Useage of English words

Posted by Rowan Adams on May 19, 2000

In Reply to: Useage of English words posted by ESC on May 19, 2000

: : : : It struck me that it could be interesting, provided that it hasn't been done before, to try to find examples of different meanings to common English words around the English speaking world. I'm not thinking of words used in special circumstances, rather everyday ones used differently, sometimes with awkward outcomes! Here are three examples.

: : : : 1. Pavement. In British English this is the name given to those areas on the side of city roads where the pedestrians walk - ie the US sidewalk. In the US the word is used for the covering of the actual road. "He was standing on the pavement" has very different meanings in the two countries. Incidentally, in Britain we don't seem to have a special name for the road surface, it's generally called just that, although, sometimes, "tarmac" might be used.

: : : : 2. Momentarily. In Britain this word gives a sense of something happening and ceasing over a short period of time - eg "The TV picture momentarily broke down". In the US, I believe, the sense is that something will happen in a short time - "I'll be with you momentarily". Thus, in Britain, the word has a sense of FOR a short time and, in the US, IN a short time. In Britain, the US sense is replaced by "shortly" or "in a moment".

: : : : 3.Inside and outside motorway lanes. In Britain, when we enter a motorway we regard it as the start of a journey - we enter a place and then move outwards away from the entry. Thus, the lane nearest the central barrier is, for us, the Outside lane. In the US the road is viewed very differently - like a race track. The central barrier is the equivalent of the rails on a race track. If you're up against them you're on the Inside lane. Hence, "Inside" and "Outside" are completely reversed in the two countries with, as I personally know, potentially hazardous consequences - when I was driving in the US last year my US friend suggested that I moved to the outside lane. I did, but went the wrong way to his intention and moved into, and not out of, danger!

: : : : By the way, accept my apologies in advance if I have US useage wrong!

: : : : If this idea is worth pursuing, then I look forward to lots more contributions. I bet a book, or books have been written on the subject. If so ESC will know.

: : : James,

: : : There's 'An American's Guide to Speaking British' at This has lots examples of the US/UK 'separated by a common language'.

: : : Gary

: : Gary,
: : Thanks for your contribution and the web site address. I had hoped that the discussions might be wider than just the difference between US & UK English - Oz, NZ and SA, to name but three, all have their own characteristics. We shall see. Within the US/UK context, there is a promising site about US/British tranlation at
: : and a vast collection of sites to do with the English language at
: :

: All I know about British speech I learned either from reading murder mysteries or watching British imports on public television.

: The differences I can think of off hand are: "Public school." This means something different in the U.S. and Britain. In the U.S., a public school is funded by taxes and run by a local school board. Private schools are run by private entities such as a church and children generally have to pay tuition.

: Then there's "knock up" and "keep your pecker up." Knock up in the U.S. means to impregnate. Here "pecker" is part of the male anatomy, not the chin. If you get my drift.

: RE: regarding No. 1 -- pavement. In the rural part of the U.S. (in the mountains of West Virginia), we call a paved road "the hard road." As opposed to an unpaved "dirt road." My husband, a city boy, had never heard the expression "hard road."

: There's a story about a man whose life ambition was to "live on the hard road and take the paper." That is, live on a paved road and have the newspaper delivered.

1. 'Sidewalk' was in common usage in England in the 17th/18th century.

2. The usual suspects with quite different meanings include the following which I have tripped over - on occasion causing some confusion and embarrassment.
a) Condom/Rubber - a confused me wanted to buy an eraser in Woolworths in Boston, and young blushing lady assistant in the stationery section considered calling her manager.
b) Windscreen/Windshield
c) Bonnet/Hood
d) Soldering Iron/Soldering (pronounced soddering)Iron - I made 3 visits to a hardware store in San Francisco before I unravelled that mystery.
e) Over easy/Sunny side up etc./Fried Eggs - can't have them unless you're specific, and a good thing too.
f) Monkey Wrench/Adjustable Spanner
g) Trunk/Boot
h) Gas/Petrol - try asking where the petrol station is in rural Louisiana.
i) Grits - This Southern delicacy has no known English equivalent and during a 6 week stay in New Orleans I failed on all occasions to have it omitted from my breakfast - eventually figured to have it was an obligation under the Constitution.