Getting to Grips With American Dialect For Brits Abroad

sequined fanny pack and vintage patchwork leather jacket

The “Fanny pack” – not to be confused with “the bum bag”!

Travelling to another country where they don’t speak the language can be something of a confusing experience, but even in those countries where there is a shared basic language, you can guarantee that local dialects will have given that language a different twist. America is of course the best example of this as, in some cases, whilst the language spoken is ‘English’ (or ‘American English’ to give it the proper term), some of the phrases and word-meanings bear little relation to ‘British English.’ Here is a quick reference guide to getting to grips with American dialect for Brits abroad.

American is a big country…and so there is really not one ‘American’ dialect as such. The country’s 50 states are home to a population of more than 300 million and cover an area of more than 9 million square kilometers. Within the federal and state boundaries there are metropolitan cities, arid deserts, huge expanses of ice and breathtaking mountain ranges – the ways of life of those who live within these areas range from completely international to fully insular and so in different places language has developed in different ways and at diverse speeds. America is also a melting pot of different cultures, from Mexican immigrants, to Europeans, each of whom has brought their own language with them over the centuries, each adding something new to the dialect spoken in their own individual areas. Some language experts have estimated that there are around fifteen dialects in America in total – defined by geographical area, although not by state. These include ‘Inland Northern,’ ‘Chicago Urban’ and ‘New England Western.’ Each of these owes something to the people, the history and the culture of the local area and each has its own special quirks. However, there are also some common elements to most of these dialects that set them apart from British English and these are listed below.

Hey what’s going on with these chips!

Eating and drinking is one of the most common areas where there are particularly different vocabs in use. If you ask for ‘chips’ you’ll be given a bag of crisps and if you ask for ‘crisps’ you’ll no doubt be met by a completely blank stare. Biscuits here are ‘cookies’ and ‘biscuits’ are scones. If you are offered ‘jelly’ with your toast then this is in fact jam and if you have a sweet tooth then it’s essential that you learn to say ‘candy’ instead of ‘sweets,’ or you might end up unable to get your sugar fix. Vegetables have lots of variations – ‘zucchini’ for courgette and ‘eggplant’ for aubergine, being the two most common.

Going out can be confusing if you don’t have a clue what the locals are on about. You don’t go to the cinema in America, you go to ‘the movies,’ and football in the English sense of the word is ‘soccer’ (whereas football in American is ‘American football’…). You need to ask for ‘the check’ at the end of a meal, not the bill, which you will pay for with ‘bills’ (not notes). If you’re a woman then your ‘purse’ is actually your handbag and for men ‘pants’ are in fact trousers, not what you wear underneath; for both sexes, you’ll need to take the ‘subway’ not the tube if you’re going to get anywhere in the big cities, or jump in a ‘cab’ not a taxi.

In the house there are just as many areas for potential error. Clothes are kept in the ‘closet’ rather than in the wardrobe and the kitchen tap is actually the kitchen ‘faucet.’ At night you will need to put out the ‘garbage’ not the rubbish, and draw the ‘drapes,’ rather than the curtains. If you live in a flat, this will be called an ‘apartment,’ and where you have a lift in the hall that’s actually an ‘elevator.’

Getting to grips with American dialect is not that hard for Brits abroad. The best thing to do is to simply query any words that sound odd, based on the situation you’re in and listen out for the terms the locals use – and remember not to take offence if someone makes a comment about your pants!


John is a freelance travel writer who wrote this guest post on behalf of Alamo USA – whether you’re looking for car hire in Boston or Orlando – they speak your language!

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