When an American and a British person meet, the first obvious difference is the accent – the pronunciation of words. The next obvious difference is vocabulary – the occasional different word for something, like a foreign language. However, more subtle differences become apparent in syntax (or grammar) – the arrangement of certain words, the position of certain words, or the inclusion or lack of certain words. Not only are these differences reflected in writing, but writing also brings out differences in spelling and punctuation. All these taken together form distinctive American or British English.

To confound the issue, these kinds of differences show up in different regions of the same country. Either way, compared to the main body of English these differences are really quite small. We can read each other's newspapers without too much trouble; only a little of a Monty Python show is lost on an American audience; and the British stomach American soaps and comedies with virtually as much understanding as Americans.

These reflect two of the ways language can be looked at. In the first case, the function of language is to communicate, and this is accomplished by sounds, gestures and symbols. The way the sounds are pronounced create the accent, and the symbols are our writing system, which then invokes spelling and punctuation.

In the second case, the components of language are words, and their arrangement. The words are our vocabulary, which includes idiom, and their arrangement is syntax or grammar.

So now we know where differences can be found, and we find that differences do occur in each of these language facets. These are examined more closely in the following pages.

Why are there differences ?

Language can also be looked at in a third way, as a process. Steven Pinker draws parallels from evolutionary biology to show that language is subject to three processes which, acting over long periods of time, cause changes. These factors of language change are inheritance, innovation, and isolation. Language as an evolving process is readily apparent when considering how English has changed from Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer to Shakespeare to the present day. It is the effect of these processes over the last 400 years that gave rise to the differences between American and British.

Inheritance – we acquire our language from the society we grow up in, American in America and British in Britain. We don’t speak identically to our parents because these particular two cultures are so dynamic. Also, we are affected by exposure to other languages, more as time passes. To give just one example – the Spanish idiom ¡hasta la vista! (/asta/) is so common on the US west coast that it has entered colloquial usage as an idiom, ‘hasta la vista, baby!’, spawning humorous forms, ‘hasta la bye-bye’, but more often just ‘hasta!’. English is rife with borrowings, which you’ll see in the Brief History of English.

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
—James D. Nicoll

Innovation – New activities, which by their nature give rise to new terms, will bring change to the language, especially to those directly involved (see jargon below), and in some cases, for instance technology, this exponentially affects the rest of the population. The verb morph, which comes from the computer operation, isn’t in any of my regular dictionaries (1993), but is a regular in the press (‘Schwarzenegger morphs from bodybuilder to actor to politician’). Younger people experiment more with language, providing slang and jargon, alternative or modified pronunciation, deviant spellings, idiom and expressions, some of which eventually become part of the language. Any social, ethnic, or common interest group, not only develops a particular jargon but also a culture, which becomes more defined over time, and culture holds language change.

Isolation – dialectologists have noticed that some dialects are separated by geographical features that naturally separate peoples, such as hills, rivers, or bogs (which of course extends to mountains, seas, and deserts). So a dialect arises when a group is isolated long enough. Manx, Cornish, and Welsh all started as the same language, but after 1000 years of separation became different languages. And so even though there has always been good communication between America and Britain, via travel, letters, and books, and now radio, movies, TV, phone, fax, email, and most recently the Web, differences have arisen over 400 years. Australian and New Zealand English, which had developed over the last 200 years are also different dialects from British, but not as much as American from British. Social barriers also act to create or maintain separation of groups, and this strengthens language differences, more apparent in the British social classes than American.

Robust communication systems have built-in latency, which in the case of language is known as language redundancy. English is apparently two to four times larger than it needs to be to communicate, which not only allows things to be said or written in myriad different ways, but also allows pieces to be left out. (Consider the British ad - ‘f u cn rd ths u cd gt a gd jb’. See also Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy) These kinds of innovations develop differently in different regions. In the Midwest, for example, you can hear expressions like “The car needs washed” and “These videos need returned”, the ‘to be’ being found redundant. There are more such examples in Grammar below.


American and British culture are fundamentally different, based on their history, economics, environment, outlook, and probably anything else you’d care to chew on. Indeed within each country there are strong cultural areas – America’s east and west coast, or the South, England’s London and the south-east, or the Midlands and the North. As in the language, there are many similarities, but a closer look in virtually any quarter reveals differences. No attempt is made to list these differences. Perhaps a glance at some stereotypes might be revealing enough.

British stereotypes of Americans: Americans are illiterate, have no culture, are immodest and gauche, have a throw away culture (e.g. automobiles) and everything has a price. Churchill called Americans a nation of shopkeepers [Napoleon said the same of the English, L'angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers]. When Clive James visited California in the late 1970s, he reported that restaurants look like car washes, car washes look like art galleries, art galleries look like war memorials, war memorials look like fire stations, fire stations look like churches, and churches look like restaurants.

Americans' stereotypes of themselves: think they are culture free (symptom: culture vultures, no Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.american), think other countries don’t like them, think they are the world (world series, international news virtually absent from major news broadcasts and newspapers unless American interests are involved), and are born to shop (for trinkets to show off to each other).

Americans are patriotic, direct and open in conversation, globally naïve, experts at marketing (a studied art: …available at finer stores… …coming to a theater near you… …remember, folks, you heard it here first… featured naked woman [imagine your favorite model here] not included, United States of Advertising—Paul Krassner), welcome you into their stores, have more shopping malls, and don’t have a class structure.

See also Zompist's How to tell if you're American?

American stereotypes of the British: bad lovers, terrible cooks (food is boiled to within an inch of its flavour, and then some), snotty, pompous, insular, cold, regimented (traditional), do things in their own fashion, make the best ‘bad guys’ in movies, and speak English correctly. One American at an English college complained, ‘The English girls never got my jokes, the brussels sprouts were gray, the drizzle was relentless, and the toilet paper was waxy’.

British stereotypes of themselves: none.

The British despise their own country, pity anyone not British, despise foreigners, talk to themselves (but only after years of acquaintance—Punch Magazine), invented the phrase ‘burnt to a turn’, have a class structure (upper middle class, middle class, and lower middle class), and look upon you as you enter their shops as a trespasser. ‘The Parliamentarian, Liberal democratic, plutocratic British’—Louis de Bernières.

See also Zompist's How to tell if you're English? or Scottish?

That previous paragraph about British stereotypes of themselves bothers most people. It is a joke. Here’s a clue:

The Scots keep the Sabbath, and anything else they can get their hands on.
The Welsh pray on their knees, and on their neighbours.
The Irish don't know what they want, but will fight to the death for it.
Whereas the English consider themselves a race of self-made men, thereby absolving the almighty of that awesome responsibility.


At the basic level, there is a different vocabulary, just like a foreign language. For example, biro and spanner are strictly British terms, whereas zip code and Realtor are strictly American terms. Railroad tieand railway sleeper are different words used in different ways (around the common word rail) to name precisely the same thing. The bowler hat in Britain is a derby hat in the US. However, unlike a foreign language, these two dialects converge, as the following chart suggests, or perhaps we should say they diverge.

Words are completely different at one extreme (to the left in the chart) but converge until they are identical at the other extreme (right). There is also the obvious/obscure aspect; sometimes two different words are used but their meaning is quite apparent (luggage, baggage) (at top), and they may often be used interchangeably. In other cases words may be quite obscure (bottom).

Were it so simple. Sometimes a common word may have additional meanings unique to one country. For instance, in Britain a leader also means an editorial or the leading article in a newspaper. Sometimes the additional meaning becomes the primary meaning, like dumb in the US primarily meaning used of a stupid person, not a mute. In the case of table, the secondary meanings are opposite! Rude has many shades of meaning, but in the US is often used to mean discourteous, especially when abrupt. Although it has all these meaning in the UK, it has the additional meaning of lewd or indecent, which is how it is usually used.

Some words are used with differing frequency. Baggage and luggage, or pole and rod, are interchangeable and are used with only slightly differing frequencies, but if you’re used to hearing one (fishing rod in the UK), hearing the other will nudge your attention (fishing pole in the US). Words like these, where there is a tendency to use certain words over others, add a subtle flavour to the varieties of English. At the other extreme, some words common in one place are rare in the other. I’ve never heard soppy or row in America, even though they’re listed in American dictionaries just like any other word, but they’re quite well known in the UK. Upon encountering ‘… as computers obsolesce …’ one might think it’s the American easy-goingness to create forms to fit, but Webster’s dictionary has this word as used since 1873.

There are any number of words that have one meaning in the US and another in the UK. Look uprubber, braces, jumper, and jelly in both sections. These are the kinds of words that cause much confusion, especially when there is a circularity that doesn’t seem to end: garters are suspenders, but suspenders are braces, but braces are orthodontal devices to straighten teeth; a tramp is a bum, but a bum is a fanny, but a fanny is a twat, but a twat is a twit!

Why are there vocabulary differences? Some words retained in Britain were dropped from American, such as fortnight and constable, and many no longer used in Britain are retained in American: I guess, gotten, mad (angry), fall (autumn), sick (ill), platter (large plate), assignment (job or task), deck of cards (pack of cards), slim (as in slim chance), mean (unpleasant rather than stingy), trash, hog (pig), brunch, chore, skillet, quit (resign), sheriff. Brunch originated as Oxford slang in the late 19th century, and became popular in the US in the 1920s, then made its way back slowly, being considered slang, then informal, until quite recently.

Americans seem freer to use the language to express themselves rather than being constrained by it. For instance, Americans tend more to coin and use

Also true of irregular verbs – dove (he dove off the cliff) and snuck (and then snuck off) are well known, and I’ve even heard fluck (who fluck shit?), but even Americans caution us to watch out for irregular verbs which have crope into our language, perhaps because otherwise good words might get squozen out.

Other reasons for differences are mentioned elsewhere, such as different culture, environment, experiences giving rise to different names for things (twisters most frequently occur in the US). Borrowings occur from exposure to different ethnic groups throughout history, and new technologies generate distinct jargons.

Idiom – oblique sayings

Idiom is a phrase that captures a unique concept. It is like adding vocabulary to the language. I get the impression that idiom forms because words take on too many meanings, and idiom captures a single concept. (The last time I looked, the word with the highest number of separate meanings in the OED was set with 43. (err... update. I just read that set has 158 meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun and 10 as a participial adjective.)) The problem is that there is no logical connection to the words it is composed of (e.g. kick the bucket). The pervasiveness of idiom is apparent from it comprising a large part of ESL classes for foreigners learning conversational English.

Although America and Britain share many idioms, many are obtuse from one to the other. Go figure. The Fourth of July is celebrated on July 4th. Bob’s your Uncle!

Grammar (“all grammars leak” – Edward Sapir 1921 Language p39)

Some grammar differences are consistent between American and British:

write her write to her
he seems to be an intelligent man he seems an intelligent man
lets go see a movie lets go and see a movie
look out the window look out of the window
talk with, meet with talk to, meet
I [already] ate I have [already] eaten
different than, different from different from, different to
I do, I don’t I have, I haven’t (In answer to, do you have?)
the house needs painting the house wants painting
Hudson River, Mississippi River River Thames, River Avon
came over came round
to be on a team to be in a team
to live on a street to live in a street
to be in a sale to be on sale
I went I've gone

Some usages are peculiar to the country. In back of, meaning behind, is only used in the US, and is not known or even generally understood in the UK. ‘To visit with’ is used in the US, instead of ‘to visit’, and has the additional meaning of a virtual meeting, as in visiting with someone on the phone. In the UK ‘is John at home’ means is he physically there, whereas ‘is John home?’ means has he returned yet. In the US there is no such distinction, and only the latter is used. In the UK the usage of ‘one’ is rarely used in the US; one does what one ought. And then there’s the classic American – two kids: "I do not!" "you do, too!" "do not!" "do, too!" …

There is always a debate about the British being in hospital or going to university whereas Americans are in the hospital or going to a university (or going to school). In the US ‘ten of six’ and ‘ten after six’ mean ten minutes to six and ten past six, and in the UK ‘half nine’ means half past nine. In the US the ‘and’ is often dropped from numbers, as a hundred (and) three or two thousand (and) forty six, and even sometimes 2001 (two thousand one) A Space Odyssey. In particular cases the ‘and’ is used to indicate the decimal point: one hundred fifty one (151), one hundred and fifty one (100.51). Americans will as often ask ‘have you got’ where the British might say ‘do you have’. Americans do it over but the British do it again.

Some differences are less noticeable because they are interchangeable, but there still is a differing frequency. For instance, Americans part their hair and Britons have a parting, but sometimes it’s the other way around. American is different than British in America, but in Britain, American is different from British, and sometimes different to British.

And then there are endless usages that, although quite obvious, are used only in one variety of English. For instance, Americans might say ‘I sure could use a drink’ or ‘I need to use the bathroom’. The British would say these in any number of different ways (‘I really need a drink’, but more likely, ‘I’m dying of thirst’, and ‘I’m dying to go to the loo’). Some ways of saying things may be unique to the country but only used by a minority, such as ‘my dog wants out’ in the US, or ‘my bank are awful’ in the UK.

Perhaps American sounds sloppy to British ears because more variation is allowed, as in new coinages noted above. American often has the adverb before the verb (to boldly go) though both arrangements are found (‘they never will agree’ and ‘they will never agree’, only the latter is allowed in the UK). Perhaps British sounds authoritative because some standard usages (ought) are only encountered in formal US situations, such as legalese.

Grammar considers both syntax – the arrangement of words in a sentence, and morphology – the way a word is built up from pieces. All of the above are examples of differences in syntax. Many of the different word forms result simply in spelling differences (like spelled and spelt) and these can be found in the spelling list, Table 9. Still, many different forms are used. Americans might say shave cream, swim suit, scrub brush, drive test, and cook book rather than shaving cream, swimming costume, scrubbing brush, driving test, and cookery book, and differing informal contractions mean that Americans study math whereas the British study maths. But why do Americans burglarize instead of burgle, obligate instead of oblige, or are complected rather than complexioned?

These kinds of differences are true of regions both in the US and in the UK. For instance, New Yorkers say standing on line instead of standing in line, and some folks in Northern England use mustn’t instead of can’t, and say ‘he gave it me’ (he gave it to me). Some Americans use present tense instead of past tense in some irregular verbs (He spit on the sidewalk). Regionalisms sometimes spread. In Ireland they say ten till two, as some do in the US and this is not uncommon in Britain. The well known Southerny’all’ (you all) is now heard in informal usage anywhere in the US. See also the notes under Geography, below.

See Trudgill and Hannah 1994 for a systematic treatment of grammatical differences.


Usage is our speech and writing habits. It therefore includes words and idiom, spelling and punctuation, accent, and grammar – pretty much all the pieces of language. The essence of language is that meaning is conveyed by words and phrases. A meaning may be expressed in many ways, or conversely, a number of concepts may be encapsulated in one phrase, but more commonly a cluster of meanings will be expressed by lots of synonymous words and phrases. In the first case, a community will tend to settle on a particular way of expressing an idea or concept, but of course each community (or country) will, over time, gravitate towards a different one, the shifts occurring due to the innovation and isolation processes discussed earlier.

My canonical example from vocabulary is wrench and spanner, but more well known is the hood, trunk and boot, bonnet distinction.

The fun begins at the other end of the spectrum where different ideas or concepts are expressed by one word or phrase. Meanings are easily misconstrued where they are different or even opposite, in words and phrases like knock up, quite, table, and what’s up.

So, one idea can be expressed in many ways, and, as already mentioned, a number of meanings may be expressed by the same word or phrase. But more commonly, different nuances or senses of something are expressed by the same word or phrase. Confused in the US more often means mixed-up, whereas confused in Britain more often means disconcerted. And we had already mentioned how rude in Britain has the additional meaning of lewd.

Again – the flip side – one idea could be described by more subtle shifts in grammar or word choice. Americans smash a bug, the British crush an insect, but Americans sometimes crush a cigarette butt. Regular and normal, and tan and beige are virtually interchangeable but are the regular usage of the respective countries.

Which brings us to the finest points where a number of closely related meanings are handled by some words or phrases, but across the pond the same meanings and words are matched up differently. For instance a sick American feels ill but an ill Briton feels sick. (However, these words have other related meanings, such as get sick in the US, meaning to vomit). Similarly small pebbles are called rocks in America and stones in Britain. A stone can be used in America but generally isn’t; a rock in Britain brings to mind something larger, like a boulder. These are the sorts of differences between American and British are so subtle that, even though we can understand them, they still somehow don’t sound quite right.

In the dictionary ‘usage’ is sometimes used to qualify a definition, and it indicates these kinds of hard to classify differences. It also indicates the notion of frequency. A word may be used often in one country and infrequently in the other, and even be familiar in both, such as caveat and kudos in the US and decrepit and grub in the UK.

Some differences are rarely used but are obvious, if quaint to the ear, such as gotten and auto in the US, and ‘shall’ and especially ‘shan’t’ in the UK. Ought is used much more in the UK (you oughtn’t to have said that). The differentiation between may and can is virtually absent in the US, and found less and less in the UK.

Clearly, language is complex, but the differences highlighted between two languages as close as American and British might be less obvious in two foreign languages.

The chart is another look at usage differences. It plots word or phrase pairs from distinct on the left to interchangeable or indistinguishable on the right. Pairs whose differences are obvious are towards the top, and those whose differences are obscure are towards the bottom.

It is interesting to see that morphology pairs are in the upper left, slight shifts in meaning are in the upper right, and meaning differences are in the lower left.


Sometimes words are identical in meaning but spelt differently, as in sulfur and sulphur, hemoglobin and haemoglobin (and other oe and ae words). Most words (stolen from the French) in Britain ending in -our end in -or in the US (colour, humour, and words like favourite); most words in Britain ending in -tre (centre, fibre, theatre) end in -ter in the US. Many of these kinds of changes were passionately extolled by Noah Webster (of the dictionary fame) 200 years ago. The US has a greater tendency to drop silent consonants and vowels, and move to a more phonetic spelling, especially where the old spelling was a French remnant (tyre → tire). This often starts informally (night → nite, light → lite) but eventually becomes mainstream (through → thru, dough-nought → doughnut → donut). The reverse is also true, such as the computer byte, but it is interesting to note that some coinages flounder, such as the politically correct fad, women → wimmin, wimyn, womon, and womyn.

In the US many nouns and adjectives are verbed by adding -ize (standardize). These same words usually end in -ise in Britain, despite the British dictionaries which show -ize as the main form with -ise as an alternative. Sometimes, even American holds a surprize. Makes you realise!

One consistency is the American -yze words (analyze) are all -yse in Britain.

The table of spelling differences, table 9, lists over 500 differently spelled words, grouped into categories (such as the -ize/-ise words, above). Many of the categories are relatively complete, though many may be uncompletable, such as comparing words that are hyphenated (ultrahigh/ultra-high) or spaced (lemongrass/lemon grass) or both (flower-girl/flower girl).

Punctuation & Symbols

  • quotes (quotation marks, inverted commas)

    In general, Americans put the trailing punctuation of quoted material inside the quotes (Did you say, “I shot the cat?”), the British put it outside (Did you say, ‘I shot the cat’?). Americans exclude the colon and semicolon, but include the period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark, and dash, if it is part of the quote. The British take the logical approach – when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the inverted commas; when it relates to the sentence, it goes outside.

  • nested quotes

    Americans use double quotes, but single quotes for nested quotes, and double again for further nesting.

    In 1967, Michigan governor George Romney clarified, “I didn't say, ‘I didn't say it.’ I said, ‘I didn't say, “I said it.”’”

    The British generally recommend the opposite, and that is what’s often seen.

  • abbreviations

    Americans indicate abbreviations with a period (Mr. Mrs. Dr. Ph.D.) but the British have promulgated the guideline that abbreviations ending in the same letter as the full form drop the full point (Mr Mrs Dr St vols) but otherwise leave it (abbr. vol. Ph.D). However, today’s British usage, which seems to have been driven by erring on the side of dropping, almost exhorts ever sparser use (eg ie BSc PhD).

    The British abbreviation situation seems to have begun in the 1960s as a reaction to overpunctuation (U.S.A. B.B.C). This serves as an excellent example of a linguistic trend that in half a century has swung almost a full cycle.

  • dashes

    Both use long dashes as strong commas or to indicate a sudden shift (eg, anacoluthon), but they are surrounded by spaces in Britain.

    Make up your — never mind.

  • time

    Americans use a colon in time designations (6:30 p.m.) but the British tend to use a point (6.30pm).

    There are actually few punctuation differences, but they go a long way. Everything else is basically the same, but there are many subtle differences. Perhaps Americans tend to use commas more grammatically (writing oriented) whereas the British more to indicate pauses (reading orientated). The British no longer put an apostrophe in the plurals of abbreviations and dates (MPs, 1980s). Note in the time example above how the space disappeared. But these subtle differences are no greater than what you’d find between different magazine or newspaper styles in the same country, or between, say, newsletters and scholarly journals.

    Is it the serial comma, the Harvard comma, or the Oxford comma? That last comma before the ‘or’ (usually an ‘and’) is apparently left in by Americans whereas standard British usage is to leave it out. Despite fervid arguments that it’s:

    superfluous: The flag is red, white and blue.
    clarifies: My favourite spreads are marmalade, nutella, and peanut butter and jelly.
    changes meaning: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
    many American style manuals urge you to leave it off (not Harvard), whereas British manuals (Oxford) would have you leave it in.

    Major publishers are putting their style guides online, which makes fascinating comparative reading (for word nerds). Two extremes might be Wired’s style guide and MHRA’s (Modern Humanities Research Association). This latter, in addition to using founts, has some rare punctuation examples.

    Why does Shakespeare give Malcolm the banal question ‘Oh, by whom?’?

    I have taken the liberty of punctuating this dictionary according to my whims, following standard British generally, but adopting American convention where it suits me – the former is especially true in my usage of quote marks (which should also please computer types, as I use them like delimiters).

    Punctuation is sort of an afterthought in writing. Everyone knows we have twenty-six letters of the alphabet, but ask someone how many punctuation marks we have and you’ll get a sort of perplexed indignant look. Most folks know (‘“:-;–,!.?”’…) parentheses, quotation marks (single and double), colon, hyphen, semicolon, dash, comma, exclamation mark (my daughter called it the exciting mark), period or full stop, question mark, apostrophe, and ellipsis. Symbols are an arcana, and we use an astounding array of them:

    Ancient Egyptians would be challenged. The table of available symbols that comes with any modern word-processor looks like a sheet of inscrutable hieroglyphs, without even squinting. As with the subtler details of punctuation, variation in symbol use is more at the level of groups of users than nations.

    Just for fun, here’s a few snippets and factoids on some (now) common symbols.

    Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email in 1971, used the @ symbol to construct email addresses primarily because it was an available symbol not found in anyone’s name. Prior to that launch into the limelight, it was a little-used symbol outside of accounting and commercial price lists. Recently, the earliest instance of this symbol was found on a 4 May 1536 Italian document, where it represented an amphora – a measure (of wine), and its continued use in that sense eventually gave rise to its meaning of ‘at the price of’.

    Also in the 16th century, the Oxford mathematician Robert Recorde introduced the equal = sign (“bicause noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle”), and popularised the plus + and minus – signs.

    There be other 2 signes in often use of which the first is made thus + and betokeneth more: the other is made thus – and betokeneth lesse.

    (Latter from A Brief History of Algebra and Computing: An Eclectic Oxonian View, Jonathan P. Bowen, Oxford university Computing Laboratory, 1994.)


    As mentioned elsewhere, both countries have many pronounced regions, which give rise to local differences, and these further confound the national differences. The regions can be states, counties, cities or small locales. Consider the Bronx, Texas, California, Minnesota /minεsohda/, or London, Liverpool, Newcastle /nookasl/, and Glasgow /glεzge/.

    A word may be used heavily in a discreet location and not be typical nationally. For instance a word may be in general use only on the US west coast. This is a particular problem if also used in a very different sense on the east coast, and again differently in various parts of Britain.

    Many words came to Britain from the colonies, often starting out as army usage (dekko, bint). The brief history of English, in a following section, sheds some more light on effects on the language by invasions, migrations and so on.

    And America and Britain affect each other. Numerous American words are English stranded in the US by settlers and since dropped in England: fall (Autumn), gotten, flat a's (/bath/ /bahth/), unrounded o's (/not/, /naht/), ate (/ayt/ /et/), mad (angry), I guess. Some words bounce back and forth (brunch), and slang and jargon that arises from new pursuits continues to seep both ways, aided these days by greatly increased communication and connectivity.

    Time (extinct — obsolete — archaic — current)

    Many archaic words are still used, but usually in a semi-humorous and informal way, the humour often due to the ancientness of the word (e.g. bully, cad, spiffing). Some words sound affected or obsolete when used in other areas. Other words are no longer used but are enshrined in literature and films. Some words are revived or exhumed with new meaning (radical, rad, heinous, brilliant), and the usage may stay or quietly disappear.

    Some obsolete terms will continue to be used (to the bafflement of the listener) by folks who at one time used them regularly. For instance, unless something drastic happens, I will always weigh eleven stone something (rather than 160 odd pounds or 70 some kilos), and if someone gives me their height in centimetres I’ll compare it with 183 cm. to see if they are taller or shorter than six feet before it makes intrinsic sense.

    Look at the list of groovy American words from the 1970s, under wow, check off those that you still use, and compare with how many are dated. A word may be in vogue briefly or for topical reasons and then disappear.


    Every industry quickly generates jargon as an expedience. Since the practices are so distinct (standards, equipment, regulations, methods, and terminology), so is the language. But the same industry developing in relative isolation has developed distinct jargons.

    For example, the leccy (electric) systems use different voltages (120V, 240V), different color codes for the wires (including the earth wire or ground), different shaped plugs and outlets, sockets, or points, different regulations for installation, and so on. More familiar differences are known for the auto industry and the car itself (trunk & hood, boot & bonnet, etc.).

    The computer revolution is a whole nother story. ‘Big’ publishers (Oxford and such) published their first computer dictionaries in the early 1980s, but technical publishers were putting them out a decade before that. The online Jargon File gestated around that time, and eventually became The Hacker’s Dictionary and now The New Hacker’s Dictionary. The point is that this dynamic and discrete body of computer jargon is so new that the most of the lingo was coined by people still living, and it is not only eminently studyable but computers themselves are used to study it.

    The Jargon File began in the States but the latest version has many entries of ‘Commonwealth hackish’, the only samples in this dictionary being to note the nuances of kluge and kludge. Perhaps I should include email, since my Webster’s lists E-mail and my College Oxford lists email (also e-mail). And this is exactly the point. In 1995, Jeff Adams, a scientist from Kurzweil, posted an article about different ways that email is spelt. He examined a 40-million word corpus of online articles, and found that of the over 85 ways people were spelling it, email 34% was followed closely by e-mail 27%, and then E-mail 13% and Email 10% led the remainder, on down through many obvious typos (and hyphenation was about 50/50). In other words, a jargon very much in flux.

    Swear Words

    Exclusion principle: Although jargon and slang evolve to create words for new ideas, they also serve to exclude any outsider of the particular group, which seems truer as the words become more obscene.

    Words have levels of obscenity, crudeness, and strength. So, starting from the formal or ‘proper’ use of a word there is a kind of scale:

    The bottom of the scale is usually censored by somebody, such as the FCC list of censored words, in order: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

    Rhyming Slang, Cockney Rhyming Slang, and Backslang

    Slang has no country, it owns the world¼ It is the voice of the god that dwells in the people
    —Ralcy Husted Bell, The Mystery of Words.

    Rhyming slang has been around since the Plio-Pleistocene Era, and the Cockney variant has been around so long that many have become mainstream colloquialisms infecting English as far as it reaches. Bread, meaning money comes from the rhyming slang bread and honey, which rhymes with money. Chew the fat was originally crsl. for have a chat, and brass tacks was originally crsl. for facts. Rhyming Slang is typically a two word phrase used in place of the word it rhymes with. Sometimes, especially where rhyming slang is used frequently, the end of the phrase gets dropped (as in the above examples) leaving a word seemingly quite unrelated to the word it's standing for. Occasionally nesting occurs, and sometimes quite deeply: bottle (and glass) is rsl. for arse, Aristotle is rsl. for bottle, Aristotle is shortened to aris, plaster of paris becomes rsl. for aris, and so plaster becomes sl. for arse. Would you Adam and Eve it!

    There are many lists of (Cockney) rhyming slang (worth reading at least once if only to realize its surprising breadth), though I have included only those in general use or of some particular interest, including a little strine (Australian pronunciation of Australian), where this practice also flourishes. Apples and Pears (stairs) is well known, often being cited as an example of Cockney rhyming slang. Cockney rhyming slang is a living language with new words being invented all the time (and many becoming obsolete). Some have noted that it gets a boost every other generation. My grandparents were well versed, my father silently ignored it, my mother is still trying to hide her Cockney twang, and I am documenting it.

    "If there’s anything that distinguishes the Cockney, it’s his sheer enjoyment of words. He loves to stand them on end and make them jump through hoops and turn circles... There’s nothing better to a Cockney than to talk – to talk enjoyably, to talk comfortably, to use wonderful phrases. That’s Cockney."
    —Bob Barltrop.

    Whereas this may well be true, it is no less true of all peoples everywhere; pidgins, creoles, valspeak, surfer slang, technobabble – just visit any ghetto, grotto, ethnic area in a big city, the school yard, the beach, the valley, cyberspace...


    If it was just a question of translating diaper to nappy, there would be no problem, but a vast amount of cultural gubbins stuck to the bottom of a welly is lost from a rubber boot.

    When I read the first Harry Potter, I looked forward to a nice English story, but soon found the tell-tale signs – parking lots and trash cans instead of car parks and dustbins. Resigned, I ploughed on, but felt subtle misgivings at what I was missing, especially when some opaque Briticisms were left in (kip, git, sacked). So, I reread it in the original English, and made some comparisons.

    Why they changed the title from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone is inscrutable. Sorcerer conjures up sinister. The Philosopher’s Stone has been sought by alchemists for millennia, for turning lead into gold. Interesting. (Why not Hegemon Stone!) Apparently, for the movie, they filmed each part that mentioned the Stone twice, for the separate American and rest-of-the-world audiences.

    The translator took it from there. The bulk is spelling (realise → realize, rumours → rumors, maths → math, etc.) and punctuation (Mrs → Mrs., 31 July → July 31, and primary quotes going from ‘single’ to "double"). Translations are actually few, but they’re high profile (ice lolly → ice pop, letterbox → mail slot, packet of crisps → bag of chips). Therefore, it is translations, or partial translations, or lack of translations, that stick out the most. Dudley’s new word shan’t! became won’t! No complaints, but shan’t is just such a lovely word. However, baker’s becomes bakery in one sentence, but remains baker’s the next. Is this an oversight? ‘Dumbledore’s barking’ becomes ‘Dumbledore’s off his rocker’. But earlier, barking is left untranslated. Is it because Vernon qualifies it with ‘stark raving mad’? A number of other words were left untranslated (headmistress, knickerbockcer glory, holidays, ruddy, sprouts, marks) but their meanings would be close enough to be glossed over whilst still leaving a twang of quaintness.

    Fiction has to just flow. No pictures, indexes, glossaries, footnotes, or sidebars. One long linear stream of uninterrupted imagination. Therefore, the goal of any translation is to not add any obstructions. There should be no foreign remnant that might cause the reader to stumble.

    Everything else has some degree of leeway. An article can have sidebars and the odd footnote. A documentary can have pictures and tables. Nonfiction gets away with appendices, bibliographies, glossaries, and indices. And finally a scientific paper can be riddled with more citations, charts, equations, and inline glosses than words in the text.

    In a sense, Harry Potter would be the easiest kind of translation, because it’s squarely situated in Britain, unlike something that’s set in a present day cosmopolitan location. Even so, much is lost whether translated or not. Even the Dursley’s address, 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, evoking neat privet hedges in tidy drives, reeks of the politely suppressed frustrations of middle class suburbia. You’d never get away with 4600 Prim and Proper Blvd, Ostentatia CA 92670 (despite the fact that there probably is such an address!).

    In a scientific paper or general non-fiction, translation in either direction is mostly spelling and pronunciation. The editor would catch any jargon or unique vocabulary. In general articles, the same would apply, although a sprinkling of easy foreign terms would add flavour, and where necessary, can be explained. It’s fiction that’s the trickiest, because a character has to be both authentically ethnic and at the same time understandable. Unlike going from Russian to English or French to Chinese, English to English translation is further confounded by the apparent sameness of the language. Most people are surprised and amused at the extent that translation is even necessary. Ideally, a native would both translate, and have access to the author for finer points of meaning. It seems that there is a greater need to translate from British to American. Was Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain translated to British?

    Creating pieces would also benefit the once-over from a native. In that regard, this dictionary should very much be treated like a thesaurus. Any word should be looked up in a dictionary to make sure the sense is right. For period pieces, research is necessary to do it well. Not only do you not want high tech seeping into a western or Dickensian scene, but you need to capture the right idioms of the time and place.

    A Spot of Linguistics

    Estimates for how many words in the English language vary from half a million to two million. The latter figure perhaps includes all those ungainly chemical names, all the military and other jargon words, all the dialect terms, and slang. The OED has about half a million words in it, and the Websters unabridged almost as many. Collegiate and Concise dictionaries have about 200,000 words in them (up from 100,000 a few decades ago), but estimates of the average person’s vocabulary ranges from 20,000-50,000.

    2000 words account for three-quarters of the words we use from day-to-day, and another 13,000 make up most of the rest.

    Looking at word lengths is a way to get a feel for these large word lists. The blue histogram in the Word Length chart comes from the Moby list (a public domain list of about half a million words) and is used to approximate the whole English lexicon. The green histogram comes from the bigd list, and represents a collegiate dictionary. The pink is the Shorter OED, and the pale blue is a Unix spell-check list, which can roughly represent the words we mostly know and use. The shorter the list, the more they contain common words. (Actually, the Unix list contains specially chosen roots from which, along with prefixes and suffixes, spell checking is done by applying rules, thus representing 100,000 words. So as a list it’s probably too short and the word length artificially short.)

    The average word length in the shorter, more common, word lists is shorter. The average word length in English is over 9 or 10 characters, but of words we commonly use, is only 7.

    Of all the ways you could make 2-letter words from 26 letters of the alphabet (262), we actually use most of them, but of 3-letter words (263) we use only a quarter, 4-letter words (264) a twentieth, 5-letter words (265) two thousandths, on up to 8-letter words (268) where we use a scant three-millionth of the possibilities. For longer words, we have used virtually none of the possibilities. It indicates that we use short words where possible, but that new coinages tend to be longer words. It’s easier to combine a couple of existing words (data-base) than make short but awkward new words (*lunk). It also indicates that there are virtually an infinite number of open possibilities for new words using just the 26 letters of the alphabet.


    English now (2000) has 485,000,000 speakers, the second most spoken language in the world behind Chinese (845,000,000). American wields the greatest influence due to the greatest number of speakers and the country’s global prominence. For instance, American English is the favoured kind in Asia for ESL learners – a switch from British a generation ago. Here is an apt sample from my (1991) Korean dictionary, and it is telling since there is no entry for spanner:

    wrench n. sŭ-p'ae-nŏ 스패너, ren-ch'i 렌치. Although Britain has a quarter of the speakers, compared to American, its historical influence, as the source of English, persists.

    By contrast, apart from its regular appearance in the world cup, Nigeria is of little linguistic consequence despite having the third most English speakers. India and the Philippines have many English speakers, but as a lingua franca or non-primary language. (However, there are many Filipinos in the US, and Indians in Britain; English has adopted many Indian words historically (bazaar, bungalow, catamaran, jungle, khaki, pepper, pyjamas, shampoo, shawl, thug, veranda), and more in present day Britain.)

    Apart from American and British, the most well-known varieties are Australian, Canadian, South African and New Zealand. Australian and New Zealand are closer to British than American (though when I was a kid, they were the same). For this reason, I have added a few terms to the British side of the dictionary. I was in Australia recently, and found half the lingo quite familiar, but the other half quite alien, albeit delightfully colorful. Canadian, conversely, is very close to American (no surprise), but spelling, and legal and government vocabulary, are strongly influenced by British (US: Department of Defense, UK: Ministry of Defence, Canada: Department of National Defence).

    Obligatory Humour

    In the US...

    An English exchange student asks someone “do you have a rubber”. Taken aback, she says, “but I don’t even know you”. A bit confused, he assures her, “I’ll only be a minute. I’ll bring it right back”.

    When I was in LAX I asked an attendant for the toilet. He indicated where a restroom was. After half an hour I finally went to the bathroom, which I had discovered whilst diligently searching for the room full of couches.

    A lady from the UK went for breakfast upon arriving in the US. She ordered fried eggs and was asked "how would you like your eggs?" She was perplexed and suggested "cooked?"

    A friend visiting me in California, after complaining about being deplaned instead of being allowed to disembark, saw a sign announcing ‘Happy hour 4-6 p.m.’ and said "Oh, everything here really is twice as big".

    In the UK...

    An American friend worked in an English pub one summer. A local ordered a light and bitter and my friend gave him a pint of bitter and some matches.

    Another American friend was taken aback when she was invited to "go down to the bloody pub and get pissed."

    In Piccadilly Circus, London, one of the dossers (a panhandler) asked an American tourist, "Can I pinch a fag, mate?"

    An American, whose husband was stationed in England, got up early one morning to find out if the milkman could explain the small holes in the foil tops on the milk bottles, and the missing portions of cream. Without blinking, he suggested, "Must be yer tits, ma’am."

    An American visiting English friends asked the missus how her new job was. He was very confused as she brightly told him "it’s a really good screw!"

    An American lady on the side of the road became very concerned when the nice Englishman calls out from under her car, “I can’t quite see where the petrol’s leaking out. Would you hand me a torch.”

    Last updated 31 December 1969 © Jeremy Smith 2017