100 words with different meanings in British and American English

Summary: Big list of different UK and US meanings of expressions like bill, biscuit, blow off and brackets, including compound nouns and phrasal verbs.

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Learning English | Topic: Varieties and Dialects

First Published: 10th Dec. 2018 | Last Edited: 11th Dec. 2018

Of all the differences between English in Britain and the United States, the most interesting and important are words which are used in both places but with different (and sometimes even opposite) meanings. This list gives 100 such words and expressions arranged A to Z, from well-known ones such as “pants” to less famous ones such as “boob tube”. 

  1. appropriation – misappropriating – dispensing money
  2. (British) Asian/ Asian (American) – someone whose family comes from South Asia – someone whose family comes from East Asia
  3. athlete – someone who does track and field events – a sportsman (generally)
  4. bathroom – the place with a bath or shower – the place with a toilet
  5. bill – what you get at the end of your meal in a restaurant that says how much you should pay (“the check” in American English) – paper money, as in “a five dollar bill” (“banknote” or “note” in British English)
  6. biscuit – as in “chocolate biscuit” (“cookie” in American English) – a kind of savoury scone (as in “chicken and biscuits”)
  7. blow off – fart – blow someone off (similar to “stand someone up” in British English)
  8. boob tube – a strapless top (“tube top” in American English) – the television
  9. brackets – round brackets – square brackets
  10. (legal) brief – documents given to a barrister about what to do in court – documents given to a court to show the arguments of one side
  11. bum – bottom/ rear end/ buttocks – homeless person/ tramp
  12. buzzard – a medium-sized hawk – a kind of vulture
  13. campsite – an area for people to camp in (“campground” in American English) – a place for a single tent (“pitch” in British English)
  14. casualty – someone who has been injured (as in “casualty department”) – someone who has been killed (as in “casualty figures”)
  15. chips – thick-cut hot fried potato, as in “fish and chips” (“French fries” or “fries” in American English) – thin, crispy snacks eaten cold from a bag, as in “potato chips” and “nacho chips” (“crisps” in British English)
  16. cider – an alcoholic drink that is similar to beer but made from apples (“hard cider” in American English) – a soft drink made from apples
  17. (police) commissioner – professional head of the police (“chief of police” in American English) – person in charge of supervising the police force
  18. commonwealth/ (The) Commonwealth – an association of mainly ex-British colonies/ the period after between the death of King Charles I in 1649 to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – a way of referring to American states and territories such as Puerto Rico
  19. constable – police officer – official who serves summonses (“bailiff” or “sheriff’s officer” in British English)
  20. cooker – stove in the kitchen for cooking (“range” in American English) – a person who cooks (“cook” in British English)
  21. corn(field) – wheat – maize (often called “sweetcorn” in British English)
  22. cot – a baby’s bed (“crib” in American English) – a foldable extra bed (like a camp bed)
  23. cracker – Xmas cracker – yokel
  24. DC – Detective Constable (as in “DC Smith”) – District of Columbia (as in “Washington DC”)
  25. dormitory – a room for more many people, often with bunk beds, for example in a boarding school – a place where university students live (“halls” or “student halls” in British English)
  26. entrée – the first course/ starter – the main course
  27. faculty – the largest organisation of a university, often consisting of several departments – professors and similar staff (“academic staff” in British English)
  28. fag – cigarette – a very non-PC insult for a homosexual
  29. faggot – a kind of meatball – a non-PC insult for homosexuals
  30. fancy dress – dressing up in a costume, e.g. for Halloween – formal wear such as a ball gown
  31. fanny – vagina/ vulva – buttocks (as in “fanny pack”)
  32. first degree – first degree burn – first degree murder
  33. first floor – the first floor above the ground (upstairs from the ground floor, “second floor” in American English) – the floor at ground level (“ground floor” in British English)
  34. flapjack – a sweet snack mainly made of oats (like a “granola bar”) – pancake
  35. football – footie/ soccer – American football
  36. gas – natural gas – gasoline (“petrol” in British English)
  37. go potty – go crazy – go to toilet (for a baby)
  38. to graduate – successfully finish a university first degree/ bachelor’s degree – successfully finish any academic level, e.g. “graduate from high school” (“finish” in British English)
  39. grill – cook under heat (“broil” in American English) – cook on a hotplate/ barbecue
  40. gym – gymnasium, the place where sports are done, including in school – gym class (“PE class” in British English)
  41. hamper – a large basket for food, as in “picnic hamper” – a laundry basket
  42. hockey – field hockey, played on grass – ice hockey
  43. homely – cosy (place) – plain or ugly
  44. hood – the top of a convertible car – the cover of the engine (“bonnet” in British English)
  45. hooker – a position in rugby – slang for a prostitute
  46. jelly – a wobbly dessert, as in “jelly and ice cream” (“Jell-O” in American English) – a kind of jam without solid lumps of fruit in it (as in “peanut butter and jelly sandwich”)
  47. jock – slang for a Scotsman – slang for an athlete
  48. jumper – sweater/ pullover – a kind of knitted dress
  49. knock up – get pregnant – wake someone up by knocking on their door
  50. mad – crazy – angry
  51. mean – miserly/ the opposite of generous – unkind/ nasty
  52. medic – doctor/ internist – EMT/ paramedic/ military corpsman
  53. mortuary – place for dead bodies (“morgue” in the US) – funeral home/ funeral parlour
  54. nappy – kind of underpants for babies (“diaper” in British English) – an insulting word about Afro hair
  55. nervy – nervous/ jumpy – cheeky
  56. outside lane – the lane nearest the opposite side of the road, often used by faster cars (“inside lane” in American English) – the lane near the edge of the street, often used by slower vehicles (“inside lane” in British English)
  57. pantomime – a kind of play/ musical, that is often based on fairy tales and played at Xmas (often shortened to “panto”) – a performance without speech (“mime” in British English)
  58. pants – underpants – long pants (“trousers” in British English)
  59. parentheses – brackets generally (round brackets, square brackets, etc) – round brackets
  60. pavement – the part by the side of the road where people walk (“sidewalk” in American English) – the material that makes a road
  61. penny – a hundredth of a pound – a cent
  62. pissed – drunk – annoyed (“pissed off” in British English)
  63. prep school – a private school that prepares students to secondary school – a private school that prepares students for university
  64. professor – the very top members of the academic staff of a university – all lecturers at a university
  65. prom – music performance, as in “The Proms” – dance/ ball, especially at schools
  66. public school – an old and usually high status private school (historically, the first schools which were open to the paying public) – a school funded by the (local and/ or national) government (“state school” in British English)
  67. pudding – dessert generally, or a hot, heavy dessert similar to Xmas pudding – a kind of custard dessert, similar to crème caramel
  68. purse – a small and/ or woman’s wallet – a handbag or shoulder bag
  69. rail depot – a place where trains are parked – a rail terminal
  70. rider – a person riding a bicycle, motorbike, horse, etc – a person travelling on a train, bus, etc (“passenger” in British English)
  71. robin – a small bird with a red breast – a medium-sized bird with a red breast
  72. roommate – someone sharing the same bedroom – someone sharing the same house/ apartment (“housemate” or “flatmate” in British English)
  73. a rubber – an eraser – a condom
  74. saloon – part of a pub – a Western-style bar
  75. semester – half an academic year – between a quarter and a half of an academic year, depending on how the academic year is split (“term” in British English)
  76. semi – semi-detached house (“duplex” in American English) – semi-trailer truck (“articulated lorry” in British English)
  77. sherbet – a powdered sweet which fizzes a little on your tongue – a type of frozen dessert, like ice cream but with less or no milk (“sorbet” in British English)
  78. silverware – trophies won by sports teams – things you eat with (“cutlery” in British English)
  79. sprouts – Brussels sprouts – alfalfa sprouts
  80. squash – a kind of cordial that needs to be watered down to be drunk – a kind of vegetable similar to a pumpkin (similar to a British “marrow”)
  81. state school – a school funded by the government (“public school” in American English) – a school funded by the state (rather than the national government or a more local area)
  82. strike – hit the ball – miss (in baseball)
  83. subway – a pedestrian underpass – underground railway
  84. a surgery – a doctor’s office, like a clinic – an operating theatre
  85. suspenders – straps to hold up stockings (“garters” in American English) – straps to hold up trousers (“braces” in British English)
  86. sweets – small sugary snacks (“candy” in American English) – dessert/ sweet things generally, such as cakes
  87. tank top – sweater without sleeves – sleeveless T shirt
  88. The Times – The Times (often called “The London Times” in the US) – The New York Times
  89. tick someone off – tell someone off – irritate someone
  90. tights – nylons (“pantyhose” in American English) – skin-tight trousers (“leggings” in British English) or one-piece trousers and top (“unitard” in British English)
  91. tosser – idiot/ wanker – someone who likes to throw things away, the opposite of “hoarder”
  92. trailer – something that goes behind car or bicycle, usually to carry extra luggage – similar, but also including small places where people can stay (“caravan” in British English)
  93. trolley – shopping trolley – a kind of train in the street (“tram” in British English)
  94. trooper – private in the army – state police officer
  95. tuition – teaching, especially by a (private) tutor – money paid to study (“tuition fees” in British English)
  96. underpass – a street underground, often under another street – a tunnel for pedestrians under a street (“subway” in British English)
  97. vest – underwear worn under your shirt (“undershirt” in American English) – part of a three-piece suit, worn under your jacket (“waistcoat” in British English)
  98. wash up – do the dishes – wash your hands (before dinner)
  99. white spirit – a kind of alcohol used for cleaning, as a paint thinner, etc (“turpentine” in American English) – a kind of illegally distilled alcohol for drinking
  100. Yankee – someone from the United States (usually shortened to “Yank”) – someone from New England or the North-eastern United States more generally

Copyright © 2018

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com Ltd

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