You say tomato… Translating British English for Americans

The words they use across the pond are befuddling for most Americans. To describe this visually, imagine driving down a smooth road, almost on autopilot, when BOOM, out of nowhere, you hit a speed bump. That’s what it’s like. You’re parked in front of the TV watching the latest episode of Call the Midwives when BOOM, someone asks if the boot is open. Whaaaa?

Ladies, prepare for a week of linguistic speed bumps. Until the Royal Wedding is a fait accompli, British English will seep into your life over the airwaves and through the internet. To help you tread through this dialectal minefield we compiled some of our favorite weird British words and translated them for you.  Now you can understand what they mean and impress your friends with your knowledge of the Queen’s English—just as it is spoken in her domain.

Getting dressed

I can see your knickers

Every British school girl has been taunted with this.  Knickers are panties.  The venerable, enduring department store, Marks & Spencer (known to the Brits as Marks & Sparks or M&S) has sold skid loads of knickers since 1884.  M&S knickers have been renowned for years for their quality and durability.  It has been said that the Queen’s children were raised on M&S underwear but only Princess Anne would have worn the knickers—Charles, Andrew, and Edward would have worn their briefs.

Are you wearing a vest?

In North America, it would be quite easy to tell if someone were wearing a vest—you would see it outside their clothing.  But in England, a vest is an undershirt.  And those undershirts are very popular for both men and women because, if you have reached the age of Blue Hare in England, you very likely grew up without central heating.  Best place to get vests?  Yes, it’s M&S.

Don’t forget your mackintosh (mac) and your brolly

It rains a lot in England so the raincoat (mackintosh or mac) and the umbrella (brolly) are staples.  The original macs were made of rubberized laminated material to keep North Sea fisherman warm.  Macs are made of all kinds of water-resistant fabric now, but the name mac is still used for raincoat.

I need my trainers to go for a run

No, this does not mean that you are a pampered socialite with a bevy of personal trainers to monitor your exercise routine.  Trainers are sneakers or running shoes.  At one time, they were also called plimsolls, but this term is not as commonly used now and refers more to a beach or sand shoe.

Wear your lounge suit to church

The Royal Wedding invitations specify a dress code that offers lounge suits as an option for men. Before you race off to Las Vegas in search of a burgundy velour number be advised that in Britain, a lounge suit is nothing more than a dark business suit worn with a shirt (turndown, not button-down collar) and necktie (with four-in-hand or half-Windsor knot), and the possible addition of a waistcoat.

Hitting the Road

“Let’s look under the bonnet and in the boot”

If you take your car in for servicing in England, your mechanic is not asking to see your hair or what your footwear is made of.  It means that he wants to look under the hood of your car (bonnet) and in the trunk (the boot).

If a lorry is careening towards you…

No, a lorry is not one of those cute, rarely seen, nocturnal animals with big eyes.  A lorry is a truck—and a big one! —so you need to get out of its way…fast!

Try not to drive on the pavement

North Americans will be confused by this term since all highways are made of pavement.  But in England, the pavement is the sidewalk, where pedestrians walk.  Despite the bumper sticker, “If you don’t like my driving, get off the sidewalk”, driving on the pavement is frowned upon in Britain.

Taking the subway

If you take the subway in Britain, you walk down a subterranean path built under the streets so pedestrians can safely cross busy roads.  The train that runs underground is called the tube.

Get in the queue

Who knew it was possible to have so many vowels in a row? A queue, pronounced “cue,” is where you stand in line in an orderly fashion to wait for the bus or check out at the grocers or buy a lottery ticket. “The queue to get onto the bus was so long I wondered if I would be able to find a seat.” This is an important word to know when you arrive at the airport, where you will want the taxi queue (not the barbecue).

Eating the British way

But I wanted chips…

If you ask for chips in England, you will get French fries.  If you want potato chips, you have to ask for crisps.  And by the way, French fries did not come from France but Belgium.

I’d love a cuppa char

This is probably not the Queen speaking since char is slang for tea.  But the term char is widely understood as tea throughout Britain.

Would you like a biscuit with your cuppa?

So sorry. Your biscuit in Britain will not be smothered in butter and gravy. Biscuits are cookies, particularly the packaged kind. There are breakfast biscuits and tea biscuits and digestives for after dinner–biscuits for all occasions. And your choice may reveal your class and/or political leanings. Several years ago, The Guardian wrote about a study of UK biscuit consumption and the choices of readers of different newspapers. What do you fancy—ginger biscuits or pink wafers? Choose carefully.

What time is tea?

If you hear working class people ask this question they are most likely asking about their supper. Tea, or high tea, is the meal taken at the end of the day. Upper crust ladies have afternoon tea, with a tiered tray of dainty sandwiches and pastries. And, unlike the unwashed masses, they have dinner in the evening, not supper. (Confusing the two is another sure way to reveal your class.)

Would you like pudding?

Don’t expect pudding to be a bowl of the butterscotch or tapioca from your childhood.  Pudding is the English term for dessert. If you are offered pudding, it could be a cake or tart or even figgy “pudding.” Think Charles Dickens but feel free to ask for more.

May I have a serviette?

A serviette is a dinner napkin. You may also ask for a napkin. Not to be confused with nappy, which is a diaper. That would be quite unpleasant.

Reading a British menu

If the thought of ordering from a French menu terrifies you, don’t look to the U.K. as a safe haven. Before a new crop of chefs like Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsey, Fergus Henderson, and Heston Blumenthal began to reinvent British cuisine in the 1990s, a visitor might encounter some strange-sounding items on a pub menu. Many are still made at home the olde-timey way.


While it doesn’t sound remotely appealing, this traditional English dish belies its name.  It’s akin to sausage rolls but better, since the sausages are baked in Yorkshire pudding batter, and typically served with onion gravy. The name is thought to have come about because the sausages peeking out through the gaps in the batter looked like little frogs. Upmarket takes add herbs to the batter and serve it with a balsamic-onion jam.


Welsh Rabbit and Scotch Woodcock

There are neither rabbits nor woodcocks in either of these dishes. Welsh Rabbit, or rarebit, is toast covered in a cheese sauce. Scotch Woodcock consists of creamy, lightly scrambled eggs served on toast that has been spread with Gentleman’s Relish (which is made with anchovies, butter, herbs and spices). The names are likely derived from a mocking reference to peasants who had little access to rabbits or game birds unless they were poached from a nobleman’s land (a crime punishable by death). Scotch Woodcock, though, was frequently served in the House of Commons and at Cambridge and Oxford colleges.

Bubble and Squeak

Although it sounds like something the three witches from Macbeth would stir up, bubble and squeak doesn’t contain eye of newt or tongue of toad.  It is a traditional English dish of cabbage and mashed or crushed potatoes cooked in a skillet until brown on both sides. The cabbage makes bubbling and squeaking sounds during the cooking process, hence the name.

Cornish Pasties

This name may conjure up an image of burlesque performers in a corn field. But Cornish pasties involve neither corn nor tassels for the girls. The pasty (pronounced past-ee) hails from Cornwall and is considered the region’s national dish (pasties account for 6% of the Cornish food economy). The classic pasty is a short crust pastry stuffed with mince (ground meat), potatoes, onions, and swede (rutabaga), folded into a half-moon shape, and baked in the oven. Today they are made with a variety of fillings, from seafood and chicken to butternut squash, sage, and Parmesan.

Angels on Horseback and Devils on Horseback

Although these dishes sound like they’re heralding the Apocalypse they are much more earthly and delicious. Angels are shucked oysters wrapped in bacon, baked in the oven. Devils are made with dates or pitted prunes stuffed with mango chutney or an almond, wrapped in bacon, and baked in the oven. Both are served as one-bite canapés.

Eton Mess

With a totally unappealing name and an equally unappealing appearance, Eton Mess is nonetheless a tasty delight.  It is a traditional English dessert consisting of a mixture of strawberries, broken meringue, and whipped double cream. It is commonly believed to originate from Eton College, the upscale boys’ school that has been dubbed the “nurse of Britain’s statesmen.” Food fight, anyone?

Groset Fool

Is it a character from a Monty Python episode? No, it’s an English dessert. Traditionally, groset fool is made by folding pureed gooseberries into sweet custard. Modern fool recipes use whipped cream and are made with many varieties of seasonal fruits, like rhubarb, raspberries, and even apples. Another cream-based dessert, Syllabub, is a boozy confection of lemon-infused sherry or brandy (or both) and cream, chilled. Both are easy to prepare and, ignoring the calories and cholesterol, make pleasing summer desserts.

Jam Pennies

You would imagine that jam pennies would make your wallet very sticky. Fortunately, they are not coins but buttered bread spread with jam, then cut into little coins the size of an old English penny. They are a favorite of Her Majesty the Queen—hers are made with raspberry jam and are washed down with Earl Grey tea. (They are simple to prepare and, be warned, quite addictive.)

There is something wonderfully wacky and charming about these odd British words, many of which have endured for centuries.  Some of them are creeping slowly into North American lexicon because, let’s face it, they are just more fun.  The author saw a sign in a hairdresser recently that said, “Fringes (bangs) cut free” and a sign on an elevator, “Lift out of order.”  And a menu from The Crown & Anchor pub in Las Vegas advertised its Ploughman’s Lunch and Cornish pasties.  Everywhere you look, the British are coming!

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Related posts:    The British tea habit—a look behind the cuppa

The binge watcher’s guide to the British monarchy

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Header photo credit: Keeping Up Appearances Wiki


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