It’s not what you think it is

With the US and the UK importing each other’s television, films, and books, most of us know at least a few of the common differences in the way the two cultures use English words: the US has elevators, the UK has lifts; American cars have trunks, British cars have boots. But the real zingers are words spelled the same in both types of English, but with different British and American meanings.

My older sister studied over here a couple of summers during law school, so she encountered British English before I did. You can hardly blame her for being confused on her first night in England when the landlady at her B&B asked “Would you like to be knocked up with orange juice in the morning?” (US readers: the landlady was offering a wake-up call with beverage; UK readers: the landlady seemed to be offering to impregnate my sister via some procedure as yet unknown to science, apparently involving citrus.)

Old-time baseball players wore knickerbockers, too.

My poor sister also couldn’t figure out why she got funny looks in shops when she tried to buy some knee-length trousers on behalf of a friend at home. She asked for black wool knickers for a man to wear while playing golf, and no matter where she went, the shop staff said they didn’t sell any such thing. Given that knickers generally means ladies’ underpants here, I have some sympathy for the bemused shop assistants, but at least they got a crazy-American story out of it, which they probably tell to this day. (Knee-length golfing trousers are called knickerbockers here, though they’ve been out of fashion in both countries for decades, so I don’t know why this guy wanted them in the first place.)

Words that are spelled the same and mean something different are homographs. (Not to be confused with homonyms, which merely sound alike: bear and bare, deer and dear, boar and bore—why do examples of homonyms generally seem to involve animals?) In addition to knickers, but sticking with the theme of underwear, consider the words pants, vests, and especially suspenders.

Pants here means underpants. You may put on a bifurcated garment to cover your limbs, something running from waist or hips down to the ankles or thereabouts, but don’t call ’em pants; they’re trousers over here. Presumably the British don’t use the idiom Americans do about who wears the pants in the family; most likely everybody wears pants, but covers said pants with trousers or skirts before going out the front door. Pants is also a slang term of disapproval, generally meaning that something is outmoded or inferior and ought to be got rid of: “Nothing on but reruns! Summer telly is pants”. You hear it used as an expletive (here pronounced ex-PLEE-tiv; in the US it’s EX-pleh-tiv) and read it in slogans and headlines: “Say Pants to Poverty!” or the punning “Top Briefs Say Pants to GM”. (Not a strange protest against General Motors; in this case you have to know that a brief means a lawyer and GM means genetically modified food or crops.)

The green garment seen under this fellow’s jacket may be a vest in the US, but it’s a waistcoat in the UK

A vest here is not the dapper garment that with trousers and a jacket makes up a gentleman’s 3-piece suit; that item is called a waistcoat, pronounced something like weskit. Vest here means an undershirt (think Brando in Streetcar) or sometimes a tank top.

And suspenders, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, are not worn by British men to hold up their trousers, at least, not usually and rarely in public. The strips of cloth ending in clips or buttons, worn over the shoulders to hold up trousers, are called braces. Suspenders means ladies’ garters for holding up stockings; a garter belt is here called a suspender belt. Gives a whole new twist to the old (American) joke about why a fireman wears red suspenders.

Not all homographs that cause confusion have to do with underclothes, but somehow those leap to mind first. We could talk about the term pavement, used in the US for any paved surface, but used here to mean the sidewalk only; the street may be paved and usually is, but it is not the pavement. Where I grew up, a daddy long legs was a spider, but here it’s a flying insect; it looks like the mosquito of your worst nightmares, but it’s harmless. What Americans call a jumper, the British call a pinafore dress; what the British call a jumper, Americans call a sweater. The names of so many foods fall into the homograph category that I’ll leave them for a whole post some other time on the vocabulary of food.

One of the strangest homographs I’ve run across is quite. I’ve entirely given up using the word, because over here, quite has two meanings: quite and not quite.

That’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that quite can mean “completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent” and can also mean “moderately” or “somewhat”. Like the tonalities in Mandarin Chinese, the intonation that makes the difference between the two opposite meanings of quite presents grave difficulty to those not born to the language. Native speakers of British English apparently have a specialized gene or a few extra neurons for detecting whether quite means what it says, or means the opposite. I certainly can’t tell which is which.

This guy’s trousers are held up by braces (UK) or suspenders (US)

In print, I can usually decipher from context which meaning is intended. I’ve seen more than one survey which presented several statements—statements more or less like “how did you find navigating around the Guildford Borough Council website today?”—and asked me to mark my answers from choices such as very difficult, somewhat difficult, neither difficult nor easy, quite easy, easy. Did you catch that? Aside from the fact that with most websites the answer you want to select is “ridiculously difficult and each time you change the website it gets worse”, they slipped a quite into the lineup, which in that context clearly means not quite. (UK readers: You’d never, ever see that in an American survey.)

On a visit here years ago, as I left my friend’s mother’s house after a wonderful meal, the hostess said “I hope the dinner was alright.” I don’t know why she needed reassurance, but perhaps we hadn’t praised it enough, so I said enthusiastically, “Oh, yes! It was quite nice!” and her face fell. Years later I found out that she’d thought I was saying to her face that the feast she put on for us was almost, but not quite, nice. She must have thought me the rudest guest she’d ever lifted a spoon for, but honestly—she couldn’t have interpreted my quite to mean not quite unless she was predisposed to think I could be that rude, which I find pretty mindboggling.

When I told that story to a British colleague, stressing that it would never have occurred to me in a million years that quite could mean not quite, he said he’d now have to adjust his thinking about Americans. It seems he once saw a party of Americans leave a restaurant, one of them taking pains on the way out to tell the staff that the meal had been quite nice, which my British contact interpreted as an insult to a very good restaurant. Apparently he thought Americans go out of their way to tell people that what they’ve been offered isn’t absolutely up to par.

So, British readers, please be aware that for Americans, quite does not mean not quite, unless we put the not in front of it. And if you think a visitor has insulted you, please consider that the phrase s/he used might not mean what you thought it meant.

Trousers. In the UK, don’t call ’em pants.

This language gap—not a difference in words, but a difference in ways words are used—is worse than the gap between English and foreign languages, because it’s insidious; we can so easily misinterpret each other and have no idea how wrong we are. I’ve not found a reference book that’s really on the case in this regard; besides, you don’t generally look up a word or phrase that’s normal English as far as you’re concerned; you just assume you know what it means, and so does everybody else.

When I first got here, someone told me he grew up on an estate, and I thought he meant a mansion with substantial acreage, when actually he meant what Americans might call the projects. The hairdresser said I’d look better without a fringe and, as I wasn’t wearing buckskins, I had to ask what she meant; it turned out she thought the short hair over my forehead (US: bangs) didn’t flatter. Someone told me I looked smart, and I wondered how anybody could think you can judge someone’s IQ by what they look like, but they only meant that I was, to quote the OED, “neatly and trimly dressed”. When a realtor (UK: estate agent) suggested I view a property with an outhouse, I couldn’t believe she would offer a property without indoor plumbing, but it turns out that just means an outbuilding.  (An outdoor toilet would be called just that: an outdoor toilet.)

Last week marked the eleventh anniversary of our move to the UK (and the first anniversary of this blog), but I can still get into a muddle over these kinds of differences in language; in fact, I’ve been here so long, I sometimes forget which definition is American and which is British. I’ve just had to accept that there will be misunderstandings and if I want to communicate at all, I have to jump in and risk getting things wrong.

The only sane way through this, I think, is for all of us to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’d be a happier world if we did that more often anyway.



Filed under Culture, Language

11 responses to “It’s not what you think it is

  1. Hey, MEF, very, very funny! Quite funny, in fact! I really enjoyed all your observations and your tales of various bungles are hilarious.

  2. Rod Cuff

    Another excellent blog entry, Mary Ellen. Do you know the book “Divided by a Common Language” by Christopher Davies? Its subtitle is “A British/American Dictionary PLUS” (

    Soooo many homographs in there — bird, bucket shop, casket, rock — and as for names such as Randy …!

  3. Candida

    With “quite”, it isn’t just about the tone, it’s also about the strength of the adjective being accompanied. Quite lovely, of course, is lovely without qualification. Quite dreadful is similarly unrelieved. But halfway words like quite good, quite bad – those are qualified by the quite.

    And it’s the combination with “nice” that’s the real killer in your examples. To me as a Brit, it’s a shock that you can use “nice” as a genuine term of approval! It was drummed into us at school that nice is a dreadful word, conveying no real enthusiasm or approval. And that it has an older meaning of petty or insignificant (as in “the niceties”). A nice girl is who the sit-com prissy mother would like her son to end up with, but the son would skip straight past at a party, a nice day is lacklustre but good enough that you can’t complain about it. “Nice” would be crossed out in schoolwork from your earliest years, usually with “weak” written in the margin.

    So “nice” is damning with faint praise, and “quite nice” is – oooh, it’s dreadful! It’s being polite about something pretty bad (unless said in a mildly surprised tone, when it can indicate something expected to be a negative experience that turned out positive). Either way, it’s definitely not a review you’d quote on the door.

    (It just occurs to me now – does “have a nice day” actually NOT sound really anodyne to Americans, then? All those times that we find it slightly sickly and so base-level we wish people wouldn’t say it, are we really being wished something more than we understand by the word? Ooops… )

    BTW isn’t is UK: estate agents and US: realtors?

    • Tricia

      Ah, I thought Brits’ hatred of ‘Have a nice day’ was the fact that it is said so often and so habitually that it isn’t really meant. I had not twigged onto the fact that ‘nice’ means something different here!

      So amazing, after so many years, to still be tripped up by our same-but-different words!

      Actually, mef, ‘common’ is another one you might want to address in a future post.

  4. Mary Korndorffer

    Hooray, Mary Ellen, you are getting the hang of us at last!

    I was going to recommend “Divided by a common Language”, but I see Rod got there first!
    I can’t find a ref. in it to the use of “quite” though. When editing US English I have to double-take and sometimes replace with “rather” or “somewhat” to meet an international audience, but all is confusion.

    And I echo Candida’s school experience with “nice”; “Be more precise and expressive!” they would say.

    Quite a nice post tho.

  5. I just adore this post, ME! Or, to paraphrase what my husband so often says to me in amorous moments, I quite like it! Well done, cheerio!

  6. MFC

    Well done, MEF! And, just for grins, I’ll add one of my own favorites —

    American: “Oh, dear. I have a run in my stockings!”
    British: “Oh, dear. I have a ladder in my tights!”

  7. Mary Helen Spooner

    Mary Ellen,

    Once again, another good post. Perhaps you’d like to include a glossary on your site? After nine years here I recently embarrassed myself by asking for thumb tacks at our local post office/village shop. A blank look from the clerk, but a bilingual customer directed me to a box of drawing pins.

  8. Thanks to everyone who replied, and apologies for the time it’s taken me to respond. (Hectic summer…houseguests…etc.)

    Mary Helen: a glossary is a great idea — I’ll try putting one in when (ahem) I get the time.

    Rod & Mary: thanks for recommending “Divided By a Common Language”, I’ve requested it from the library.

    Mary & Candida: Oh, great. So “nice” doesn’t mean what I think it does, either? In the US, if you say something is nice, it’s not damning with faint praise, it means you think it’s nice. No wonder people here say “lovely” all the time, which is bordering on the twee in American English unless you’re specifically talking about something beautiful in appearance. I would suggest that “lovely” has become watered-down; it seems the standard adjective for a cup of tea.

    Candida: thanks for the typo, I swatted it. And thanks especially for the fleshed-out explanation of ‘quite’.

    As for whether “have a nice day” (or its close kin, “have a great day”) seems trite to US ears, that could go either way. People can say it as if they mean it, or say it in an obviously pro forma way; perhaps it’s because I’m a native, but I feel confidant that I can tell the difference. That’s as opposed to thankyouforshoppingatKmart, written TYFSAK over the tills at K-Mart to remind the staff to say it; if they forgot, you didn’t have to pay, and when I was a kid, I longed for that to happen. But they said it as if it were a single word meaning “get out of here, the queue is building up”.

    The strange thing is that people here in the UK who find I’m an American will then say “Have a nice day to me”. I don’t know whether they just figure I expect it, or whether they mean it!

  9. Joy (aka Lady Joyous)

    Wonderful blog, Mary Ellen! As an American who loves to read British fiction I have often been quite (!) confused at some of these terms.

    The one that still gets me is ‘what?’ at the end of a sentence or by itself. In the US it could mean ‘huh?’; ‘what did you say?’, ‘what do you mean?’, etc.; while in the UK it seems to mean something like ‘don’t you agree?’, ‘don’t you think?’, etc. What do you say about the ambiguous ‘what?’?

    • Thanks for your comment! But, er, I don’t find that final what to be ambiguous. That is, I’ve never been in a situation in which I was unsure which what was meant.

      The OED calls the UK what? at the end of a sentence “an interrogative expletive (sometimes with eh) usually at the end of a sentence, esp. in recent trivial or affected colloq. use.”

      But in practice, I don’t hear it much. The one friend I had who used it, a wonderful older man who blustered and spluttered and used whassname and thingummy in place of nouns to the point that it could be really hard to follow what he was saying, has–alas!–shuffled off this mortal coil. (If I listened closely and kept in mind that whatever he was saying was more than likely a ribald story, I could get the gist.) The point being that I think the use of the British terminal interrogative expletive what to be dying out.

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