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As a British expat who has lived and worked in the U.S. for over five years, I remain very much in favor of embracing the various wonderful nuances this country has to offer. However, there was one aspect of my move that—during the initial settling-in period—I secretly feared: the gradual Americanization of my vocabulary.
Now don’t get me wrong; this fear was not borne out of any kind of aversion to American English (AmE) or resistance to the local way of life. Rather, it was the result of my own stubbornness—a refusal to relinquish the one thing (aside from my passport) that set me apart as British. It all seems so silly now, but eventually I came to realize that not only was it okay to speak the vernacular of my new neighbors, but that such a notion was inevitable.
In time—whether to avoid confusion or just out of sheer necessity—there are certain AmE words that most British expats eventually adopt. Here are 10 of them:
While the British word “rubbish” has no shortage of admirers this side of the Pond, its American counterpart, “trash”, is one of those words that—if you are cohabiting with an American—will quickly enter your personal lexicon. Whether one of you has to take out the trash or there is simply trash lying about, a conversation about the trash will happen fairly frequently, as will your employment of the word.
If, like me, your first job in the U.S. is working for a cell phone company, you’ll have no choice but to rid your mouth of the word “mobile” (or at least the British pronunciation of it). But even if your career takes you nowhere near the tech industry, there’s still a good chance you’ll have to interact with a phone provider from time-to-time. In order to avoid confusion, you’ll soon refrain from saying “MO-by-ul,” and instead opt for “cell phone.”
Actually, any number of synonyms could be added here, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick with “Highway”. While Americans will likely understand what you mean if you call it a “motorway,” they are far more likely to giggle at you nonetheless. Experience has taught me to do as the Americans do with this one. Of course, your vehicle won’t be driving on anywhere if it isn’t filled up with the next entry.
Whether it comes up in a rant about price hikes or a conversation about needing to fill up your tank, gas is frequently a part of America’s national dialogue. This is probably why we Brits are quick to acquire the word, especially when no one in earshot will understand the word “petrol.” Ironically, I discovered this the hard way during an exchange with a cashier at British Petroleum.
Once again, Americans will likely understand the phrase “car park,” but it does nonetheless sound out of place in the U.S. Furthermore—and the same can probably be said of “highway”—the use of American driving terminology is no doubt preferable during your driving test. Either way, this one tends to stick.
Because Americans do not use the phrase “you lot,” it is much easier for Brits to refer to a group of people—men, women, or any other combination—as “you guys.” Indeed, the word “guys” can be used more specifically to refer to more than one member of the male sex, a usage that is also quickly adopted by expatriates.
This one is perhaps especially true for expat parents, not to mention their children. Even though you have said “maths” your whole life, meetings with teachers and interactions with other students will force you to subconsciously drop the ‘s’. But even I, as neither a parent nor a student (nor a teacher, for that matter) find myself saying it the American way.
If you tell an American pedestrian to “stay on the pavement,” he or she might misinterpret that to mean “stay on the pavement slab” (technically speaking, a “pavement” is the physical tile, not the walkway). To avoid this confusion, Brits eventually come around to using “sidewalk.”
Even though football fans back home often decry the American use of “soccer” (often unaware that “soccer” was itself coined by the British), the word is nonetheless an unavoidable addition to a British expat’s lexicon—especially that of the football fan. After all, imagine having to explain which version of football you are referring to every single time you begin a dialogue about the sport. It is just as well to call it “soccer” and move on as if nothing happened.
If you ask an American for a “fizzy drink”, he or she might, depending on the region, assume you mean a sparkling wine, such as champagne. This is why adopting the words “pop,” “soda,” or “coke” (depending on who you speak to) is not just recommended for an expatriate, but a necessity.
Have any of these words popped up in your vocabulary? Do you have any additions?
View all posts by Laurence Brown.