Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Any motorist that has braved the roads of both Great Britain and the United States will no doubt be familiar with the myriad of differences in driving terminology. It's not simply a case of learning to drive on an unfamiliar side of the road; you have to learn the lingo, the different names for roads signs, car parts and vehicle designated areas. The following is a list of 10 words and phrases used by British drivers not widely used in the US. In each case, I have included the American equivalent. (Note: for a longer - but less detailed - list of terms, see this cheat sheet).

1. Bonnet
That large compartment at the front of your car containing the engine (and occasionally a cat) has two different names depending on which side of the Pond you are on. The British word bonnet is simply not used among Americans, who might think it refers to a clothing accessory, (rather like number 2 on this list). Instead, Americans - with apparently equal emphasis on clothing accessories - refer to this as the hood.

2. Boot
Sticking with parts of the car that sound like said accessories, the rear compartment of an automobile is referred to by Brits as the boot - a word that has sparked phrases such as car boot sale. However, and I think this variant is well-known in Britain, the Americans call it the trunk.

3. Car park
So you're looking for somewhere to park downtown on the weekend. It's busy, and all the roadside spaces appear to be taken. You park in the car park, right? Well, not if you're in the United States, where it is almost always referred to as the parking lot.

4. Central reservation
The raised divide that separates two lanes of traffic - sometimes beautified with grass - is known in Britain as the central reservation. In America, it actually has a variety of names, including the following: median, median divider island, neutral ground (New Orleans), median strip, parkway and even esplanade.

5. Give Way
Something that takes a bit of getting used to if you're new to either country is the road signs, with many signs from one country differing markedly from those of the other. It gets even more difficult when you come across those signs whose very names are different. Take the case of the British give way sign. Used to indicate to a driver that he or she should give right of way to a driver on another approach, it is referred to as the yield sign in the US.

6. Indicator
Whenever you intend to turn right or left, it's a good idea to let traffic around you know your intentions. This is when you should turn on what the British call the indicator. This causes back and front lights on either your right or left side to start blinking. In the United States, turn signal is the preferred term.

7. Motorway
While the two nations may differ on their application of a transit rail system, I think we can all agree that both Britain and the United States do offer high-speed road travel. In Britain, a multi-lane controlled-access road is known as a motorway, a word that never caught on in the United States. Americans label this type of road highway, while the terms interstate, freeway and parkway (note: in this case "parkway" is different from the usage in number 4 on this list) refer to a specific type of highway.

8. Pavement
When driving, of course, one always has to be aware of pedestrians. Thankfully, this is why we have a place at the side of the road for walkers such as myself to, well, walk. In Britain, this designated area is known as the pavement. Perhaps more appropriately, however, the Americans refer to it as a sidewalk for the very reason stated two sentences ago.

9. Windscreen
This one bears a subtle difference, but is still worthy of mention. The main glass pane in front of the driver and the passenger is known to British drivers as the windscreen, while the Americans switch out "screen" for "shield" to form windshield.

10. Traffic Lights
Not only do these traffic flow devices look different on either side of the Pond, they are sometimes named differently. In Britain, said device - typically attached to a vertical pole - is known as a traffic light, while in the US - usually adjoined to a horizontal overhanging beam - it is known (in addition to traffic light) as a stop light or, less formally, the light.

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  1. Not entirely an actual 'driving term', but how about 'roundabouts'? Called Traffic Islands where they DO exist over here in the US - they are pretty rare to begin with and when I show people pictures of 'The Magic Roundabout' in Swindon their jaws drop. :D

    1. Also referred to as traffic circles. Many Americans here in Indianapolis seem confused as to when it's appropriate to enter the roundabout; some sit and wait forever, whilst others don't bother to stop and give way to the left. It's a gamble every time!

  2. Roughly speaking, motorway = interstate, and an A road is equivalent to state road (SR)

    Roads leading off the motorway roads have exit numbers, not junction numbers.

    And the expression Way Out is not used to mean an exit.

  3. British terms seem so much more polite. Almost as if they're suggestions rather than commands. And I love how all the corners tell you which way to look. Very helpful for travelers!

  4. "Traffic light" is used in the US almost as much as in the UK.

  5. >> You might as well tack "car boot sale" onto that list! We don't have anything like those in the states! The closest thing, I guess, would be a "flea market" (or, similarly, bazaar), which is a permanent establishment of individual separate vendors, where people can sell whatever they want but often specialize and there is no central theme. A flea market is always in the same location, usually indoors, and mainly always manned by the same vendors. Some have only limited weekend hours, and some are normal retail hours. People rent stalls from which to sell, so the vendors may vary from time to time, but there's definitely more permanence to it; it's like a second-hand discount mall, really. We don't even do it out of our boots; the closest we'll come is tents or awnings all packed together if it happens to be outdoors!

    The next nearest thing would be a "yard sale" or "garage sale" which is the same fundamental idea as a boot sale, only we do it at our own houses. We put up signs around town with our address and the hours we plan to be out, and people come stop by to shop. Garage sale is often misleading because the event itself usually takes place on the front lawn and/or driveway these days instead of in the garage (guh-RAJ, not gerridge :P). Sometimes several households in a neighborhood join forces, but they generally select the yard of one neighbor to host it, to keep shoppers in one place. Garage/yard sales are almost exclusively held on weekends.

    >> Ah, "central reservation" is one of my favorite differences between us. It just sounds so posh. I don't know why, but those words do not bring to mind a median/median strip for me; it sounds like it would be something more official and stuffy, maybe to do with banking. I've never heard most of those terms you list up there (then again, our regional dialects differ so vastly over here), especially not neutral ground or median divider island. The former is more like a demilitarized zone or a place where you introduce dogs to each other, and the latter is just too much to say! And a parkway is a big road where you drive, but one of those might feature a median. I have heard medians referred to simply as "curbs" before, but that's being very lazy, and I've heard it called an "island" here and there.

    >> Pavement is a fun one, too. Here, pavement is the material on which you drive, interchangeable with concrete. Where I'm from, it's a general term used to designate between the road surface itself and ...something else, like grass or dirt: not-road. "Get back on the pavement and watch where you're going! You'll kill us all!" Up north, it may mean specifically that black tarred gravel (I believe you Brits call that tarmac??), which we in the south call, simply, blacktop. We also use the verb and adverb "pave" and "paving/paved" to mean apply road-surfacing material. We use the adjective "paved" to differentiate between a hard-topped, permanent road surface from a gravel or dirt road; "turn off of the paved road and onto the dirt road."

  6. another is to "overtake." obviously, we americans know what it means but very rarely (if ever) us it. we'd much sooner say we "passed" someone than "overtook" them. i notice my british colleagues (coworkers) saying that far more often.

  7. Oh, another one I just remembered, though this may be regional or uncommon...

    In the US, we say "hit by a car" or we use some gory descriptor like "smashed" or something to describe when a pedestrian is struck by a moving vehicle.

    When I was in Ireland, more than one person reminded me to look in the direction opposite what I was used to, lest I be "knocked over" by traffic. Knocked over!

    I don't know if it's an indication that traffic moves more slowly (and carefully) over there, particularly in pedestrian-laden city centers, than in the US where people routinely drive 50mph in residential streets. Or perhaps it's an Irish tendency to state things gently? Either way, it definitely calls up a very different mental image.

    In the US, to be struck by a moving vehicle means to be thrown several yards through the air and to sustain gruesome, traumatic, life threatening injuries. Apparently in Ireland, it means to be pushed to the ground, much as you would be by a large enthusiastic dog, to be in danger of, perhaps, having an item fall out of your bag.

    Knocked over! I still giggle about that one.

  8. Slip road is another British term we don't use here. We call it entrance or exit ramp.

  9. A car park sounds like someplace with lots of green grass where you'd take your car or an outing: a picnic, kite-flying or feeding the ducks.

  10. I hear ppl say" I've been in a car wreck" when actually it's something minor. Not a major accident !!! Lol

  11. Roundabouts are becoming common in Washington State. They usually have only one or two lanes, though. I remember roundabouts (called traffic circles in New Jersey) that had many lanes.

  12. Here in the Rochester, NY area the motorway is either called the expressway or by its specific interstate number 3-90, 4-90, 5-90, etc. However, Interstate 90 which runs from Buffalo all the way to New York City is different from the others because it is a toll road and is referred to as the thruway.

  13. In South Africa we generally use British terminology, but "highway/freeway" instead of "motorway", and "island" instead of "central reservation".

    Our quirkiest term, which is very widely used, is "robot" for "traffic light".


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