12 Words With Very Different Meanings in the U.S. and the UK

Are they sneakers ... or are they trainers?
Are they sneakers ... or are they trainers?
Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

Dressed in a warm jumper and his most homely trainers, Fred tossed some biscuits and rubbers for the children into his trolley.

Which side of the pond did you grow up on? How you interpreted the above sentence revealed the answer (unless you’re from Canada, where the words sometimes have both meanings, leading to double the misunderstandings).

According to the internet, it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” English connects—and all too often divides—the U.S. and the UK. Here are 12 common culprits that cause confusion.

1. Homely

Describe an American as homely, and you may get a punch in the nose for calling them unattractive. In the UK, however, homely has the same positive associations as homey: plain but pleasant, evocative of home.

2. Rubber

A rubber in the UK is an eraser, commonly used to eliminate unwanted writing. A rubber in the U.S. is a condom, commonly used to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

3. Pants

It’s fine for a man to wander outside in America wearing nothing but pants. In Britain? Not so much. In the U.S., pants go on top of underpants or underwear, which are called pants in the UK. Brits wear trousers over pants.

4. Jumper

If you’re an American who read the British version of the Harry Potter series, you probably wondered why all the boys so often wore jumpers. In the UK, a jumper is a sweater, not a sleeveless dress that goes over a blouse (that’s a pinafore).

5. Braces

In the UK, braces hold up trousers. In the U.S., suspenders hold up pants. Making it even more unclear, suspenders in Britain hold up stockings or socks. In both places, braces also go on teeth—far more often in the U.S. than the UK, some would observe snarkily.

6. Trainers

In the UK, you wear a pair of overpriced trainers on your feet when working out with your overpriced personal trainer. In the U.S., however, you wear overpriced sneakers during those overpriced workout sessions.

7. Trolley

In the U.S., a trolley is a electric vehicle that runs along metal tracks in the road, which is called a tram in the UK. In the UK, groceries go in a trolley, which is the U.S. equivalent of a shopping cart. To add even more confusion, Canadians throw yet another word into the mix: buggy, for shopping cart or trolley (but not the U.S. kind of trolley).

8. Plaster

In Britain, a plaster goes over a child’s skinned knee or other boo-boo, while in the United States that’s called a bandage (or the trademarked Band-Aid). Also in the UK, a broken arm goes in plaster, while in the U.S. a broken arm goes in a cast. In both countries, plaster is used to cover holes in walls.

9. Biscuit

Children in the UK are excited to get biscuits, because the sweet baked goods are cookies. Children in the U.S. are slightly less enthusiastic about biscuits, which are bread-like baked goods served at teatime with grandma.

10. Table

To table a topic in the UK is to suggest it for discussion, but to table a topic in the U.S. means to delay the discussion until later. So, pretty much the exact opposite.

11. Flannel

An American in flannel may be a lumberjack or a hipster wearing the soft, warm fabric. But to a British person, a flannel is a washcloth and not something to wear while chopping down trees or sipping single-source fair-trade coffee.

12. Nonplussed

In both the UK and the U.S., the traditional definition of nonplussed is surprised, confused or perplexed. But in the U.S., the word has so often been mistakenly used to mean unfazed, unbothered, or unimpressed that its meaning has now shifted—and effectively rendered the word useless.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Why Do We Say ‘Spill the Beans’?

This is a Greek tragedy.
This is a Greek tragedy.
anthony_taylor/iStock via Getty Images

Though superfans of The Office may claim otherwise, the phrase spill the beans did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped a massive bucket of chili at work during episode 26 of season five. In fact, people supposedly started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago.

According to Bloomsbury International, one voting method in ancient Greece involved (uncooked) beans. If you were voting yes on a certain matter, you’d place a white bean in the jar; if you were voting no, you’d use your black bean. The jar wasn’t transparent, and since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally knocked it over mid-vote was literally spilling the beans—and figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

While we don’t know for sure that the phrase spill the beans really does date all the way back to ancient times, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” at least since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest known reference of it is from a letter written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara sometime before his death in 1545 (the word spill appears in Edward Hellowes’s 1577 translation of the letter).

Writers started to pair spill with beans during the 20th century. The first known mention is from Thomas K. Holmes’s 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

In short, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were an ideal food to describe spilling secrets. As for whether you’re imagining hard, raw beans like the Greeks used or the tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, we’ll leave that up to you.

[h/t Bloomsbury International]