The Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, once described the UK and the US as “two countries divided by a common language”. I’d disagree with George on this one. I’ve found the differences in our use of language to be a wonderful point of unity and discovery. I’ll always remember my confusion when an American coworker told me all about his habit of chatting up¹ people on trial contracts or the looks I got when stating I hadn’t brought my costume² for the pool at a company meetup.
I find it fascinating the way languages grow and evolve. I love to hear about how Portuguese is different in Brazil and Portugal; how people in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia speak different languages that are also mutually intelligible to one another; the part the web is playing in reviving dying languages, like Romansh.
I really believe that differences in language are something to celebrate and make the world that bit more interesting. With that, here are some of my favourite differences between British and US English, all encountered from eight years working in a company where US English is predominant:
- Chatting Up
While “chatting up” may describe an innocent, friendly exchange in the US, it has somewhat more flirtatious overtones here in the UK, thus explaining my raised eyebrows upon my coworker’s assertion he regularly chatted up trial contractors.
- Swimming Costumes
I wasn’t about to get dressed up as Velma from Scooby-Doo before taking a dip in the pool. Instead, a swimming costume is synonymous with a swimsuit in the UK.
I used “fortnight” when communicating a two week period in my early days at the company, as it’s standard in British English. It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t a standard word that was immediately understandable across the world.
That said, I’ve noticed an increased use of the word “fortnight” in recent years. This increased usage may come down to the fact that “biweekly” (the most common alternative) can be ambiguous given it has a double meaning of either “twice a week” or “every two weeks”.
It could, of course, also be that fortnight simply sounds cooler thanks to the popularity of a certain online video game. 🤪
In an attempt to mimic my accent, a coworker declared he wanted to “give a call on the telly”. But, alas! We don’t phone on the telly; we watch the telly. I’ve realised that Brits seem to have a habit of shortening words. Television is telly, University is Uni, brill is brilliant, etc.
- Date formats
Perhaps the greatest source of miscommunications and anecdotes.
The M/D/Y format for dates is standard in North America but confusing people who aren’t based there. Conversely, the YYYY/MM/DD format, despite the XKCD endorsement, can also confuse those accustomed to other formats.
Me? I shall forever refuse to accept your YYYY/MM/DD offering, and this is the hill I choose to die on. 🙅♀️ Please let’s just spell out the date?
Quite doesn’t quite mean the same thing between the Americans and Brits:
Similarly, I’ve had some confusing exchanges where American colleagues took my reply of “doing okay” (in response to “how are you?”) as a negative-leaning response. In actuality, I was attempting to convey a neutral, but not bad, mood.
It seems us Brits aren’t always crystal clear when it comes to conveying our levels of enthusiasm, as summed up further in this popular meme:
Any other examples of differences in our (or another) common language? I’d love to hear them!
This post was adapted from an internal post I wrote for Automattic, the company I work for, a couple of years ago. It originally included examples from various types of English (not just UK vs US) and was also focused on awareness in a customer support environment. The credit for the idea to adapt this for public consumption goes to a writing prompt from our company’s internal blogging group.