Brits in America: 5 Small Signs You’re Going Native


Do you keep your biscuits in the cookie jar? (CD)

Most expats probably don’t realize if and when they “go native.” As a Brit in the U.S., it’s even subtler because there’s no language barrier to begin with (well, not much of one), meaning that you never really “start thinking” in the new language.

Ah, but there are certain telltale signs anyway.

You can’t remember which words are British and which are American.
With certain words like bonnet and boot you really have to use the American English (“hood” and “trunk”) to be understood. The car word I have trouble with is “windshield” versus “windscreen;” I can never remember which one goes in which country. (It’s “windshield” for the U.S. by the way.)

You vary your vocabulary depending on whom you’re talking to.
With your (American) kids, you might say “cookie” instead of “biscuit” and “popsicle” instead of “ice-lolly,” but as soon as you’re on the phone to your British family it’s all “Gordon Bennet,” “knackered” and Coronation Street references. If you have a regional accent, that gets thicker too!

You occasionally hear an “r” at the end of your words.
While I haven’t gone as American as Andrew Sullivan (who has, I will confess, been here six years longer), if I’m saying “or” followed by a pause for thought, there is sometimes an audible “r” sound that was never there before. With some expat Brits, it’s the “t” that goes first, morphing into a very soft “d” sound in words like “butter” and “party.”

You don’t hear your American kids’ accents.
When we go to England every summer, I’m always surprised when anyone calls my kids “American.” We’ve had neighbors’ children knocking at the door asking if they can “play with the Americans,” shop assistants asking why they speak differently from me, and people in airports looking from me to my kids and back again. Even though they imitate me on a daily basis, prancing around the kitchen saying “banana” and “yogurt” like I do, it never really registers that they have a different accent.

Words that were inappropriate a decade ago now don’t seem quite as offensive.
When my big kids were growing up, I wouldn’t let them say “butt,” “fart” and “crud,” even though most of their friends did and nobody seemed to mind. With my 10-year-old, I know I’m more lax—as long as he doesn’t say them when we get to England …

You’re on your guard when you go back to the U.K.
Most of the time people comment that I haven’t lost my accent, but some lie in wait for any sign of having crossed over. “Oooh, you sounded really American just then,” they’ll say with glee, as if being influenced by 24 years in another country is a sign of weakness or moral laxity. These days I just smile and hope it conveys a “Well, what would you expect” look.

How has an extended time in America affected your behavior, Brits?

See more:
5 Other Clues That You’re Becoming Americanized, Brits
Say What?: How Brits Can Avoid Verbal Confusion in America
Brits Going Native in the U.S.: Can You Go Too Far?


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.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • gn

    You start to think that the UK might benefit from decentralized government, a written constitution, and abolition of the monarchy. (I plead guilty to lacking the imagination to see these things while still living in England).

    • expatmum

      Actually – I’ve no idea why Brits think we have no Constitution. It might not be called that but we’ve had codified law (in England) since the Magna Carta 1215. Following that we have the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights (1689) all of which set limits on the monarchy and established rights such as freedom of speech and a limited right to bear arms. (Yes, …. I know).
      English law (not speaking for Scotland ’cause I didn’t study that) is a mixture of codified, common and case law. Common law came about because England is ancient and we weren’t forming a new country with people who could read and write. Cases were not generally heard by the monarch but at local levels and thus were organic and suited to the needs of the people. We renew our statues or laws, as and when needed, to change with the times, such as when the Monarchy began to pay taxes fairly recently.
      While I have no problem with the Constitution, I also think that England has dodged a bullet in not having to imagine what Founding Fathers were thinking when it comes to some of the things they codified. (And I’m sure we know which particular one I’m referring to.)

      • gn

        I think you know what I mean. The British constitution is not codified in a single document like that of the US. As a result, in Britain we see what are effectively constitutional changes made all the time, often in haste and without adequate debate.

        The most recent example would be the Fixed Term Parliaments Act — a massive change to the structure of the British political system. I think the change is probably a good thing. But it was given very little attention in advance of the 2010 election, before being rushed through Parliament as part of the backroom dealing that led to the current coalition government.

        • expatmum

          Unfortunately UK politics seems to be going the way of Americans politics. Behind the scenes money and back room deals.
          But I wasn’t trying to be funny, we do have codified law in the UK and it has driven much of the bigger legal principles since enacted. The problem with a Constitution that has tried to codify everything is that it’s impossible to see two hundred years hence so you get situations (like with the 2nd Amendment) where people are arguing about what the authors meant. Yes, it can obviously be changed but the rigidity causes a few problems.

          • Irené Colthurst

            Considering the differing contexts, I’d say the U.S. Constitution fits the political culture of the United States: a basic unifying structural document upon which varying levels of precedent could then be established. Remember, each colony had a written charter (as each state has its own written constitution). We also spend plenty of time arguing about precedents, not just the letter and spirit of the basic document.

  • ukhousewifeusa

    I definitely vary my words for my audience, otherwise they have no clue sometimes what I am waffling on about!

  • Alan Richardson

    First one happened to me a long time ago. Now I’m at the age I might utter British words idiomaticaly and wonder why I’m getting an uncomprehending blank look; then I realize I’ve said something veddy Bwitish.
    When I innocently use American idiom I’m assumed to be American in the UK.

  • CTKath

    I am the American child of two British parents and I never heard their accents! My friends would call the house and want my father to answer the phone because they loved the way he spoke!

    • Tony Davies

      I am a first generation child of English expats. I got the same thing from girls on the phone. Oh your dad has a cool accent. I tell them there are thousands just like him.

      I do have many words and phrases that mark my englishness.

      • expatmum

        My kids get that a lot. I’ll bump into them at school, say something to them and a friend will say “Wow, your mom’s British!”. My kids almost look shocked until they remember that not everyone knows they have a British mom, and it’s not actually that common here!

  • Kart Durai

    I haved in the states for a year now, Still got my English accent but I do now say American words more. Just convenient. My parents hate when I say guys when referring to people. It drives her up the wall.

  • frozen01

    I’m the American half of a Brit/Yank marriage, and though I’ve never lived in the UK, even *I* have difficulty remembering which word/pronunciation belongs to which country.
    Of all the words for which I picked up the British pronunciation, what is the one that stuck? P(a)edophile. I have no idea why, but I can’t shake it. It’s not a word one uses very often, but every single time, it comes out “pee-do’-file”.

    And, of course, I stop typing this comment to answer a phone call, and catch myself saying “should have done” (instead of “should have”).

  • bluecar

    I sound completely American, having been 16 when I moved here but some few words, like water and butter hang on leaving people thinking I am faking a British accent . I also sometimes forget the American word for uncommonly used item as I learned in the hardware store when no one could tell me where the “secateurs” were kept.