Did you know that there are some words that exist in both British and American English which have completely different meanings?
British English and American English started to evolve separately after English was exported to the Americas almost 400 years ago. There are many famous examples of different words for the same thing: British English has lift, petrol and autumn and American English has elevator, gasoline and fall. But it’s words with different meanings on each side of the Atlantic Ocean that seem to cause the most confusion.
Here are three that can lead to real embarrassment:
1. Pants (Hose in American English, Unterhose in British English)
It seems quite logical that the item of clothing under your pants (British English: trousers) should be called underpants. Underpants has the same meaning in both the UK and US. In British English, underpants is usually shortened to just pants, which is not possible in the States. If you tell an American that you like his pants, he’ll probably say something like: “Thanks, I bought them last weekend!” Tell a British guy that you like his pants and he’ll probably turn red with embarrassment!
2. Pissed (sauer in American English, besoffen in British English)
In both the UK and the US, pissed off is slang and means angry or annoyed. In the States, this can be shortened to just pissed. However, pissed means drunk in the UK. “My boss was really pissed when I left the office yesterday” could mean a boss with an anger management problem in the US, or a boss with an alcohol problem in the UK!
3. Rubber (Radiergummi in British English, Kondom in American English)
In British English, a rubber can be used to erase something written in pencil. In the States, this item of stationery is called an eraser – a rubber is a slang word for a condom. If you ask an American: “Excuse me, do you have a rubber? I’ve made a mistake,” he’ll probably just smile and say: “I’m sorry, buddy, it’s too late now!”
It’s generally a good idea to avoid words that can cause confusion and look for alternative ways to make yourself understood. Someone’s body language can also help you to recognise when you’ve used the wrong word, whether that’s with an expression of shock or roars of laughter!
Have you had any embarrassing misunderstandings with words like these?