Monday, 4 July 2016

YOU SAY 'POTATO', I SAY 'SPUD'

by Michelle Robinson


Happy July 4th, America. Independence is a sore point here in Britain right now. Amid all the gloom, I suppose there's still a place for the flippant, the fun and the frivolous. I hope this post brings a smile to your face, if only a teeny tiny one.



Some words just don't cross over the pond. For writers it's a pain in the bum (or the butt, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're sitting). Wherever you're writing, you may wish to go right ahead and avoid some of these nuisance words:-

Sneaker - What is this, America? Sounds like a stealthy fart to me. If we’re talking running shoes, it’s a trainer or even a dap.

Butt - My daughter has started using this word because she watches imported cartoons. It doesn't work in a British accent. We have bums and bottoms.

Cookie - Here in the UK this can only refer to a pale biscuit with chocolate chips in it. Any other ‘cookie’ is just a different kind of biscuit. What you call a biscuit, America, is in fact a scone - and a scone is absolutely not a biscuit. I'm glad we got that one clear.


Color - We spell it colour. Just because you’re bigger than us doesn’t mean you can take away our Us. Ditto favorite/favourite. Stop being so annouying.

Herbs - Please pronounce the 'h'. As in heathens.


Truck - It’s a lorry. That ‘street car’ of yours is a tram. The big red one is a fire engine.

Elevator - It’s a lift. It’s easier for kids to say and they don’t get it confused with escalators (‘moving stairways’ to you).


A-LU-min-um - It’s a-lu-MINI-um, actually. We’ll forgive you on this one because even the guy who named it couldn't make up his mind. 

Drugstore - Sounds practically illegal to us Brits. We call it the chemist’s or the pharmacy.

Freeway - Steady on, this sounds dangerously close to freewheeling. It’s the motorway, where one drives one’s motor, mater.

Rotary - You don’t have many of these bad boys over there. Over here, it’s a roundabout. Don’t ever visit Swindon.

Pants - What is wrong with you people? They’re TROUSERS. Only Superman wears pants on the outside. Also, if something is 'pants', it's bad. 


Underwear - PANTS. Or if you're a girl, you might call your pants knickers. Wallace and Gromit call them undercrackers and they should know. Underpants sounds a bit snooty.


Sweater - Why would you use this word when you could treat your mouth to ‘jumper’? Say it with me, America. ‘Jumper.’ Now go and Google Sultans of Ping.

Galoshes - You can’t wang a galosh. They’re WELLIES.

Robe - It’s a dressing gown. Only Her Majesty wears a robe.

Diaper - Nothing useful rhymes with this. For picture book purposes can we all just agree that nappy is so much easier to work with?

Bathing suit - What century is this? Come on, prissy pants, it’s a cozzie.


Gum - This is glue. Please don’t go confusing us over this, especially our kids. No one wants to chew on a pritt stick.

Math - Did you forget to + the 's’?

Vacation - This is a holiday, actually. Our holidays are for life, not just for Christmas.


Goof off - This sounds like a euphemism. Please can we muck about instead? 

Recess - Sounds vaguely dental. Play time or break.

Parking lot - It’s a car park. (Where cars go to play, presumably.)

Cross walk - We call this a zebra crossing because we’re just so adorable. At least we used to be. *Brexit sigh*

Crossing guard - We have lollipop men and lollipop ladies. We like them, very much.

Gas - We use this to heat our homes and for cooking. We put petrol or fuel in our cars.

Sidewalk - Pavement is the word you’re looking for.

Dumpster - We call this a skip. I have no idea why. I concede: your word is better.

Apartment - Posh word for a flat.

Diner - We say ‘cafe’ to help us sound more European. I guess we'll be ditching 'cafe' soon.

French toast - It’s eggy bread, thank goodness, or we may not be allowed to make it post-Brexit.

French fries - These are CHIPS. Maybe we'll agree that the skinny ones are fries.


Potato chips - Crisps, because they’re crisp and it has fewer syllables.

Jelly - Last time I checked this was actually called jam.

Jello - Hello? This is jelly.


Mom - MUM. Apart from in the Midlands.

Restroom - Stop being coy. It’s the loo, the lavvy, the toilet or the bog

Faucet - Again, not great for pre-school rhyming. Let’s stick with tap.

Closet - We say wardrobe. Give it a try.

Trash can - Bin. Surely ours is a better word?

Mail - Post. As in, er… Royal Mail. I’ll have a word with them about that.

Soccer - Don’t even get us started on this one. Not now. It’s football. Your version of football is just plain silly.

Flashlight - Torch.

Band-aid - A charity supergroup headed up by Sting. We call those sticky bandage things plasters.

Fall - Autumn is so much more ...autumnal.

Eggplant - Aubergine.

Zucchini - Courgette.

Cilantro - Coriander. I’m glad I don’t write cook books.

Stand in line - This is queuing. We are the international champions.

Lady bug - Ladybird. Julia Donaldson wrote a whole book based on rhyming it with ‘heard’ and I bet no one asked her to rewrite that.

Any others I ought to have included? Do please add them in the comments below. If you're outside Britain, please also feel free to tell us you still love at least 48.1% of us and that somehow it's all going to be okay. 

Meanwhile, my book ‘The Forgetful Knight’ publishes in the US on July 7th, illustrated by Fred Blunt who lives in Swindon and negotiates roundabouts on a daily basis. In America, they’re hailing our book as ‘Monty Python for kids’. That crazy British humoUr, eh?

Find out more about Michelle Robinson and her books, including advice on writing picture books here.




40 comments:

  1. I missed the pronunciation of 'route'. You say 'rOWt', we say 'rOOt'. Potentially perilious if writing in rhyme.

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    1. Yes, but depending on where one lives in the U.S., one pronounces it rOOt as well. =)

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    2. Ah! I only ever hear 'rowt' and it puts my teeth on edge.

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  2. Great list! There are so many more differences between British and American English than many people realise and I often misunderstand my American friends! When I visited an American military base my friend told me that security might want to look under my hood. I was confused until I realised that she meant the bonnet of the car and not what I was wearing.

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    1. Good one! Hood = bonnet. Trunk = boot.

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  3. What an ace blogger you are, Ms. R

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    1. Thanks, Malachy. I never have any idea whether I really ought to hit 'publish' or 'delete'...!

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  4. Always hit 'publish', Michelle, as you always make me smile.
    Here's another: porridge is oatmeal. Imagine Goldilocks dipping her spoon in oatmeal - that's so wrong!

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    1. Oh, gosh, yes - we had that one in the co-ed for Bear Spotting. AAAAARGH!

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  5. I think Oliver Jeffers has put "jumper" firmly into the American dictionary!

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    1. Ah. But a jumper here is a one piece dress-like object that is worn over a shirt. (Like overalls, with a skirt)

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  6. Fab post.

    When I'm teaching crochet I have to provide a handout which shows the differences between the stitch names. e.g. our double crochet stitch is called a single crochet stitch in the US. I tell my students that the best way to to work out if a UK or US pattern is to look for the missing Us and Z (zees or zeds) replacing the correctly used letter S.

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    1. Crikey. As if crocheting weren't already complicated enough.

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  7. And in the US there aren't any hedgehogs...On another note I've been asked by one or two publishers recently to write in an American style, using American punctuation (the comma is placed differently in lists, for example). I always refuse. I am not American. They can pay for an American person to Americanise the text properly. Of course, some publishers (e.g.: DK) have been publishing in the UK using American usage for years, to save costs.

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    1. How can they live without hedgehogs? Unimaginable. Someone on Twitter just pointed out the old bum bag / fanny pack one. Not sure I want to go there in a picture book post.

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  8. I believe there are no buns. Only cupcakes or muffins. So
    there goes my story involving nuns with tons of buns.

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    1. We have cinnamon buns! Pastries that are coiled up with cinnamon throughout and sweet icing on top!

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  9. Today, with my half English, half American son had s'mores' to celebrate after our 'cookout' - bbq to you. Happy Independence Day!

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    1. Oh, yum. Now they're a grand invention. Also, have you tried wrapping a load of Galaxy Minstrels in a double layer of tin foil and putting them on the BBQ? Heck yeah. They go runny in the middle but the shell stays crispy. Don't ask me what happens to your arteries.

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  10. FUN post! I've thought of another which I don't see on your list. All my life I've had "bangs", but I believe that you lovely lads and lasses on the other side of the pond, call them "fringes". Is that right?

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    1. Yes! 'Bangs' is quite ridiculous! I remember hearing it first in Grease and having NO IDEA.

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    2. And then you have the British "plaits" and the American "braids". Your post has gotten me going! I wonder how many more we are missing! =)

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  11. And if I'm 'mad' I'm loosing my mind, not just plain angry... although I do and I am when I come across whole clusters of Americanisms in British children's picture books - boo! :0/

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    1. And 'cute' is quite subtly different.

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    2. 'Cute' is always a wonderful word!

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  12. We lived in England for 4 years and my favorite/favourite (!) misunderstanding was dealing with my car when the mechanic told me I needed a new silencer. I thought that was something bad guys put on their guns. We went around several times before understanding that an American's muffler (your scarf!)=British silencer. No guns involved.

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    1. That is definitely not a muffler over here...

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  13. Loved this post - much more amusing than anything on the Telly (that's tv, on the US side of the Pond). Jumpers & skips were the most confusing when I heard them during our first UK sojourn (as someone who wore a jumper, aka pinafore, to Catholic school in the US, I couldn't understand why that jumper was a pullover for the daughters in the Convent school outside London). Maths revisions caused confusion when the UK-born son entered secondary school. Why that same son's UK passport is not a fast pass to the entire EU now causes confusion & consternation, both for this Mum (yes, that's what they still call me) & son (who left college & is now in uni, after a fab Leavers' Ball - -no dry prom for him, rather an unforgettable night for parents & leavers celebrating together). Cheers!

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    1. I actually really love the differences. I read a lot of US kids fiction as a kid and found things like sneakers and fall and high school ever so appealing.

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  14. I love this! My kids are also starting to use Americanisms as a result of US TV, which we jump up and down on very firmly, in a very British fashion. 'Car lot? Oh no, young fellamelad, I THINK you'll find it's a car PARK. And dear me no, you can't go down the 'store'!' I also have a very fond memory of someone telling me of their first night in the states and getting a very strange look if they asked if they could pinch someone's seat...

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  15. This post did make me smile, thank you! I am an American who spend a very wee (spelled correctly?) time in England back in college (3-4 months). I had fun exchanging American-British terminology with other students. I will agree that you have some much better/fun words for those we use in the US (bum, for example, though bottoms is an equally acceptable word over here and considered more "polite" to use than butt), but some of your terms are just as confusing to me as our terms are to you. For example, I haven't looked up the origin of sweater or jumper, but why jumper? Do you jump to get into one? Or jump up and down with excitement when you are wearing one? I agree lift is easier to pronounce than elevator (though I did enjoy it when my children asked to go on an "alligator ride" when they were little -- meaning either elevator or escalator), but at least lift and elevate mean the same thing. Aluminium? Why add an extra "i" and make THAT harder to pronounce? As for galoshes vs Wellies, I believe these are different things. Galoshes (which I rarely see nowadays -- they're something my grandfather and maybe father-in-law may have worn) are water proof coverings that go over men's dress (you might say "smart") shoes. Boots are what most Americans wear on a rainy day. From what I guessed (and then googled), Wellies comes from the term Wellingtons to describe the type of boots popularized by the First Duke of Wellington. To me, this is just like the use of the term Bandaid here. What these really are called are "self-adhesive bandages," but since Johnson & Johnson first invented these and branded them "Bandaids," the name stuck and now most everyone calls them that. I had never heard the term "cozzie" so I looked it up: "informal for swimming costume." What century is this? I guess some swim suits (I call them that, not bathing suits) are, indeed, quite costume-like! Rotary vs. roundabout: I learned to drive in New Jersey where we called them traffic circles, so there's another one for you! I love your nappy, crisps and lollipop men/ladies. I guess our crossing guards don't have circular shaped signs. Pavement is the material that the sidewalk (so-named b/c it goes along the side of the street for pedestrians) is made of. I actually don't know anyone who calls glue "gum" -- just chewing gum is referred to as gum here, unless it's a regional thing that I'm not familiar with (for example, depending on where in the US you live, you may refer to a carbonated beverage as soda, pop, or coke). We have Jello (like Bandaid, a brand-name used for gelatin dessert), jelly, jam, AND preserves, and each is a different thing - very confusing! Also confusing, we do have buns, scones, biscuits, muffins, cupcakes, and cookies (not to be mistaken for being "kooky") which are all very different things. I didn't know you called zucchini and eggplant by different names, but cilantro and coriander are two different things over here. I am glad I don't write cookbooks either -- I lost a game of Trivial Pursuit while in England b/c the question asked how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon. In the US there are 3, but I learned that it's 4 across the pond! I completely agree with football. Our version of American football is very silly, indeed, and it makes no sense to call it that. To add to your growing list, we have guys vs. your blokes, we have umbrellas & you have bumper shoots, and the boot of a car is the trunk here -- because it's not at all confusing to have a part of a car, a tree, and an elephant all be called the same thing! Again, I enjoyed your post and hope you take my comments for what they were intended -- all in good fun!

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    1. Oh! We DO have hedgehogs! I told my son you call Bandaids "sticky plaster" and he made a face (plaster is something we build walls and house out of). I remember someone trying to explain to me a "pullover" while I was there. What is that? And, though I love the way "going on holiday" sounds instead of vacation, we Americans differentiate a vacation from a holiday as a trip away or time off from school or work vs. a calendar celebration of a significant day (Christmas = birth of Jesus). What do you call what we call a holiday?

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    2. You win the reward for longest, most thorough reply EVER. Thank you! What the heck is a bumper shoot?! We call vacations holidays. We don't use the word vacation at all. Our significant days are 'public holidays'. I love the differences, and I love the origins (be they mysterious or obvious) of our words. Such fun.

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  16. Such a fun post, Michelle! What's the saying - we're two countries divided by a common language? After our years there, I've held onto a few great words that I'm particularly fond of - loo, jumper, brilliant, Mum, hiya and cheers (although not 'All right?'). I love the British pronunciation of vitamin. Always made me laugh that Brits add the 's' to 'Math', but remove it from 'Sports'.

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  17. Thank you for clearing up the public holiday term! As for bumper shoot, I have to say the only person I ever heard use that term was my mother-in-law (who, I think, sometimes wishes she was British), so I looked it up. Apparently I had the spelling wrong (it's bumbershoot) and it's not of English origin, but of American origin. According to Wictionary, "it has become associated with British umbrellas, but has never been a Britishism." So my inlaws have been inappropriately throwing this term around for years (wouldn't be the first time)! Thanks again for an interesting and entertaining post!

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