Tuesday, October 25, 2016

British vs. American Idioms - Part 2

Back in 2013, Lost in the Pond ran a piece listing 12 idioms commonly heard in British English that had some very different American English equivalents, and vice versa.

In many of those examples, the main difference between the two versions stemmed from the use of a particular key word in a given phrase that was more common to one culture or the other – ‘a skeleton in the cupboard/closet’, for example, or the use of ‘spanner/wrench’ in the list below.

However, when thinking further into the topic, it appeared that there are also a great many popular idioms used in both countries that mean essentially the same thing, but that have evolved into very different phrases for reasons other than a single key word being different.

Many of these phrases have long been popular and widely-understood sayings in either England or America, yet each has their own version that evokes entirely different imagery to make the same point – and, as you’ll see, most of them might well need a bit of further clarification if used on the other side of the pond!


British English (BrE)
American English (AmE)
Gone pear-shaped
Gone South/Gone to Hell
Queue up
Wait in line/on line
As the actress said to the bishop
That’s what she said*
Got itchy feet
Seek new pastures
Throw a spanner (in the works)
Throw a wrench (in the works)

(Not) my cup of tea



(Not) my thing**
Playing gooseberry
Playing third wheel
Pop one’s clogs
Buy the farm
Right up my street
Right in my wheelhouse***
Full-stop!
Period!
Take the Mickey
Be a smart-ass
Don’t be (a) mardy (bum)
Don’t pout****


*The US equivalent is generally considered slightly more coarse/risqué than the BrE version in this case.

**Describing something as 'my cup of tea' has actually become increasingly popular in the US in recent years, and will now be readily understood by most Americans. Interestingly, it’s much more commonly used in its negative form – not my cup of tea – in both cultures.

***Referring to something being ‘in your wheelhouse’ tends specifically to refer to a good match for one’s skill set, whereas ‘up your street’ is generally used a little more broadly to also imply preference. In the latter context, Americans tend to use ‘alley’ far more commonly than ‘street’.

****'Mardy', though reasonably well-known in the UK, was originally a highly regional word for ‘sulky’, and even now may not be immediately understood in some areas of England. The common BrE suffix ‘bum’ in this context is likely to further confuse US speakers, as they’ll think you’re additionally calling them lazy or worthless, which isn’t really implied in the BrE usage.



This list of idioms was created by Ashley Fleming, blogger and creator of a huge resource of financial idioms.

1 comment:

Paul Grosse said...

Brilliant. Now I know from where, the pernicious spread of 'That's what she said' comes.

Right, I'm going outside to smoke a fag.

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