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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. Poindexter

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. Eye Candy

This phrase meaning a thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. Ribbit

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. Sorry About That

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. Cromulent

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. Five-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. Gomer

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. Cowabunga

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. Har De Har

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. Spam

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast-forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.