Biscuit or Cookie? UK vs US English

We may feel pretty confident about our grasp of the English language.  We’ve been surrounded by it since birth and spoken it almost as long.  We read Huckleberry Finn in high school.  We are secure in our knowledge that we can communicate with roughly 1.5 billion people.  But it’s not that simple; around two-thirds of native English speakers grew up using a strange dialect known to us New Worlders as ‘UK English.’  We may consider it just a matter of slipping in an extra ‘u’ to make words like ‘favour’ or ‘colour,’ and remembering that in the British Isles fries are chips and chips are crisps, but the full extent of it goes much deeper than that.

I once told a Welsh colleague of mine that UK English sounds like it got stuck in the 1950s, to which he responded that US English sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.  Granted, when it comes to words like ‘sneakers’ and ‘elevator’ I can see his point. But still, to my ear, plenty of perfectly ordinary phrases in UK English would only be viable in the States if they were spoken by a little old lady.  Case in point: “Sit down and take off your cardigan while I nip out to the greengrocer.  Switch on the telly—there are biscuits in the tin.”

I concede the term ‘biscuit’ makes sense and is consistent with the rest of the Romance languages, i.e. the Italian biscotto and the French biscuit.  ‘Football’ too is self-explanatory, being a universal term that the United States had no business commandeering for a sport that’s 20% tackling and 80% extended time-outs and glitzy half-time shows.  The UK term ‘caravan’ instead of the American ‘RV’ or ‘trailer’ is romantic and old-timey, and thus I approve.  And, of course, to say ‘cheers!’ when you mean ‘thank you’ is just delightful, and has been drifting slowly into the American vernacular along with other useful terms as, ‘posh,’ ‘snog,’ ‘shag,’ ‘mobile phone,’ ‘mate,’ and ‘ginger.’ However, anyone living in the 21st century who insists on using the term ‘footpath’ when referring to a sidewalk, even when it’s paved with concrete and not even vaguely path-like, is just plain ornery.

So you have your things that are known as other things—your trousers/pants, jumper/sweater, car park/garage, lorry/truck, petrol/gasoline—which are easy enough to figure out. The real misunderstandings come when a UK slang term has an entirely different meaning in the US—and vice-versa. While studying abroad for a year in Ireland, I was invited to a Halloween party and urged to “come in fancy dress.” I tore my closet apart looking for a suitably ‘fancy’ dress and then showed up to a house full of Supermen, Freddy Krugers, black cats, and sexy nurses.

And while ‘fanny’ is America is a euphemism for buttocks, generally used by small children and old women, it’s a moderately coarse term for ‘vagina’ in UK English. Many of my friends remember the episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch where her catchy pop hit, “Shake your whammy fanny, funky song, funky song!” somehow snuck past the censors, leading to mothers nationwide rushing in to change the channel.

Similarly, if you say, “I’m pissed,” in the United States, you are probably trying to express the idea that you’re angry. The same phrase in Ireland or the UK would convey more a sense of, “I’ve had six pints and three whiskeys and now I can’t see straight, and oh, look, I’m falling over.” You can also use the term, “taking the piss,” to mean, “joking around or making fun of.” Moreover, if you are ever approached by someone from the British Isles asking if he can borrow a fag, he’s not being homophobic—he just wants a cigarette.

In general, Ireland and the UK are much more familiar with American terminology, due to their millennial generation growing up watching our TV shows. However, with the recent BBC invasion of shows like Sherlock, Downtown Abbey, and Skins, to American networks, we’re introducing aspects of their language and culture into our own. With time and more of this exchange—which is happening at breakneck speed thanks to the internet—perhaps soon we will get over being, as George Bernard Shaw famously described it, “two countries divided by a common language.”

What’s your experience of US versus UK English?

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