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Learn English: ‘False friends’ in British and American English

Learning English, but you are by some differences between words in British English and American English? This blog will help you understand a bit more!

If you have watched TV and films from the USA your whole life, and are now learning English in the UK, you may have already been confused by some differences between words in British English and American English. Is it a flat or an apartment? Is it a jumper or a sweater? Is it an aubergine or an eggplant? (Flat, jumper, and aubergine are the British words). Most of the time, it doesn’t really matter – most Brits would understand what you meant if you used the words ‘apartment’, ‘sweater’, or ‘eggplant’, as American English is so widespread. Sometimes it’s because the words are just spelt or pronounced slightly differently – no big deal!

But there are some words that are false friends across the pond. A false friend is a word that is the same but has a different meaning in another language. A famous example is the Spanish word embarazada, which doesn’t translate to ‘embarrassed’, but ‘pregnant’! Although British English and American English aren’t two different languages, there are a few false friends in different English dialects that could get you into confusing situations around the world, depending on who you’re speaking with.

If you have been learning English for a while, you probably already know about football (British) and soccer (American). When an American says football, they mean American football, which is played with an oval ball and is passed by hand, not foot, and involves quite a lot of tackling. So don’t accept an invitation from an American friend to play football unless you know what you’re agreeing to!

You may also have noticed that Americans go to college after finishing their compulsory education at the age of 18, while Brits go to university, or uni for short. Meanwhile, in the UK, college is where students study for their last two years of school - from the age of 16 to 18. So don’t be shocked if you hear of a 16-year-old starting college in the UK!

Another common one is holiday – in the UK, this word has two meanings: the first is a day or time of national celebration or time off from work, and the second is when you go away from home overnight or for many days. In the USA, only the first meaning applies, while they call the second a vacation. So if your American friend says they are ‘having a holiday’, don’t ask what country they’re visiting!

Be careful where you go! In the UK, you can use a subway to walk underneath a road to get to the other side, while in the USA, a subway is an underground train network. If you walk into a building from the street in the UK, you’ll be on the ground floor, below the first floor, but in the USA, you’ll be on the first floor, below the second floor. If you want to walk along a street in the UK, you should walk on the pavement, but in the USA, you should walk on the sidewalk, because the pavement is the surface of the road where the cars drive!

Then there’s food. There’s a reason that the UK’s famous dish is called ‘fish and chips’ and not ‘fish and French fries’: Brits tend to call hot, deep-fried sticks of potato chips, while Americans call them French fries. In the USA, chips are thin, deep-fried slices of potato that come at room temperature in foil packaging, while we call those crisps. And if a Brit gives you a biscuit, you will get a small, sweet, baked snack that is good to eat with tea or coffee. If an American gives you a biscuit, you will get a hot, savoury cake, probably covered in gravy. What we call biscuits, they call cookies.

If an American tells you a restaurant is quite good, you should definitely go and try it. But if a Brit tells you a restaurant is quite good, you may want to look at other options. That’s because in American English, quite means ‘very’, while in British English, it means ‘somewhat’ (more than ‘a bit’, but less than ‘very’)!

Last but not least, there are a few slang words that could get you into some sticky situations indeed. Don’t say the word dummy, which is a plastic object made for babies to suck, to your American friend’s baby – they’ll think you’re calling their child stupid! The American word for dummy is pacifier. Don’t compliment a British colleague’s pants, because they’ll think you are looking at their underwear. What Americans call pants, we call trousers.

While this guide covers just a small fraction of the differences between English dialects, these were some of the most common confusing differences between British and American English. We hope that it will help you along you English learning journey and keep out of trouble as you continue to use English in the UK and around the world!