Finding America

Me and Tarah

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For millions of Americans, one of the upsides to living in a technologically-connected, globally-conscious world is that there has been—in recent yearsa proliferation of books, films, and TV shows "imported" from overseas.

Not surprisingly, one place whose artistic successes have been unleashed on American consumers is my home, Great Britain, from which emerged the Harry Potter series, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, The Great British Bake-Off, and Sherlock.

With this influx of British cultural touchstones, American streaming services have doubtless reaped a handsome revenue. But there is another currency that has begun to infiltrate the United States and it is the currency of language. More specifically, with regard to the aforementioned British franchises, it is the language of British slang. 

I can count on one hand the number of times an American has asked me for clarification on a word uttered in Harry Potter, such as when Ron Weasley refers to people as "mental." Equally, I've encountered fans of Doctor Who rejoice in replicating David Tennant's use of "brilliant"!

In every corner of America, it seems that British slang is rearing its not-so-ugly head. And while I must disclose that Ia Brit living among Americans—am possibly something of a magnet for such utterances, I am also naturally cognizant of them.

What I have struggled to determine is whether the American use of British slang is chiefly ironic or habitual. Clearly it depends on the person; some Americans have gone as far as to give me a knowing wink immediately after asking if I'd "fancy getting pissed down at the pub, guvna". Others, meanwhile, defiantly type the word "wanker" under a Facebook post about their least-preferred presidential candidate. Perhaps, then, it depends on the situation rather than the person.  

Either way, let's not heighten the suspense any further. Below are 9 British slang words that Americans are starting to use. The list is partly informed by more than 3 years of online discussion with my largely American reader base, some of whom are more than a little bit prone to using the following.   

1. Rubbish
I must confess that some of the words on this list still—even after all these years—sound a little odd emanating from the mouth of an American. The word rubbish is absolutely no exception to this rule, something I learned the first time I heard American actor Tom Hulse speak it in the film Amadeus. Nonetheless, it is a word—while not used as widely in the U.S. as its equivalent lousy—that is cropping up here and there. Less common is the tendency for its American adopters to use it to mean "waste" or "garbage", for which the word "trash" is the all-conquering term.

2. Arse
Remember earlier when I professed confusion over whether the American usage is ironic or habitual? This one mainly seems to fall into the former category. Most Americans who I've overheard uttering the word arse seem to do so with the precise intention of eliciting laughter, knowingly and jokingly replacing its American counterpart, ass. However, I occasionally encounter the odd American (sometimes very odd American) for whom it is the word ass. At least for them. Its new-found prevalence in the U.S. is certainly in line with its prevalence in American-English books, as indicated by the Google Ngram below:

Google Ngram: American-English (AmE): "arse"

3. Wanker
As I've previously said, there does appear to be some confusion among some Americans as to the exact meaning of wanker. Some appear to be under the impression that it means "one who masturbates". Even those who acknowledge the word's true calling as an insult don't always realize its severity. A 2000 study found it be the fourth-most severe word in the British lexicon.

Nonetheless, the word has gained popularity in the U.S., where Americans may have encountered it in films such as This is Spinal Tap and TV shows such as The Office (UK), as well as in Miami Vice during a 1985 cameo from Phil Collins, who delivered the line, "You must take me for a right wanker, son."

Indeed, there does appear to be something of a correlation between Collins' use of wanker and the word's prevalence in the United States, as evidenced by the following Google Ngram.

Google Ngram: American-English (AmE): "wanker"

4. Bugger
There must be something about British swear words that Americans find oddly appealing. The word bugger enjoys occasional use stateside either as an exclamation of annoyance or as an insult. And like many of the entries on this list, it has also enjoyed an increased deployment within American books (see Ngram below).

Google Ngram: American-English (AmE): "bugger"

5. Gobsmacked
A relative newcomer to the world of British slang, the word gobsmacked was only first attested from 1959; moreover, it only achieved wide usage in British-English from the 1980s onward. Every now and then I do encounter Americans who use it to express astonishment (e.g. "last night's presidential debate left me gobsmacked"). For those Americans not familiar with the word or, indeed, its meaning, I made a video on the matter.

6. Bloody
Remember earlier when I said certain British words sound a little strange when spoken by an American. For me, bloody is one of those. Used as an intensifier, the word bloody is typically used (by both Brits and an increasing handful of Americans) immediately before a noun, as in "bloody wanker." In fact, and this is merely a casual observation, it always seems as if Americans—at least the admittedly small number who use it—couple the word with some form of British insult perhaps as a way of doubling down on their British reference points. 
7. Loo
We all know that the vast majority of Americans refer to a public toilet as a restroom or sometimes bathroom, while referring to the physical toilet as, well, toilet, or John, or a whole host of other slang terms. But occasionally, not only do Anglophile Americans revert to "loo" but—every now and then—you'll see the word embossed on a public restroom in a manner that says, "aren't we hilarious?" In other words, this should definitely be filed under "ironic use," but it is definitely a known and sometimes practiced entity on this side of the Pond. For more information on some of the differences between British and American public toilets, click the video below:

8. Bollocks

Again, I'm not going to pretend that every American has given up on their sanity and adopted this entry across the board, but it is making an appearance within small pockets of the vernacular. This is perhaps hardly surprising, given the word's cultural promotion in the U.S. Not only was it featured in the title to the Sex Pistols' one and only studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, it was also incorporated into a recent advertising campaign by Newcastle Brown Ale here in the United States. The inclusion of the word "bollocks" in a UK advertisement is almost unthinkable, given that the same 2000 study referenced earlier ranked it the 7th most severe in British-English (BrE). For further evidence that the word is seeping into the American consciousness, take a look at the rapid increase in literary references to it in American English books since the 1970s.

Google Ngram: American-English (AmE): "bollocks"

For more information on this and other British swear words, click the video below.

9. Brilliant
The word brilliant has actually remained common in American English (AmE) for centuries, though it is typically used in a different context to how it is deployed in Britain. Unless used sarcastically, the British commonly use the word brilliant to mean great or fantastic, whereas Americans—historically—use it describe someone who is gifted or smart. However, in recent years, I have noted that some Americans—perhaps fans of Doctor Who (or Whovians, as we are known)—have taken to using the word in place of awesome, which is arguably America's oft-repeated equivalent. It is also one of those words that Americans love getting me to say, because—and I quote—"it sounds so much more intelligent when you say it." If only they knew.

Sometimes, it's better hearing me in a British accent. Click the red button below.

Laurence Brown is a British man writing his way through the truly bizarre world of America - a place he sometimes accidentally calls home and a place he still hasn't quite figured out after seven years. Thankfully, his journey is made 12% easier by the fact that his accent makes him sound much smarter than he is. For evidence of this, subscribe to his popular Lost in the Pond web series over on YouTube.


  1. I think they're all used ironically by Americans. 'Arse' particularly (pronouncing the /r/).

  2. Chicago Slang words you need to know if you live here:

    Trow - as in "I gotta trow a wizz." Translation:" I have to piss."

    Cash Station - as in "I need to get some chump change at the Cash Station." Cash Station was the original name for the first ATM that debuted in Chicago.

    cashbox - tollbooth on the tollway

    jagoff - a nastier version of jerkoff, as in "That sissy British blogger is Jagoff!"

    LSD - Lake Shore Drive

    Tea Bag - no, not the political movement, but some pussy-assed Brit who moves to Chicago because he's too wimpy to live in his own dumpy country.

  3. Moving abroad is not for wimps. Pussy-assed? Is that like Fanny Be Tender With My Bum?


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