Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Whether you are a British expat or tourist in America or are yourself an American expat or tourist in Britain, you'll come to find that there are a number of everyday British phrases - ones that British people probably take for granted - that will ultimately confuse most Americans. Here are five to get you started.

1. Give me a bell
Similar in meaning to ring me, the phrase give me a bell is one that confuses a lot of Americans, who evidently have no idea why you would need a bell in the first place. Little do they know, of course, that you are not being literal, and that you would, in fact, just like them to call you. Give me a bell = give me a call.

2. Fancy a pint?
This one causes confusion among Americans for two very glaring reasons. Firstly, Americans don't typically use the word fancy, at least not in reference to a fondness or liking of something. Secondly, a pint is not the only measurement for tap-based alcoholic beverages in the USA, so unlike the British, Americans do not refer to drink in this way. Fancy a pint? = Would you like to go for a drink?

3. Alright, mate!
This affectionate phrase can leave some Americans feeling slightly paranoid, as they might perceive alright, mate! to be a question, rather than a casual greeting. In other words, saying alright, mate! to an American tourist might lead them to think you're asking them if they're feeling okay. Oddly enough, the American equivalent of this phrase is what's up, dude!, which conversely leaves us Brits feeling paranoid for much the same reason. Alright, mate! = what's up, dude!

4. Don't Get Your Knickers In A Twist
Admittedly, this one ranks as one of Britain's silliest idioms, but saying don't get your knickers in a twist to an American, especially in the context for which it is intended, usually results in a look of confused delight from the recipient. Nobody likes to be told to calm down when they are blowing off steam, but when that person has no idea what you are talking about, all bets are off. Don't get your knickers in a twist = don't get upset.

5. What can I do you for?
This is one of those grammatically playful phrases that we British are so fond of, but that leave many Americans desperately mystified as to what was just asked of them. What can I do you for? probably sounds, on paper, as if the speaker might be asking "how much can I pay you for sex?" or "for what reason can I beat you up?". In reality, the speaker is just switching the words you and for around for comical affect. What can I do you for? = what can I do for you?

Complete Compendium of Word Differences


  1. Hi Laurence,
    So glad you're doing this. Writer, publisher and entrepreneur Jo Parfitt, who's English, and I have had *loads* of laughs about this very topic. I'm glad to see someone's taking on this fabulous topic. Here's one that had my eyes expanding 5x their normal size. Someone I'd met was talking about going out and getting PISSED. I in my innocence asked what had happened to piss him off or make him mad. Soon after it was explained that pissed in England means drunk. Even after 13 years living in Europe, whenever I hear "pissed" in the English context I have to stop and think for a few seconds!

  2. Haha. "Getting pissed" almost made the cut. Actually, I plan to post a few of these top lists, so it'll likely appear in the next one.

    I bookmarked Jo Parfitt's Twitter page a few week's back. I am hoping to soon compile a "Lost In The Pond" book and would be very interested to speak to her.

  3. ha ha very good! Yeah so many phrases have got lost in translation I have lost count. I told my eight year old the other day 'oh put a sock in it' and she held up a sock and said 'okay I have the sock now where do I put it?' My kids love learning new UK phrases, unfortunately they're mostly R rated!

  4. "Put a sock in it" is one I'd forgotten about. I will endeavo(u)r to include it in part 2.

  5. Give me a 'Graham Alexander Bell' (inventor of the dog and bone) is where it's from, no?

  6. I thought this too, Clem, but several sources seem to indicate that the phrase originated in South Africa, where "bel" is the word for "call on the phone". I've not found anything concrete that backs up either argument though.

    1. Think you will find this goes back to when 'phones actually rang. Hence, give me a bell or I'll bell you.

  7. The other day I shared "gone completely pear-shaped" with a student of mine who'd never heard it. Unfortunately, I hadn't a clue about the phrase's origins or what it is about the shape of a pear (as opposed to, say, a melon or even a coffee pot) that's supposedly so bad.

  8. Funnily enough, the first known written use of "pear-shaped" in this context was in a book about the Royal Air Force, called 'Air War South Atlantic' published in 1983.

  9. "What can I do you for?" may have wider currency in the States. Somehow, I (an American) am mentally hearing it in an American male sandwich shop owner's voice. Think New York deli.

  10. Interesting insights - fun to read.
    As an American, I've never heard "Give me a bell". We do say "Give me a ring" or "I'll give you a ring" or "I'll ring you", but perhaps you don't say "I'll call you" like we do.
    As far as "fancy a pint" goes, while this might not (mightn't) be the most common phrase, if this imparts confusion on somebody, then you can count him among the ranks of illiterates.
    For "knickers in a twist" we say "panties in a bunch". Hmm, I think I like your expression far better:-)
    What's weird is that in the southern U.S., perfect strangers ask you how you're doing, even the cashier at a grocery store. The phrase therefore in the south is completely meaningless. If you simply say good morning or good afternoon, it isn't enough for them; they must find how how you're doing even though they never met you and will never see you again. Now that's creepy.

  11. I'm rather curious to know whether the South African informal greeting (particularly between guys), "Howzit?" (as in, "How is it going?") is also used in UK/Aus. Has it permeated further afield than SA as a result of so many South Africans now living in other English-speaking countries?

    We also say, "I'll give you a tinkle", for "I'll phone you". Americans use the word "tinkle" to mean "pee".


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