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7 British words Americans should adopt

2007.04.12 — Culture | Language | by Roland Grant


England, swinging much like a pendulum do. [source]

America and the Britain are famously said to be two nations divided by a common language. We sometimes use different words to refer to the same things and refer to different things sometimes by the same words (studying to be a chemist is very different in the US and the UK). It is inevitable that some Briticisms must be better than their American counterparts. Here are some of the best.


Sack is actually making good headway in America as a replacement for fire in the sense of eliminating an employee for cause. It looks good in newspaper headlines and is less ambiguous (stories about actual sacks are far less common than stories about actual fires). And it has a good back story of employers giving an actual sack to employees to collect their tools and shuffle off.


The official preferred international spelling of the metal your beer can is made of includes the extra letter I. It took several years in the early 1800s to settle on the spelling aluminium, but American engineer Charles Martin Hall popularized the current US spelling with his products—apparently as the result of a simple misspelling on his patent application. And the word has been problematic ever since.


Used in the US to mean motion picture film-making in general, cinema to a Briton means a movie theater. It's a handy way of differentiating between theaters for stage productions and theaters with no stage and avoids constructions such as "Let's go to the movies" when you mean just one movie.


Altho elevator has a certain Latin cachet for many people, the simple Germanic lift says the same thing in half the letters and one fourth the time. To replace escalator, I propose stair lift, which meshes nicely with our existing chair lift.


While I'm not sure where the use of the term flat for a collections of rooms came from, I also can't understand the term apartment. An apartment isn't apart from anything. If nothing else, it should be called a togetherness. But flat is nice and simple, and rather more homey than apartment, and far better than condominium, which—when compared with gymnasium and auditorium—sounds like a location used for safe sex.


You call it corn. But maize is the name it goes by in most of the world, partly because corn has always—outside the US—meant grain in general. It's a useful distinction, and the word maize come from native American languages, something we have too few of in American English.

Full stop

The American term is period. It's just not as good. It's a tiny piece of punctuation, but it does so much that it deserves a little more recognition. It's especially odd that the American term is synonymous with something that is not a full stop. A period is also a temporary space of time during which something happens. Its very nature is that things go on afterward. But full stop is a no-nonsense term for something whose job it is to end a sentence and nothing more. Full stop.


Altho the word torch in a British book always brings to my mind an actual firebrand, it's a great example of an old word put to perfectly good use. The term flashlight just doesn't convey the purpose of the object. They don't, as a general rule, flash, for example. And it would be easy to distinguish between an electric torch and a fire torch when necessary.

No thanks, England

Of course, there are plenty of other British words we certainly don't need to import. Banger (sausage), biscuit (cookie), sweets (candy), and toilet (restroom, not just the stool) are decidedly unwelcome. Braces already does double duty in the US, we don't need it to refer to suspenders too. One that is particularly distasteful is answer-phone, meaning answering machine. And lorry is an oddly feminine word for a manly thing like a truck.

And, of course, Americans should never consider appropriating the term tea, which to a person of English blood means not only the drinkable but any meal where you would—or could—drink it, which of course means any meal at all, including made-up meals that don't exist, like "elevenses."

Last, despite the difficulty it causes in international discourse, the term football must continue to have divergent meanings in the US and the rest of the English-speaking world. Americans will not be persuaded to start calling their game "gridball" or "goalball," I don't imagine, and the rest of the world certainly isn't going to budge on the direct and obvious connection between the foot and the ball, despite the very serviceable term soccer.

And don't get me started on their silly words for car parts. Windscreen for windshield, aerial for antenna, boot for trunk, wing for fender, and bonnet for hood.


f e e d b a c k

Respond to this page by your e-mail client. Please be sure to mention the title of the article.

Jason writes:

What about pinch. As in, "I pinched the latchkey to some bloke's flat while he was in the loo."

Roland replies:

That's a good one. So is nicked, which means the same thing. The British seems to have more words for stealing than we do. Of course, we have more words for murdering than they do. Maybe there's something to that Sapir-Whorf crap. —RG

Frank G of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England writes:

How on earth do you infer that lorry is a feminine word??? And has it not occurred to you that English (the language) comes from ENGLAND and your version is only a 300 odd year old bastardisation of the real thing? Jamaican English, Australian English etc. is just as valid in terms of new words as US English but in just the same way cannot claim to precedence in the definitive meaning of words written/spoken in English.

Is Filipino Spanish the arbiter on the spelling of Spanish words? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Roland replies:

Between this and my article differences between US and UK spelling , I'm really starting to get sick of e-mails from humorless British asses who think they own the fucking language. Also... perhaps the reason I feel lorry sounds feminine is that—oh, I don't know—"Lori" is a girl's name.



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