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(Photo: Fotolia)
(Photo: Fotolia)

The first time I heard an American say he was wearing a “wife-beater,” I was caught off guard. Sensing my apprehension, my new buddy, Sam, a skinny New Yorker with a silly moustache who had deployed the term, explained to me that wife-beater is just a “harmless” U.S. colloquialism for a sleeveless top.

“Pardon me, Samuel, my lad,” I said, looking for some clarification, “are you saying that a wife-beater is merely a vest?”

“No, dude,” replied Sam, “a vest is the sleeveless undergarment of a three-piece suit,” to which I said, “No, Samuel, that’s a waistcoat.”

Confusion rained down on us like cannonballs during the Revolutionary War, and we both just sort of stood there in a silent stalemate, wearing pants.

Trainers vs. Sneakers
In the U.K., the generic term “trainers” is used to describe any sporty-looking footwear, and as you might expect, takes its name from the word “training,” as in “training shoes.” The word “sneakers” has a rather more sinister etymological background. Towards the end of the 19th century, manufacturers had developed shoes with rubber soles, making them ideal for mischievous folk to creep around in undetected, hence “sneakers.”

The term “tennis shoes” is also widely used stateside. Indeed, a 2003 dialect survey conducted by Harvard University found that 45.5% of Americans use “sneakers,” compared to 41.34% who prefer “tennis shoes.” Meanwhile, 0.01% go with the energetic sounding “jumpers,” while an indecisive 0.89% “have no general word for this,” which seems odd; odd enough to be an episode of The Twilight Zone if you ask me.

Braces vs. Suspenders
This one’s a tad confusing and we’re going to have to rally back and forth between American English and British English in order to make any sense of this dialectical mess. Perhaps it’s best to clarify that braces in both the U.S. and the U.K. are correctional devices used in the orthodontic world. Now, “braces” in British English also refer to the straps worn over the shoulders that hold trousers up. But in American English, these harnesses are known as “suspenders.” However, back in Blighty, suspenders are raunchy accessories that hold up a pair of women’s stockings, while this item is more commonly referred to as a “garter belt” in America. See, I told you it was confusing.

Fancy dress party vs. Costume party
Inviting both British and American friends to a fancy dress party would most likely result in U.S. guests arriving clad in tuxedos and ball gowns and the U.K. contingent dressed as bees, pirates and bespectacled child wizards. Sounds like a fun party, however.

Swimming costume vs. Bathing suit
As we learned above, the word “costume” when used in the U.S. implies dressing up as Elvis or a sexy cat. Thus the term “swimming costume” sounds a little curious to American ears, as if Brits dress up as ducks or something similarly whacky before taking a dip. Conversely, “bathing suit” sounds strangely formal to Brits, conjuring an image of zany Americans swimming laps in a suit and tie.

Shirt vs. Button down
What would simply be referred to in the U.K. as “a shirt” is known as “a button down” in the U.S. However, “button down” is commonly misused in the Land of the Free as a word to describe any old dress shirt. Correct usage refers specifically to the type of shirt that has a collar fastened down by buttons. Pretty interesting, depending on how passionately you feel about buttons.

Jumper/pullover vs. Sweater/jersey
The origin of the British word “jumper” is a bit of a mystery. The leading school of thought suggests it comes from the French jupe, meaning “skirt,” which ultimately comes from the Arabic jubba, a loose outer garment. “Jumper” would eventually go on to follow different evolutionary paths in the U.S. and Britain. In America, it became a sleeveless, collarless dress worn over a blouse (much like a pinafore dress in the U.K.) and in Britain it came to be synonymous with “pullover” (a term requiring no explanation).

“Sweater” first appeared in its current form in the United States sometime in the late 1800s. At the time, it was wrongly believed that sweating profusely could reduce weight, and many athletes trained wearing several sweaters in a harebrained and ultimately flawed attempt to get in shape (all it actually did was dangerously dehydrate them). The word “jersey” is much easier to trace and comes from the knitted garments made by the wives of fisherman on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the 1500s.

Trousers vs. Pants
This is perhaps the most famous discrepancy of all Anglo/American nomenclature. Brits use “pants” as a generic term for men’s undergarments while, of course, in the U.S. the word is interchangeable with “trousers.” The word “pants” comes from the Middle French pantalon, meaning “a kind of tights,” which ultimately derived from the Italian pantalone, which was the local nickname for a Venetian man, who presumably wore tight-fitting trousers.

Bum bag vs. Fanny pack
These different terms have caused no end of confusion and embarrassment through the years. But in lieu of offering an explanation myself, I will hand you over to Keith (Ewen MacIntosh) from the British version of The Office, who puts it far more eloquently than I ever could (skip to 1:07 to get right to the part about fanny packs—and note the Scotch egg at the end).

What differences have you noticed between American and British clothing terminology? Tell us in the comments below:

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By Jon Langford