • Eva Bradshaw-Burnett

    I have a wee problem with that term, Jump the Shark. I’ve never heard it in the States, and I’ve been resident for quite a bit now. Nor have I ever heard a bloke mention a wife beater either. A magazine, maybe. Perhaps the author should have re-thought some of this, or his Editor for allowing it.

    • Tiffanie

      I’m American born and raised and I’ve heard both of those (all the terms listed, actually), quite frequently. Maybe it’s a southern thing, but they are very common around here. “Wife-beater” is the only term for undershirt most people under 40 would understand.

      • Allison

        In the New York/New Jersey area wife-beater is actually very common, but that’s because the other common slang for that type of shirt is derogatory toward Italians.

        • Anon.

          Guinea tee, for those wondering

          • Henrietta Skolnick

            Or ‘Dago T’ as I’ve heard in the old Italian neighborhood of Chicago but I grew up (am mid 40′s now) calling them ‘tank tops’ or ‘undershirts’. :)

          • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

            That term is a new one to me.

    • BigRedEO

      Wife-beater is more typically a tank-top undershirt (as pictured above) or a “muscle-tee” where the sleeves are torn off or cut off and it’s worn as a primary shirt for everyone to see, rather than purposed as an undershirt. If you watched the TV show “Cops”, you’d see a lot of guys in wife-beaters.

      PS – Bloke is not a word Americans use! :)

      • expatmum

        If you’re going to be a part of “Mind the Gap” – a web site for Brits in the US,- “bloke” is common parlance.

        • BigRedEO

          I’m quite aware. Hence, the reason for my “smiley” face directly after that comment.

      • Milkeebar

        ‘Wife beater’ in the UK is a nickname for Stella Artois lager.

    • Sybil

      I beg to differ Eva. I am an American and can verify the author’s description of Jump the Shark is exactly right and it has been a very common term used for decades in the US. In fact, all of the phrases he listed are accurately defined and very common.

    • Petrichor

      I am 24 and I have heard both of those terms and have known about them since I was in my teens. Your experience is not the common experience of every American.

    • rdwoolf

      This term was started by a website in the late 1990s and popularized nationally via the Howard Stern Show mostly…and other places. It then spread. The term itself has pretty much jummed the shark. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark

    • Cory

      Jump the Shark is very much an American term that is used very often and has been for decades.

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      Jump the Shark was more popular a while back, but it is still used. You will see it often in magazines. Wife Beater must be cultural. I know what it is, but only heard it called that on TV. Now I hear it often.

  • Brittany

    I’m American and I’ve never heard wife-beater used that way. I always thought it was someone who beat his wife.
    And I’ve never heard Jump the Shark. o_O

    • Sybil

      I’m American aged 53 with 2 children in their early 20s. I just asked them if they knew the two terms Jump the Shark and Wife-Beater. Both replied “Of course! Everybody does!”. I also asked several co-workers (all Americans of various ages) about all the terms the author wrote about and without exception they all knew every one of them. One even replied, “Duh, who DOESN’T know these?”.

      • Sybil

        The article is a good one and should indeed be of help to expats unfamiliar with these terms.
        I’m baffled why any American wouldn’t know them as they are not regional nor generational. Puzzling.

        • Brittany

          No one around me has ever used those two terms.

          • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

            Brittany, a wife beater is also called a tank top.

    • ProudYankee

      Yeah, I’m American and I only heard “wife beater” for the first time in my thirties, and since then I’ve only heard it maybe a couple more times. I don’t think it’s as common as some people here think.

    • Destiny Jackson

      I hear wife-beater all the time.
      And “Jump the Shark” is also pretty common.
      Wife-beater is sort of phasing out as only older generations normally use it.
      But Jump the Shark is still around.

    • rdwoolf

      The term “wife-beater” for the white sleeveless undershirt has been around in the USA since at least the 1940s. Some even say it has been a term used since the 1700s…but I don’t know if that is true. I think this term was/is more common in the Eastern coast and northern city areas like Chicago and Cleveland. In the past couple of decades it has been used often in films and TV shows so this is probably why it is more common everywhere now.

      • spetty

        Funny…..I watch BBC here in America and I am very familiar with many British terms. (LOVE my Brit Coms!) Anyway, The other night I was watching an episode of “Keeping up Appearances” (yes, I know it is old…) and Onslow was complaining about Daisy wearing a see through nightie but she wore a “vest” under it. At first, I didn’t understand.
        I thought……maybe he is talking about what we call a ‘wife-beater’. As the show progressed, I became more and more certain that this is what they were talking about. And today, I find this article that now explains it! Lovely!

    • Al

      Me too! And I’m a teen…

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      You must live under a rock, Brittany. That is also an expression. Have you heard of it?

  • frozen01

    What on earth is Duane Reades? Never heard of it. *googles*
    Oh… because it’s pretty much only in New York.

    Also, a newer way of saying “jump the shark” is “nuke the fridge”. It refers to the scene in Indiana Jones 4 when our intrepid hero survives a nuclear explosion by hiding in a refrigerator.
    It was pretty much only used by geeks and movie nerds in the months following the movie’s release, but I think it’s too much fun as a saying to discard!

    • Allison

      I’m familiar with Duane Reade and was surprised Jon chose something that’s only known in an extremely small part of the country (albeit densely populated.) It’s a division of Walgreen’s, which probably would’ve been the better choice.

      • Ann

        If you live in NY though, you forget that the rest of the country exists on things not found there. Duane Reade was actually named for the the block where the first store was: between Duane St and Reade St.

  • expatmum

    I must say I still freeze when I hear the “wife-beater” mentioned. My teens say it all the time.

  • ProudYankee

    Jon, if I’m remembering correctly, I love how your articles never seem to be insulting.

  • Isabel Losada

    I have found that you can be understood on the East Coast as long as you add ‘like’ or ‘totally’ to every sentence and say ‘Awesome!’ every time anything pleases you… as when you are given a coffee.

    • Lindsey

      Really? I’m from the east coast and have always seen “totally” as a west coast California ‘valley girl’/’surfer dude’ kind of phrase. Also, I wouldn’t use ‘awesome!’ when given a cup of coffee. It’s more likely used when someone says some good news: “I just bought tickets to the [insert band/singer here] concert!” “Oh, that’s awesome!”

    • Cory

      That’s a West Coast California Valley Girl thing, Not East Coast.

  • Destiny Jackson

    I’m not sure if this phrase is particular to English people but I work at Disneyland, and we get a ton of English people so one told me the other day when I accidently gave him the wrong food item “Water off a duck’s back” and then I watched an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch and he also told the reporter “Water off a duck’s back”
    So I’m not sure if that’s just some random phrase I’ve never heard before or if British people normally say it.

    • http://megasuperweb.com/ Jacktionman

      Yeah British people say it. You say it when you’re not bothered by an occurrence that could have affected you. “I’m sorry, I gave you the wrong eggs” – “Don’t worry, it’s like water off a duck’s back.”

    • C. Carson

      I’m actually a bit astonished that you have only heard this phrase from Brits. I am a native Califonian and it is a very common phrase to my generation (mid 30′s-early 50s) and I guarantee you we learned it from our parents. I don’t know that I use it that often, but I certainly have said and still hear it frequently. It’s the same as saying, “No problem”. Uhhhh, I feel old now.

      • Charles

        Agreed. It was popular in Chicago around the time of World War II — but we had damper ducks then.

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      A lot of Americans will also say, water off a duck. We just leave off the back.

    • Marion

      we do, all the time. It just means “that doesn’t bother me at all”. Marion, Scotland.
      .

  • Destiny Jackson

    Some other British phrases that didn’t confuse me per say, but I think they are very cute/interesting:
    “Go on then, have a go”
    “in hospital” <– this is one is pretty cool, because there is no article in front of hospital.
    Normally in America we would say "He went to THE hospital" or "She is in a/the hospital"
    But in the UK it's not common to put an article in front.

    • jrex

      Per se (pronounced “per say”) – adverb: by or in itself or themselves; intrinsically. [Latin: through itself]

      Use: “it is not these facts per se that are important”

      Synonyms: in itself, of itself, by itself, in and of itself, as such, intrinsically

      Even though it seems to the ear that one is saying “per” (for each, by means of) and “say” (speak), “per se” does not, in fact, mean “so to speak” or “as you would say” or “necessarily” as many people seem to believe.

      I’ve given up on (though never ever adopted) “could care less” or the cringeworthy “could careless” and even on “factoid”, but I will not give up per se!

      I’m very sorry, and I don’t mean to take this out on you, I just want to help our lovely language survive!

  • Irené Colthurst

    The term “Miranda rights”, like the associated but not as commonly used verb “to mirandize” comes from the name of the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, named for its plantiff, Ernesto Miranda.

    • therealguyfaux

      But similar in principle to the warnings given to arrested people in Britain that they need not answer any questions lest it be used as evidence. People in the UK can understand the meaning in context when they watch American cop shows, and I’d have thought it wasn’t such a head-scratcher either from a name or conceptual standpoint.

    • Robert Eckert

      Miranda was chosen by the Supreme Court as the test case because he was clearly guilty even without the confession, and the police had not been particularly abusive about how they got him to talk. He was reconvicted after the famous decision, served his time, and when he got out went to a bar, got into a fight, and was fatally stabbed. The police came in to arrest his assailant as he lay bleeding to death, so the last words Miranda heard in this world were “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

  • Petrichor

    After reading a number of posts on this site about the differences between British and American English, I would just like to say that I appreciate how THIS writer is not condescending to Americans. Almost every other list I have encountered on this site is blatantly insulting and just dripping with superiority on the side of the British way of speaking.

    So, thank you, Mr Langford, for not being a jerk. I and every other American sincerely appreciate it.

    • TMarius

      It does hurt us to some extent to see people belonging to the nation who we think of as our closest friend and ally talking down to us so often.

      Americans’ perception of the UK is tied to our relationship from WWII and the Cold War, and it was improved a lot by the fact that Britain was our biggest supporter in Afghanistan. We generally have a much more idealistic view of the relationship, I am learning.

  • Charles

    “Done and dusted” gets blank stares from me, although I understand its intent. But where does it originate? Similarly (shared first consonant), “chalk and cheese” I’m guessing was put together because of sound and not only because these two things are about as distinct from each other as can be.

    • Alyssa Bean

      The first one originates from a time when you had to blot either your paper (to make it smooth enough to write on) or your ink (to help it dry) with pounce powder. You “dusted” the powder off your page when you were “done” writing. The second comes from medieval times and are paired together because chalk and cheese share superficial characteristics–in that they’re both white and crumbly–but upon further inspection are very different.

      • Olive Alecs

        Very interesting history behind those two phrases, thanks for sharing! I’m curious if you could give an example for each in context, as I have not heard these before and would not be sure about their use. Thanks! =)

  • tdavis00

    It may be where I live (Seattle) or my age (55) or my class (upper middle), but I’ve never before heard a tank-top referred to as a wife-beater. Question: Since Brits seem to have adopted the term “cougar,” is it really still an Americanism?

    • WSU85

      I’m 51, I live in Olympia, WA and am also upper middle class. I’ve known wife beater since I first met my brother-in law in the late 80′s. That used to be his preferred style, lol!

  • Joy Prys

    “Wife beater” is very popular in my part of California, I have never heard “jump the shark. We do say ‘awesome’ a lot, but not for something as simple as coffee. My boys say phrases like ‘thats sick’, or ‘thats dope’ and if they’re gonna use the word douche…its ‘what a douche’. Its interesting how thing are so different in different areas of America.

  • Heather Cameron

    I am from America and I was reading about how many Americans haven’t heard the term “Wife-Beater” until their thirties or later, but go the the east and south a bit, you hear that term every day. Everyone wears their wife-beaters under a shirt, or maybe to work. “Honey go to the store I need to buy a pack of wife-beaters.” It’s pretty common here in the south or in the country.

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  • Christina

    One problem with some of these “Phrases” is the dialect and phrases are different across the whole of the United States. Remember the US is a very big place compared to England. England itself could fit into many of the states within the US. Statements like “Jump the Shark” or “wife-beater” can be used frequently in one region while completely unheard of in another.

  • Simon Says

    I think a lot of the problems b/w the UK and the US are due to the size of the Countries. UK folks don’t generally have an idea of how vast America is. Being American, a three hour road trip is nothing, in Britain, it’s a long haul. Because of this, we have an incredible variety in out language. We are a melting pot, so we incorporate, English, German, Italian, Native-American, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, etc. You get the idea. We probably have more dialects than people! Wisconsin folk have a certain pronunciation, as do the Cajuns, or the Westerners, or the Boston’ers, or the Southerners. I have been up and down and around the Country. There are some accents that baffle me and I have to ask them to repeat themselves twice over. Go to Appalachia, which is about as close to original English as there is, I believe.

    • TMarius

      Right. Our national identity isn’t something you’re born into. It’s something you choose to embrace by honoring the sanctity of our Constitutional values and freedoms.

      As for the size difference, the entire U.S. is only a tick smaller than the entire European continental plate.

  • Michelle

    Being born and somewhat raised in America (lived in Korea most my childhood), I still don’t know half of these terms. Even wife beater and mom-and-pop shops sound odd to me.

  • Olive Alecs

    I am an American, and I do consider myself quite well informed on Brit culture, as my father emigrated from Swansea. I also absolutely love British films and comedies. The one phrase I have NEVER figured out, and still do not know to this day, is “stuck in”, as in, “They got stuck in.”

    Please, please, explain this one to me!

    • Jim

      ‘Get stuck in’ means to become involved, fully engrossed or participate wholeheartedly in some activity.

      • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

        Oh, we say “sucked in” instead.

    • Jason

      The literal meaning is, say, if you were “stuck in” a lift (elevator) when it broke down or “stuck in” a building after it was locked up.

      “Get stuck in” can also mean “Let’s start the work with gusto/determination”.

      It can also refer to eating. Someone might say “Get stuck in” to a meal, particularly if it’s a big portion.

      It can also mean joining in with a physical fight, ie They got “stuck in” to help out their friends when they got into a brawl.

  • deboola

    I have never ever heard the phrase ” jump the shark”.