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.