Do Americans understand British English?

(445 Posts)
knickernicker Mon 07-Apr-14 09:14:28

I can't think that there is any American phrase, word or accent that I wouldn't understand, but I wonder if an American would understand everything I say.
I remember sitting for a meal with some people from Boston and being acutely aware of needing to edit what I said to remove any British idiom. It was an odd feeling as when watching American films I forget they're a different nationality.

kelda Mon 07-Apr-14 09:15:34

I visited New York years ago and not all Americans could understand what I was saying.

Hassled Mon 07-Apr-14 09:18:22

There are a few differences which really surprise me - if a Brit says something is "quite good" they mean "not really that good at all - it's passable". If an American says it they mean "very good".

And "sketchy" is another - to me you have sketchy plans which means they are vague or unclear. In the US you have a sketchy area, which means dodgy.

Hassled Mon 07-Apr-14 09:19:43

Yes, I think Americans find our regional accents much harder to follow than we find their regional accents. I always remember watching Shameless with an American relative and him asking if I minded having the subtitles on.

Goblinchild Mon 07-Apr-14 09:19:44

You may be deceiving yourself. smile
I have a number of American friends from various states, and we all understand each other at a basic communication level. Some of the more subtle interpretations can go awry though, even between Texans and those from Minnesota let alone a Brit.
It is fascinating to unpick the differences, some of them are considerable.

knickernicker Mon 07-Apr-14 09:53:52

Take the word pavement for example. Would an American know what that that was, work it out by context or simply not know at all?

WowOoo Mon 07-Apr-14 10:04:02

Most of my American friends understand me. There are often expressions - idioms and slang that need to be explained. I'm trying to think of examples.

I remember finding it hilarious that I should take a fanny pack with me when we were going walking. Had no idea! (It means a bum bag type thing, I think)

schoolclosed Mon 07-Apr-14 10:13:35

Bit of both, I reckon. I remember a long and involved discussion about the difference between sketchy, skeezy and skeevy. I'm still not sure of the detail, but I vaguely remember that one of them had an undertone of sexual deviance!

On the other side, I stopped using the word "fortnight" pretty fast. Re: pavement... Some do, some don't, I reckon.

MoreBeta Mon 07-Apr-14 10:21:28

I was in Texas once with a Greek friend of mine about 25 years ago. We had been invited to a very extensive barbecue with a lot of very traditional middle aged, mid western Texans. There was a lot of square dancing and cowboy boots and Stetson hats about.

Anyway my Greek friend who had perfect idiomatic English suddenly pulled out a pack of cigarettes and said at the top of his voice:

'Oh I'm dying for a fag, I haven't had a fag all day!"

Heads swivelled and hard stares followed. I had to explain through gritted teeth to my Greek friend what a 'fag' was in American English and that in certain parts of America they weren't quite as liberal in their views as in London or Athens.

BreakingDad77 Mon 07-Apr-14 10:54:36

Slang, and sayings will be lost on some, and sarcasm can make some go mental!

FairPhyllis Mon 07-Apr-14 11:03:33

I lived in the US for 7 years.

There are a lot of idiomatic phrases and slang in BrEng that Americans don't get, and they often find it hard to understand some regional BrEng accents. I have an RP accent which most people find OK, but some people struggled to identify where I came from (someone once asked me what my native language is).

There are also some subtle syntactic and semantic differences but they don't usually impede general communication.

'pavement' in the US means the road surface. So generally an American would understand something slightly different to what you meant.

ImogenJH Mon 07-Apr-14 11:07:09

I had a bit of difficulty with my Scottish accent. They loved it, couldn't understand a word I was saying mind, but loved it all the same. The only difficult bit was when a friend of my friends was going outside for a cigarette. I now know not to say "Are you going for a wee fag." Didn't realise what a "fag" meant in America.

blueshoes Mon 07-Apr-14 11:37:04

I wonder whether some Americans have difficulty with the way the British pronounce "can't".

I work in an American firm so these is what I have observed in the work context. Not purporting to describe all Americans, of course ...

Ordinary americans don't get the 24 hour clock. They call it military time.

When Brits sign off emails with the formal "kind regards", some Americans see it as being dismissive.

When Brits write "Dear xxx", again being formal, Americans might view it as being too intimate and reserved only for close family and friends. They get "hi" or "hello", even when addressing superiors.

NotCitrus Mon 07-Apr-14 11:57:19

Depends lots on where you are and who you talk to. I tend to have no trouble being understood in cities, and there's lots of geeks who love UK telly and get a lot of references others wouldn't, but when I visit my rural Midwestern family, their friends include people who have never met a foreigner before except for Mexican fruit pickers, and I have to put on my best American accent just to be understood.

The problems tend not to be when they don't understand, though explaining to my cousin what I'd meant when I called him a wussy shandy-drinking wanker took over an hour. It's when people think they understand the words but they have different meanings, like driving on the pavement, or the time I was at a family do and it was really hot and MrNC and I agreed we both were desperate for a drink, and there were shocked faces.
Eventually someone whispered to me, "Bit early for alcohol, isn't it?"
Who said anything about alcohol? Turns out they only use the word 'drink' to mean alcoholic drinks, and actually say the word beverage otherwise - or more usually pop, juice, water, coffee etc.

GoodnessIsThatTheTime Mon 07-Apr-14 12:39:33

I have a southern english accent but had troubke asking for water in some restaurants!

"oh wa-der"

hellymelly Mon 07-Apr-14 12:55:19

My friend nearly had a heart attack when her new American Boyfriend asked if she minded him having his hand on her fanny as they walked down the street.. .
I had a horrified reaction in New York asking a (black) coffee maker for a white coffee. He went ballistic, so am assuming that sounded like a racist insult? Rubber is another word not to bandy about in the US as I also found out to my cost. The innocent request for a rubber being greeted with complete shock . My (white) colleague had a similar reaction to my white coffee request, when he asked a (again black) waiter to fetch him something. "FETCH ? Roared the waiter. "FETCH? You think I'm a DOG?" My poor colleague was mortified, and it took some time to calm the situation and explain that was a commonly used term in Britain. I think generally issues around race are much more sensitive in the US, even with the problems we have, Britain is a more accepting culture and far more racially integrated imo.

Fluffythefish Mon 07-Apr-14 13:07:14

I once confused an American by saying that I did something "fortnightly" as she had never heard the term.
But my favourite confusion was having a conversation with some American friends of my parents when I was 14. We were discussing the different words we use e.g. pavement and sidewalk, when the man turned to me and said "and what do you say for 'period'" I was totally discombobulated and embarrassed until he said "oh yes, 'full stop'!". I was SOOOO glad I hadn't attempted an answer smile

Newjobthankgod Mon 07-Apr-14 13:12:43

I am an American who is back in the states after 13 years in North Yorkshire. I love love love using what I picked up language wise in Yorkshire to mess with people here. Good times.

MardyBra Mon 07-Apr-14 15:45:17

I once slipped up by describing someone's flat apartment as "homely". Apparently homely means plain or ugly. "Homey" would have been better.

jumblebee Mon 07-Apr-14 16:06:24

I had an argument with a man in the middle of New York City about the correct way to pronounce "tomato", which ended up with me shouting down the street at another random man "it's to-MAH-toe!!"

Another man, who was listening to my tedious "I'm so fat" rant, turned to me and said "girl, you ain't fat, you thick". I was a bit like shock until I realised it was meant in a thick bodied, junk in the trunk type way wink

SconeRhymesWithGone Mon 07-Apr-14 17:39:41

Sometimes the differences are subtle. Americans use the expression "telling off," but much less than the British. Its US connotation is a severe and angry reprimand and more likely to be used in the context of one adult to another. We would not normally use that expression for correcting children but instead would likely say "scold."

One reason that "fetch" can be problematic is this:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stepin_Fetchit

JuanFernandezTitTyrant Mon 07-Apr-14 17:48:25

I once had to step in on a conference call between me and my supervising partner (I'm a lawyer) and the two Texan lawyers on the other end to explain that every one was talking about a "draft" to mean different things. My boss asked "when can we expect to receive the draft?" (as in first draft document) and the Texans were getting crosser and crosser because we hadn't agreed terms yet and here was he pushing for the draft (as in money transfer).

PedantMarina Mon 07-Apr-14 17:57:55

Re: request for idioms. "coals to Newcastle" help any?

And don't even get started in with cockney rhyming slang...

blueshoes Mon 07-Apr-14 17:59:15

I agree about Americans not understanding 'fortnightly'. To my US colleague, it sounded quaint and Elizabethan.

Americans use the word 'spank' in the way British use 'smack' as in children. Spank has sexual connotations in UK.

Other subtle differences such as British use the term "rude" to mean raunchy or "nasty" to Americans. Of course, there is the hilarious "pants" v. "trousers" and "braces" v. "suspenders".

SconeRhymesWithGone Mon 07-Apr-14 18:01:09

Also "to smack" someone in the US usually connotes hitting the head or face. So if a British person refers to smacking children, an American who does not know the usage might register a more violent image than intended.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now