Rubbish: A Beginner’s Guide to British Vocabulary

British television shows have become increasingly popular with the advent of streaming services like Netflix. When I was in college Doctor Who was taking College Station by storm. You couldn’t go into any bar in Northgate without seeing some Doctor Who related t-shirt with a Dalek or something on it.

And it hasn’t stopped at Doctor Who. Sherlock has been popular, The IT Crowd, Derry Girls, The Stranger, Black Mirror (kinda), Broadchurch, Luther, Top Gear, The Grand Tour…all available on one streaming platform or another. Plus there are classics like A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the original The Office are to be found as well. I mean, seriously, watch this clip from Fawlty Towers (below). It’s hilarious. You can see how it may have influenced Ricky Gervais who in turn influenced Greg Daniels, who in turn hired Steve Carrell to play Michael Scott on the American version of The Office.

Anyhow, what I’m getting at is that the ubiquity of British media here on the free side of the Atlantic has resulted in more Americans being exposed to British vocabulary. So, helpful fellow that I am, I have decided to provide a quick beginner’s guide to British English vocabulary.

The Guide

Pants are what the British call underwear. Trousers are what the British call pants. Underwear is what the British call panties. With your trousers you might wear a jumper, what we would call a sweater, and trainers, which we know as sneakers or tennis shoes. Or if it’s more formal, you might wear a waistcoat (vest) or braces (suspenders). All of these clothes are likely to be found in a wardrobe, or closet.

Nappies are diapers. Dummies are pacifiers.

The boot of your car is what we would call the trunk. However, you’d find your engine under the bonnet, which we call a hood. Look closely enough and you can identify the gearbox, (or “gear box”), or what we call transmission.

Interestingly, a grammatical period (.) is called a full stop in Britain. If you accidentally use a full stop where you meant to use a question mark, just take your rubber (which we would call an eraser) and erase the full stop.

Around the house you will find several differences. A rubbish bin may be found in the kitchen and will be indetifiable as a trashcan. If the lights go out you may have to use a flashlight, which in the UK is called a torch. If it’s the middle of the night you might be wearing a dressing gown, or robe. Maybe you’re in a house that has a garden (yard), or maybe instead of a house you live in a flat (apartment) without a garden. If you are in a flat, it may be on the ground floor (first floor), or maybe it’s up one flight on the first floor (second floor)*. Either way, perhaps you want to sit down to a nice game of draughts, which is pronounced “drafts” and is what we call checkers. Or maybe you want something even simpler so you’ll play noughts and crosses, or tic-tac-toe.

If you’re out and about, you may need to stop by the store to pick up a fizzy drink, some sweets, a bag of crisps, and some mined meat for dinner that night. In the States we would say soda, candy, chips, and ground beef, respectively. After the market you can head to the chemist (pharmacy) to pick up your prescription, or maybe to the off license (liquor store) to grab some booze. If you’re like me, you’ll get impatient if you have to wait in a queue (line).

On your drive home you may see larger vehicles such as caravans (RVs) and lorries (tractor-trailers) on the motorway (highway). If you’ve had a long day you might feel like going to kip (taking a nap) before making dinner. At the very least you should have a cuppa (cup of tea).

To conclude, here’s a speed round. Bird (woman), bloke (man), fit (attractive, similar to “hot”), biscuit (cookie), chips (thick french fries), cinema (movie theater), anti-clockwise (counterclockwise), barrister (attorney who goes to court), solicitor (attorney who does stuff like estate planning), drink driving (drunk driving), maize (corn), spanner (wrench; also an insult for a dumb person), timetable (schedule), revise (study), and windscreen (windshield).

That doesn’t cover it from A to Z (pronounced “zed” in British English), but it covers enough to get through most of the aforementioned tv shows.

Cheers (thanks).

*Of all the differences, this is the only one that makes me a bit mad. I don’t understand why having the ground floor be called the first floor isn’t universal. But actually it’s like that in most of Europe at least, so whatever.

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