Monday, January 13, 2014

A Comparison of British and American Words To Describe People

Between the two of them, the United States and Great Britain are home to almost 400 million people. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that these two groups of people - separated by a 3,000-mile-wide ocean - possess a variety of words and phrases to describe one another.

You just have to look at the typical family of both nations to realize the contrast in phraseology; in Britain, of course, the matriarch of the household is typically referred to as mum (sometimes mam), while the Americans use the variation mom (or sometimes momma). And because English is an equal opportunity language, the patriarch is also subject to a variety of labels, including my old man and pops (British) and pop and pappy (American).

Further down the family tree, there are one or two varying terms to describe brothers and sisters. Brits (particularly in the south) will often employ the term bruv to reference the former, whereas Americans might say bro (though this is more commonly used among males to describe a male friend). Meanwhile, skin and blister is Cockney rhyming slang for sister, which can also be shortened by both Brits and Americans to just sis.

Babies have their own category of slang. In Britain, nipper, bairn or babby might describe a person under the age of 18 months, while in the United States the Native American loan word papoose is sometimes used in addition to the more formal terms baby or infant.

Moreover, there is an almost endless list of terms for grandparents, particularly for the female of the two. In Britain, a grandmother might take the form of any of the following: granny, gran, nan, nanna and grandma. More common in the US are terms such as: grammy, mamaw (particularly in the south and Midwest), grandmom, gramma, nanny, grandma and mimi. Most Brits will refer to their grandfather as granddad, while Americans - also using granddad - will say gramps, pops, grandpa and grandpappy.

Moving away from the family circle, each country adopts a wholly different lexicon when it comes to describing friends. Indeed, the leading slang term for friend in either country is actually very well known: the British say mate, while the Americans say buddy. Actually, in both cases, these words can also be used to address even a stranger. E.g. "sorry to bother you, mate" or "can I help you, buddy?"

But there are plenty of alternative phrases one might use to describe a mate or buddy. In Britain, the slang words best mate or bezzy are often used to indicate a best friend, whom Americans might describe as a bestie or BFF (best friends forever). As mentioned earlier, American guys are prone to addressing fellow males as bro, while one of the female equivalents stateside might be girlfriend, as in "how are you doing, girlfriend? So good to see you!"

Of course, gender-specific terms are a big thing within the vernacular of both nations: whereas the Brits will refer to a young male and female as lad and lass respectively, Americans might substitute these for dude and chick (though the latter is generally regarded as a slightly derogatory term).

The gender of people older than, say, 25, meanwhile, is typically labelled with a separate word or phrase, with the words chap and bloke (male) and filly and bird popular among the British. For their part, Americans often opt for guy (though the term you guys can often represent both sexes) and babe (specifically to describe a desirable female).

In more formal settings, a woman might be addressed as madam in Britain or ma'am in the United States, while sir is the preferred term of address for men on either side of the Pond.


Naturally, there is a wealth of other phrasal variations, but this writer would be here until Christmas if he tried to list them all. Perhaps the folks/guys/peeps who are reading this might like to offer some of their own.

What are some of your go-to phrases to describe people? Let us know in the comments below.


Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

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2 comments:

Tommy Mac said...

You forgot the British version of "bro" bruv...

Laurence Brown said...

Check again.

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