English on TV: British vs American Slang

Hugh Laurie who is most famous for the show ‘House’ in the USA, is possibly more well-known for his comedic roles in the UK. He was part of a comedy duo with Stephen Fry and starred in Ben Elton’s Blackadder; which also stars Rowan Atkinson, pre-Mr Bean.

I’m assuming that Hugh was on the Ellen DeGeneres show to promote House, but the clip below is a segment where they test each other’s knowledge of British and American English. First, read the list of words below. Which are British English and which are American English? What do you think they mean?

Flossing

Chinwag

Badonkadonk

Chuffed to bits

Shawty

Now, watch the clip to find out.

I had not heard any of these American slang words and after quizzing a few Americans, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. They are fairly recent slang words, so perhaps even some younger British people have heard these through social media, songs, and films. On knowing the meaning, I can’t think of a scenario when I would use them so I will swiftly move on to the British words. These two terms have been around and in usage for quite some time. Although not all younger British people would use them, they are likely to be aware of the meaning.

Noun

Chinwag

Meaning

to talk/ chat/ gossip

the chin moves up and down, like an animal’s tail wags to and fro.

Example Sentences

I met an old friend from high school and we had a good old chinwag.

(It’s common to use the adjectives ‘good’ and ‘old’ before the noun ‘chinwag’).

I can’t wait to have a chinwag at lunchtime.

Adjective

Chuffed/ Chuffed to bits

Meaning

Very pleased/ delighted/ very happy

Example Sentences

He was chuffed to bits with his brand-new computer.

‘I’m so chuffed! I passed my driving test.’

‘We are dead chuffed with her exam results.’

(it is common to put the word ‘dead’ to add more emphasis to ‘chuffed’)

Replace the -ed with an -ing and the meaning alters. It is used for mild cursing; replacing ‘bloody’ or the more offensive f-word. It is more commonly used in Northern England and originates from Yorkshire.

Interjection

Chuffing ‘eck (heck)/ Chuffing nora/ Chuffing ’ell (hell)

Meaning

A way to add emphasis, like the use of ‘bloody’ in bloody hell.

It can be used in informal situations when the person is happily surprised or annoyed/shocked.

Using this would not cause offense to the listener but it is effective in displaying the speakers shock/surprise. Some British people, and probably some Americans, might find the usage of this term amusing.

Example sentences

‘What the chuffing ‘ell are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in years, how are you?’

‘How much!? Chuffing nora! You must be joking’.

‘Chuffing ‘eck! What are you doing?!’

It’s teatime!

I recently received a message from my parents ‘Just having tea, can you Skype in an hour?’. My parents are both British and I knew they were not referring to drinking tea. They frequently Skype with me while sipping cups of tea, but in this case, they were having dinner. In the North of England and the Midlands, Scotland, Wales and even in some areas of Ireland, people refer to ‘dinnertime’ as ‘teatime’. ‘Teatime’ is traditionally late afternoon or an early evening meal, between 5pm-7pm.

Example sentences:

‘Shall we have some tea?’

‘Look at the time! We ought to have some tea’

‘What do you want for tea? Spaghetti Bolognese or Stir fry?’

‘Shall we have some curry for tea?’

Americans do not use the word ‘tea’ in this way. The first two sentences could easily be misunderstood, thinking a drink was being offered or that we have a strict tea drinking timetable to withhold (which sounds very British). Some people could easily be confused hearing the last two sentences ‘drinking curry/spaghetti? What?’.

How do we avoid misunderstanding?

The use of different quantifiers helps with understanding. A drink would be e.g. a cup of tea/ two cups of tea/ a pot of tea, and the meal would usually be some tea. Frequently British people say ‘cuppa’ when we are referring to a drink of tea.

Drink

‘Do you fancy a cuppa?’

‘Shall we have a cup of tea?’

‘Two teas, please’ (not grammatically accurate but it is used in this way in speech, much like we would say ‘two sugars, please’ and ‘two coffees, please’).

Food or Drink

Some people might use ‘some’ before the drink also, but the context of the situation and who is asking avoids misunderstanding.

‘Do you want some tea?’

‘I’m going to have my tea and then I’ll come out’.

Those British people who use ‘tea’ to mean meal, are more likely to use the verb ‘have’ when referring to the meal and make use of the verb ‘drink’ when not e.g. ‘I’m going to drink my tea and then I’ll come out’.

This was one of the changes made in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; which is how I became aware of this difference in British and American English.

American Version: ‘After a meal of turkey sandwiches, crumpets, trifle, and Christmas cake, everyone felt too full and sleepy to do much before bed…’

British Version: ‘After a tea of turkey sandwiches…’

Skeleton in the cupboard/closet

Idiom

Skeleton(s) in the* closet (AmE)

Skeleton(s) in the* cupboard (BrE)

   *or possessive adjective= his/her/their/your

Meaning

A secret from the past that is embarrassing, shameful or possibly criminal.

Examples

Their family have some skeletons in their closet. Their mother spent some time in jail, but I don’t know why.

No one knows where he grew up and he doesn’t talk about his past. He might have a skeleton or two in his cupboard.

She has been married twice before, but did not tell her new husband-to-be. I wonder what other skeletons she has in her cupboard.

The mayor is very secretive about his time in the army, I bet he some skeletons in his closet.

One notable change is that the British say ‘cupboard’, while Americans say ‘closet’. Interestingly, the idiom was coined as ‘skeleton in the closet’ in Britain during the nineteenth century.  Some definitions state a small private room is a ‘closet’; a potentially secure place to hide any embarrassing secrets. So why did it change in the UK? It has been theorised that since the term ‘water closet’ (meaning a small room containing a flushing toilet) became commonplace, the association with toilets might have had an impact on other uses of the word ‘closet’. It could have been considered impolite to say ‘closet’, hence the abbreviation to WC and the change in the idiom. Americans do not use WC to refer to bathrooms, so never made this change; continuing to call enclosed spaces used for general storage ‘closets’. In their definition ‘closets’ are tall, stretching up from the ground, taller than an average person (plenty of space for a skeleton), and built into the wall; unlike wardrobes. Usage of the word ‘closet’ has fallen out of favour in Britain and, depending on what is being stored, ‘wardrobe’ or ‘cupboard’ is used instead. Americans still use the terms ‘wardrobe’ and ‘cupboard’, but provide different definitions for each.

to skive/ to play hooky

Verb (informal)

to skive /skaɪv/  (BrE)

(off + something)

Verb phrase (informal)

to play hooky /ˈhʊki/  (AmE)

(from + something)

Meaning

to not go to school or work, or leaving early without permission

Examples

Every Friday afternoon, she plays hooky.

‘Why isn’t Sally in class?’ ‘She often skives.’

‘Where’s Tim?’ ‘He is skiving again.’

‘I can’t believe it!  She is playing hooky again.’

I played hooky from school when I could.

I skived off work yesterday to go for a job interview.

 

Middle ‘t’ pronunciation

There are quite a few pronunciation variations between British English and American English. For me, one of the most noticeable differences is the pronunciation of the middle ‘t’ between vowel sounds in words.

Click on the video below to hear the words, first British English and second American English. Each word is repeated twice in each accent.

water

better

writing

sitting

bottom

notice

university


American English Pronunciation

The ‘t’ sounds more like the ‘d’ between vowels sounds e.g. middle. It is not a strong ‘d’ sound like at the beginning of  a word e.g. dinner. It is more similar to the ‘r’ sound in some other languages, like in Japanese and Spanish, and it is produced by the tongue flapping up quickly to touch the roof of the mouth.

Examples:

wahduh   /ˈwɑ dəɺ/

behduh  /’be dəɺ/

British Pronunciation

Some British people pronounce the ‘t’, but it is not a strong ‘t’ sound.

Examples:

wahtuh   /ˈwɔ: tə/

betuh   /ˈbe tə/

Let’s listen to the differences in an example sentence; British first, American second

‘I noticed you’re better at writing at university’.

Here is another example of the British pronunciation of the middle ‘t’ sound in ‘water’ by Stephen Fry. There are two additional examples of  the pronunciation of water within this clip, in American and Irish.

David O’Doherty (Irish): ‘Will we form an island and swim across the jar of water?’ 0:16

Stephen Fry (British): ‘Here’s your raft of red ants…in the water‘ 0:28

Greg Proops (American): ‘That’s just sand and water?’  1:19

Alternative British Pronunciation

Some British people produce a glottal stop in replacement of the ‘t’ sound. A glottal stop is the obstruction of airflow in the vocal tract. There is no ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound.

Examples:

wah’ ah   /ˈwɔ:ʔə/

 be’ ah   /ˈbeʔə/

Here is an example of the middle ‘t’ pronunciation with the glottal stop by Russell Brand. He is from Essex which is a county North East of London.

Russell Brand (British) : ‘well it’s better for me to put it into your language…it’s better for me to put it into my language because if you can understand me, it’s better‘  0:31

Car Boot vs Trunk

Boot (BrE)/ Trunk (AmE)

The covered space at the back of the car used for storing things. Both American and British people have found additional uses for the car boot/trunk

Tailgate Parties/ Tailgating (AmE)

This is when American people drink alcoholic beverages and eat together in the parking lot before big events, often sporting events. They open up their trunks and socialise with friends and family. Some bring out grills, or games like cornhole (bean bag throwing game)

In the UK this is not common, perhaps because less people drive to stadiums and arenas. Typically, the nearest pub is located and people meet up there for a pint before a football match or concert.

 Car Boot Sales (BrE)

Unwanted items, such as old toys, clothes and books are put in the car boot and then driven to an organised car boot sale, which is held in a field or car park. Shopping at car boot sales is a popular past time for some people and they are experts at bartering for the best deals. Americans refer to this as a swap meet.

Similarly, Americans also have garage sales. People put up signs around the neighbourhood and then place their unwanted items in the garage, or in their garden, for the neighbours to come and buy.

Harry Potter: British vs American Editions

Many people are aware that the title of the first book was changed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (British version) to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (American version).

Both words (philosopher and sorcerer) are used in British and American English so no misunderstandings there. The change was made as it was believed that it would sell better in the US with a different title. The word ‘sorcerer’ sounds potentially more exciting and gives the story a clear connection to magic.

Upon reading the American version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I noticed some obvious differences.

Spellings

Deleting ‘u’ in certain words, such as changing ‘colour’ (BrE) to ‘color’ (AmE).

Changing ‘s’ to ‘z’ in some verbs, e.g. ‘realise’ (BrE) to ‘realize’ (AmE).

Punctuation

The UK version uses single quotation marks instead of double for dialogue. e.g.’Platform what?'(BrE) “Nine and three-quarters.” (AmE)

Vocabulary/Phrases

Quite a few words and phrases were replaced with American equivalents to reduce confusion and for smoother reading. Whether the changes that were made are entirely necessary, I’m not convinced. It could be related to the age of the targeted readers; younger readers who have had less exposure to alternative versions of English.

Example:

‘…Hermione, of course, came top of the year’. (BrE version)

The use of ‘top of the year’ might be less clear for some Americans. British people use this to mean that someone did the best in all, or most subjects, out of everyone within their year/grade only; e.g. best of the students in first year at Hogwarts.

Not to be confused with:

top of the class for the year e.g. best in the Potion’s class in 2017

top of the school for the year e.g. best at Hogwarts in 2017

and so was altered to:

“…Hermione, of course, had the best grades of the first years.” (AmE version)

Stroppy/ Cranky

Adjective (informal)

Stroppy /ˈstrɒpi/  (BrE) 

Cranky /ˈkræŋki/ (AmE)

Meaning

a person who is easily annoyed, upset or angered

 Examples

The neighbours are always very cranky.

Don’t get stroppy with me!

She has been so cranky today.

He was a bit stroppy with the waiter because they had waited over an hour for their food.

Phrasal verb: grass on/ narc on someone

To grass on someone/ to grass someone up. (BrE)

To narc on someone/ to narc someone out. (AmE)

Meaning

to inform others (people in authority) that someone has done something wrong or behaved badly.

Examples

Her sister grassed on her to the police (she told the police about her sister’s bad behaviour). (BrE)

Her sister narced on her to the police. (AmE)

Her sister grassed her up to the police. (BrE)

Her sister narced her out to the police. (AmE)

His friend cheated on a test, but he didn’t grass on him (he didn’t tell the teacher about his friend’s cheating). (BrE)

His friend cheated on the test, but he didn’t narc on him. (AmE)

His friend cheated on the test, but he didn’t grass him up. (BrE)

His friend cheated on the test, but he didn’t narc him out. (AmE)

‘Grass on/up’ origin

The word could have stemmed from the phrase ‘snake in the grass’. A phrase used for treachery, which derives from the writings of the Roman poet, Virgil.  This metaphor was adopted by the English language in the 17th Century. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a ‘grass’ was defined as an ‘informer’ within Arthur Gardner’s crime novel, Tinker’s Kitchen.

A more popular theory is that the use of ‘grass’ derived from ‘grasshopper’. Grasshopper means ‘copper’ (police officer) in cockney rhyming slang, so a person who is an informer for the police was shortened to ‘grass’. The phrasal verbs ‘grass up’ and ‘grass on’ followed the coining of ‘grass’.

‘Narc on/out’ origin

In British English the word ‘nark’ means informer. It is likely that the phrasal verb ‘narc on’ came from British English. In the 1960s in the US, the arrival of police narcotics officers resulted in additional meanings and the change in spelling to ‘narc’.

Cheers

Vocabulary

Cheers

Meaning

1. Both American and British people say cheers before drinking alcohol.

To wish everyone happiness (AmE and BrE).

2. to informally thank someone (BrE).

 “I washed the dishes.” “Cheers for that.”

“Cheers, mate.” (thanks, friend).

3. to informally say goodbye (BrE).

Some British people use it when they are leaving a place and it is sometimes used to sign off emails.

 “Cheers, see you tomorrow.”

“Cheers, Jim.”

The use of the word ‘cheers’ is for informal situations in the UK, between friends or with strangers when formality is not needed. People might use it with strangers to build rapport or give a sense of welcome and inclusion. Quite frequently pet names are included, such as mate, darling and pal. The usage of these depends on what part of the UK you are in and who is speaking.