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A Tomato! Image © pfly (via Flikr)

This blog is intended mainly for British expats or “wanna be” expats or people interested in linguistic differences between the UK and the US.

Having lived in the US for 2 years, it never ceases to amaze me how different the English spoken here is to the language spoken back home! Of course, being brought up on a diet of imported American movies and books, I, like many Brits (or many other English-speakers) felt I was quite au fait with American English. I was wrong. I knew some obvious words like, “diaper”, “candy” and “elevator”, instead of “nappy”, “chocolate” and “lift”. But I didn’t know the American words for “tap”, and “plug point” and “footpath”.

I hadn’t bargained on the accent being problematic. My accent, I mean. For the most part it’s been a good thing . . .a feature. People seem to assume that if you have a British accent you are very clever (super smart) and sophisticated. It only gets to be a problem if people actually don’t understand what you’re saying. It happens to me more often than I expected, and when it does, it’s usually with people who have very little exposure to foreign accents. Somehow, unless it’s a really strong southern or mid-western drawl (we don’t see much of either of these in Northern California), I can pretty much understand all American accents.

When I first started tutoring here, the kids were really amused by my accent. They used to try and talk like me and they still try and teach me to talk ‘properly’. One 10 year-old persevered with her ‘British accent’ for all of 5 minutes, after which she asked me, “That hurts. Doesn’t it hurt your mouth to talk like that all the time?” She couldn’t understand, when I told her that for me, talking like her would be a great effort.

Two years down the line, I find myself sometimes ‘aaah’ing my ‘aw’s, rolling my ‘r’s and changing my ‘t’s into soft ‘d’s in order to help shopkeepers and bus drivers and ELL children (English Language Learners – immigrants, who have been speaking English for less than 6 years), understand what I am saying. It takes a lot of effort and feels very . . . well, foreign!

So, with this combination of differences in phrases and pronunciations, and with the variety of people I have to communicate with, I had more trouble than I thought I would.

I thought it might be useful for me to write a glossary of pronunciations, words and phrases, to help others. I have included some words that are obvious as well as others I have picked up. I will keep updating this list as I discover new words.

Pronunciation Guide (a guide to getting yourself understood):

‘Aw’ – I struggled with this. So many people cannot understand my British pronunciation of the ‘aw’ sound. If this happens to you, you need to pronounce these two letters as ‘ahhhh’ instead of ‘aw’, what you would say with your mouth opened wide. So ‘awesome’ is pronounced ‘ahhhh-some’, ‘claw’ is pronounced ‘cl-ahhhh’ and ‘saw’ is pronounced ‘sahhhh’.

Words ending with ‘i’ such as ‘anti’ and ‘semi’ are pronounced ‘ant-eye’ and ‘sem-eye’

Glossary of useful words and phrases (English to American):

all purpose flour – plain flour

anticlockwise – counterclockwise

aubergine – egg plant

bonnet (of a car) – hood

booking (at a restaurant) – reservation

boot (of a car) – trunk

bright – clever

chickpeas – garbanzo beans

chocolate – candy (so candy bar is chocolate bar)

courgettes – zuccini

dustbin/waste paper basket – trash can

footpath/pavement – sidewalk

fringe (hair) – bangs

full stop (in grammar) – period

gynacologist – OBGYN, sometimes referred to as ‘OB’

General Practitioner/GP (doctor) – Family doctor, Internist

hayfever – Allergies. Whenever I’ve told people I have hayfever, they think I’m running a high temperature and am sick

“I feel sick.” – If you say this, people will interpret it as you are feeling generally unwell, literally ‘sick’. Better to say, “I feel nauseous.”

ice-lolly – popsicle

Jerusalem artichokes – sunchokes

kitchen towels/kitchen roll – paper towels (I really confused a shop assistant when I first went out to buy these)

nappy – diaper

oregano – pronounced ‘oar-ay-gno’, with emphasis on the ‘ay’

patent – pronounce the ‘pat’ to rhyme with ‘rat’ (no one seems to understand when I say, ‘pay-tent’)

petrol – gas

plug point/socket – outlet (I learned this when trying to get a faulty plug point fixed)

route – pronounced like ‘out’ with an ‘r’ in front of it, instead of ‘root’

rubbish – trash

sat nav (satellite navigation system) – GPS

self raising flour – This is not a common ingredient in the US. When it is available it is called ‘self rising flour. Get used to making your own at home: For 1 cup self-raising flour mix 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp baking soda

sink – washbasin

skirting board – base board

soda – club soda/sparkling mineral water/seltzer

swede (the root vegetable) – rutabaga (and the swedes you get here are really small and nobbly, not like the monsters back home!)

tap – faucet (I discovered this when I had a leaky tap and was trying to explain the problem to a very confused plumber)

tea (as a meal) – this will not be understood. The term ‘tea’ is used for the drink. ‘Afternoon Tea’ as a meal consisting of tea, cakes, scones, cookies and sandwiches is something that is becoming increasingly popular in some cities. It is considered ‘very English’ and is seen as a ‘special occasion’ meal

‘tea party’ – In American English this term is used to refer to a conservative political movement rather than a party where tea and cakes are served. Read about the American Tea Party movement here

toilet/loo – restroom/bathroom

toilet tissue – bathroom tissue

tomato – Pronounced ‘tom-ay-to’ (the kids I tutor and the farmers who sell fruits and vegetables at the local farmers market do not understand the English pronunciation of this word)

tin/tinned – can/canned. Can can also mean toilet (I think)

trainers – sneakers (thanks, Jules)

“Well done!” (when said to praise an achievement) – “Good job!”

False Friends – you might think you know how to use the following words, but you probably don’t:

biscuit – a sort of a savory scone-like bread roll, commonly eaten alongside other food. Sometimes served with gravy

potato chips – potato crisps

hamburger – when seen in a recipe, for example, this could refer to a meat patty, or just to the ground up meat. There is a line of packaged pasta and powdered sauce mix called ‘Hamburger Helper” that you get here. The idea is that you need to add browned ‘hamburger’ or ground meat and water/milk to the contents of the package to produce a meal

holiday – In the US, this term is used to mean specific ‘holidays’ such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day etc. It is not used to mean time off from work/school. The word for this is ‘vacation’. So, you would ask “I’m going on vacation to London!” rather than “I’m going on holiday to London!”.

pound sign – this usually refers to the # on your phone. On automated calls, you are often asked to hit the pound sign when you’re done and this is what is being referred to

soda – means a sweetened soft/carbonated drink

tea – If you order ‘tea’ in America, you will most probably get iced tea or a pot or mug of hot water and a tea bag. You will most probably be offered a choice of teas, many of which are green or herbal. To make it clear what you want from the outset to avoid confusion, for example, order “strong, very hot English Breakfast tea with milk and sugar”. The milk and sugar will most probably come on the side.

Other things I have discovered:
Automated answerphones (especially the DMV one) in the US do not understand the British/English accent. So, if you have one (an accent), don’t waste your time trying to talk to them (automated answerphones). These machines don’t even understand my fake American accent!  Try and get yourself a real live operator to talk to (and pray that they will understand your accent!)

Americans have a very sweet tooth. Many savory prepared foods contain sugar and/or corn syrup and taste very (unpleasantly) sweet to the British palette. The main sinners are, bread (packaged), soups, salad dressings and sauces. I make it a point to check the labels of the foods I am thinking of buying before purchasing. I also try to buy bread made by reputable artisan bakeries and do not have vast quantities of sugar in them (Whole Foods has a good supply of these)

Other disconcerting things that people say:
“How are you?” from perfect strangers – they are not really interested in how you are, I think it’s their way of being friendly. I’m still not sure how I should be answering this question.

It is normal to pass some vague friendly comment as you exit a lift/elevator, even if the elevator is full of strangers. Comments I use include, “Have a good day!”, “Stay dry!”, “Have a nice evening!”, “Have a good weekend!”

“I love your accent. Can you say that again?” – I must admit that it does feel nice to get special treatment from shop assistants . . . initially. The novelty wears off after this has happened for the fifth time . . . on the same day!

There are benefits to having a British/English accent. People think you are smart and sophisticated. The flip-side of this is that they also think that you are polite, to polite to be pushy, and they will try to walk all over you and take advantage of your ‘politeness’. I find that when trying to get something sorted out, like insurance, or getting something fixed, I have to be very persistent and fairly aggressive for anyone to pay attention.

I will update this post as I learn more!


8 comments to “You Say Tomato!”

  1. Jules

    I once got a 30% discount on some trainers (sneakers) in St Louis, Missouri, because of my cute British accent…

  2. girl

    Jules: It’s great when it works for you!

  3. Dori

    thanks for that free English lesson! It happens just the same with Spanish language from Spain or from any country in America like Mexico…

  4. girl

    That’s really interesting, Dori. Having said that, hubby says that Canadian French uses a lot of different words and phrases than French French. I really need to learn Spanish. I sometimes think that there is more Spanish spoken in San Francisco than English! I am sure that Hispanic Spanish is different from Spanish Spanish!

  5. Dave Doolin

    One minor quibble and an observation:

    Quibble: Self-rising flour: This is regional. Examine, for example, Flatt & Scruggs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaAuehrcrzE. Very good for making biscuits and gravy. Of course.

    Observation: Nobody I know has any idea how to respond to “How are you?” from a perfect stranger. But we all do it anyway. A sort cultural appendix, perhaps, a benign tumor in the collective meme called Americana. Serves no purpose yet appears immortal.

  6. B

    It’s a great and interesting list. I’ve been on the other side of things, having been an American expat in the UK, so I know the feeling of saying the wrong thing. When I cut my finger in a railway station, the word “plaster” completely escaped me, and all I could remember was “band-aid.” No one knew what I meant until I showed them my bleeding finger.
    I do have a few exceptions for the list. All-purpose flour, bright, chickpeas, gynecologist, hayfever, artichokes, route, and sink are all terms a lot of Americans would understand and use—there may be regional variances, however. The Tea Party Movement is fairly new in the last few years, and most people would not confuse it with a child’s tea party.

  7. Nicole

    Thanks for the post! In October I’m moving from London to Berkeley for a year so this is super helpful.
    I’ve been determined to keep my accent as english as possible. But it never occurred to me that I may have to develop a twang just to be understood out there. uhh ohhh..
    I have always found on holiday (vacation!) that ordering water with an english accent is next to impossible..
    ‘You want WHAT?!’ ‘Warrter’ ‘What?!’ ‘Warrter.’ ‘One more time?’
    ‘Wahhderr?’ ‘Oh, sure!’

  8. girl

    Thanks Nicole! Do get in touch when you arrive in the Bay Area. Lucky you! You’re getting here at one of the nicest times of the year. The weather should be lovely. Don’t forget to bring lots of layers that can come on and off depending on the fog etc!


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