It’s all gone pear shaped: British terms used in US English

You can read a lot of writing lamenting the influx of Americanisms into UK English. “Can I get a…” (instead of “could I have,” or “may I have,”), “sure” (instead of “of course”), “movie” (instead of “film”). American media is consumed globally, and is probably exported more than any other country’s media that I can think of, so you can expect the adoption of some of these “Americanisms”.

However, culture and language works both ways. The Harry Potter books and movies have certainly played a part in introducing a number of words into American English, that while they may have been understood before, are becoming more and more commonplace. The most notable is probably “ginger”, which is “redhead” in American English. Though I have seen an internet post or two claiming there’s a difference between “redhead” and “ginger”, the two are used interchangeably in the US. Now even though it’s understood in the US, it’s still a little “funny” sounding, and you probably wouldn’t use it with a straight face as a descriptive term, and it’s not overly-positive sounding to our American ears.

Apart from Media influences, there are a few phrases that appear to have come into the American lexicon by way of business, for example “sell-by date”, and “one off”. I hadn’t really even consciously realized the diminished use of “expiration date”, but it’s probably a marketing thing, as “sell-by” implies: “hey, I can still eat this!”, whereas “expiration” connotes it’s spoiled or rotten already. “One off” is a term I’ve heard for several years in US business, but I have no memory of when it started. There is no equivalent term in US English, so of course we must have adopted it for maximum efficiency. “Non-starter” is pretty much universally understood by Americans who work in business, and as a whole (I think); it’s another one I didn’t realize was British in origin. “Go missing” is now used in the news, as “disappeared” isn’t always accurate. Apparently this started in the early 2000’s.

UK English also sounds more “proper”, or mannered than many common US sentence constructions. “May I please have”, is about as polite as it gets in the US, but “Could I please…” or “Would you mind…” can sound really overly-polite to American ears, depending on the context. When in rural areas in the US, I’ve even been laughed at for including some of these extra-polite constructions, particularly “would you mind”. A friend of mine went to the UK in high school, and came back saying “as well” instead of “too” or “also”. I don’t think I started saying it at the time, but I pretty much always say it now. I think I hear it among professionals and global corporate types more often than other Americans. Ending a sentence with “also” just sounds wrong to me now. The same way I can no longer say “I’m doing good”, I have to say “I’m doing well”.

Some UK slang terms are understood by Americans, but only sound right in the context of their origin. The best example would be “Shag”, where if you don’t say it in your best Austin Powers accent, people may wonder about your word choice. I think “Chat up” is pretty well understood, though I’ve been out of the dating pool for a while, so it’s hard for me to say. I’ve heard some slang terms used by Americans who go abroad upon their return, such as “brilliant”, “bloody”, or “massive”, but you would never use these in typical American speech. These may sound snobby to some Americans (myself included), to some extent. Hipsters in the US have a reputation for adoring and emulating things they consider European. I think I said “bloody” a lot in high school just for attention.

For me personally, I am a huge fan of the author Irvine Welsh, so I had to figure out a lot of UK (and Scottish) slang on my own. I drop an out-of-place UKism or two in conversations at times, just to see what reaction I get. When I do it to my wife, the reaction is pretty much always annoyance. I do have a special place in my heart for “pear-shaped”. I think the US equivalent would be “turned upside-down”. I hear: “No worries” (Australian) in my office a lot and I think I hear that more and more in the US as a whole. No UK in origin, but a similar phenomenon.

I like the interaction of cultures, and learning about how things are done or said differently by different people. As long as the cockney-rhyming slang stays on its own side of the pond, that is!

Read more:
My English is not your English
(Ch)Inglish gets a life of its own
Bicycle culture (and subculture) in the USA

About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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1 Comment

  • So your “trouble and strife” doesn’t care for British slang, “me old china”? :)
    Living in the US with a British husband and with English as my second language, I don’t know what’s what anymore! This helps!