reflections on our adventures, the day-to-day, and more

Lost in Translation January 24, 2012

Before moving to the UK I knew that the various British accents might make it tricky at times to understand what people were saying. And I also knew that there were some American words that had a different UK equivalent. But I’ve been surprised by how much more this is the case than I anticipated! Nearly every day I learn something new about British English. Sometimes the word used here is a word we use in the US, but it means a slightly (or drastically) different thing. As I’ve pondered all of these differences, I thought I could give you a taste of it by writing out an account of daily life using British English. Since today is Hayden’s 7th birthday, this “fictional-but-based-on-real-everyday-life” account has a birthday theme. It’s pretty much a compilation of many days we’ve actually had. I’ve decoded the underlined words for your entertainment and amusement, and you can find those below the story. So here goes…get your brains ready for some translating…and if you want some extra fun, read it out loud with a British accent. [and many thanks to my British friends and American long-time residents who have given me tips and corrections since I first posted this, which have now been added =)]


It might be Hayden’s birthday, but it’s a school morning, and now we’re bustling about trying to get ready to leave the house. “Alright, kids! Time to tidy up! We’re late!” I say, as usual. The lounge floor is covered in rubbish and polystyrene from Hayden’s presents. Cavan helps (after saying his typical 3-year-old “I don’t want to!”), and dumps it in the bin – that cheeky monkey. Lunch bags are packed with special treats to celebrate the big day – crisps and biscuits. Brynn asks if I can plait her hair and Hayden is bothered that his fringe is sticking up. He wants to be sure he looks smart on his birthday! Once we find a bobble and take care of those hair needs, we start putting on trainers, jumpers, and coats. “I need to wee!” Cavan shouts as we’re trying to head out the door, so we run up to the toilet. Pants up, trousers up, hands washed, tap turned off.


The kids finally head out the door and throw their backpacks in the boot. “No, we’re walking,” I tell them, so they grab the bags while I put Adalyn in the pushchair, bundling her up in the footmuff that Father Christmas brought her. Oh great, her nappy stinks, so we run back inside yet again. Finally, we’re on the pavement leaving our estate and headed for their primary school. Adalyn squeaks and squeals everytime she sees a ladybird, dog, or baby. Near the school, the lollypop man stops traffic for us. We enter the yard, Brynn & Hayden search for their mates, and soon the bell rings. I realise that I forgot to give Brynn money for tuck shop (how daft of me!), so I drop 2 quid in her backpack pocket among the pencils and rubbers. The classes form queues, then Hayden heads into the infant wing, Brynn into the Key Stage 2 wing. They’re in for a day full of maths, learning when to use a full stop in a sentence, learning A-Zed, and playing football and tig during break, hoping that no one tells off on them today. “See you at half-three!” I tell them. As we’re leaving, the mum of a boy in Hayden’s class asks if he’d like to come round next week. “It’s the first proper left after the green,” she tells me, and she gives me their post code so I can put it in the SatNav


Now we’re off toward the city centre to drop Cavan off at nursery. Cars give way to us at the zebra crossing. We’re in a rush to get there, overtaking other mums with prams and pushchairs. Along the way we take a footpath to save time. A big dog is headed our way and Cavan gets nervous, but calms down once he realises he’s on a lead. Adalyn notices a dummy on the ground and squeaks again because she thinks there must be a baby somewhere nearby. Students are clogging up the pavement since Uni has started back up, but we weave around them and finally get there. Cavan is very keen to go to school today since they’ll be baking fairy cakes together. He puts his coat and backpack on the peg, takes his lunch bag to the trolley, and marches into his room. There’s an advert posted on the door requesting for parents to bring snacks fortnightly. On the way out I stop by reception, I tick “savoury” as my choice on the rota, and leave my mobile number in case they need to ring me. Adalyn and I are off again.


We have some errands to run, so we go home for the car. I check my diary and remember that we have an appointment at the doctor’s surgery. Adalyn’s been poorly for the past few days and was sick last night.* A childminder in the church creche told me another child had a similar illness a few days ago, so maybe that’s where she picked it up. After the appointment we’re sent off to the chemist with a prescription in hand (which, by the way, with National Health Care is completely free!). Next we pull into the Tesco car park, put a pound coin into the trolley, and quickly grab the chips, courgettes, prawns, and pudding we’ll need for tea tonight, along with some washing up liquid, kitchen rolls, and plasters. At the till I hand the cashier some notes and a voucher (though they are rare in the UK!). “Cheers!” we say to one another. On our way home we make one last stop at the garage for some petrol (which is so wretchedly expensive that it cost over $100 to fill up our little car!). Back at the house Adalyn and I are both knackered, so we head up to the first floor. After a story I put her in her cot and head back down to the ground floor.  Sometimes I wish we had a lift to make all this up and down a bit easier.


At the end of the day we walk back to pick up everyone from school. It gets dark quite early now so we bring along some torches just in case. On the way home, I hear reports of the day. Brynn tells me there’s a boy in her class who fancies her. Hayden tells me that the Year 6 boys think he’s brilliant at football. Along the way we notice the dried up bushes where loads of blackberries grew back in the summer, and we talk about how fun it would be to put on our swimming costumes and run through the sprinkler in the garden. But on this January birthday, we actually saw some snow mixed in with the drizzly rain, and the swimming costumes will have to wait.

*for anyone who is concerned, the part about Adalyn not feeling well lately is entirely fictional =)


TRANSLATIONS (in order and grouped by paragraph):

tidy up – clean up

lounge – living room (also called “sitting room” at times)

rubbish – trash 

polystyrene – styrofoam

bin – trashcan

cheeky monkey – cute, sometimes sassy little kid

crisps – potato chips

biscuits – cookies

plait – braid

fringe – bangs

smart –nice looking

bobble – hair rubber band 

trainers – tennis shoes

jumpers – sweaters

wee – tee tee

toilet – bathroom (disturbing when someone says, “I’m going to wash my hands in the toilet”!!)

pants – underwear

trousers – pants (we have worked VERY hard to quit calling pants “pants” – many an American has embarrassed him/herself by forgetting to do so! Ex: “Oh no, my pants are all dirty!”)

tap – faucet


boot – trunk

pushchair – stroller

footmuff – I don’t know what this is called in the US, but it’s like a little sleeping bag thing that goes over a baby’s feet & legs in the stroller

Father Christmas – Santa Claus

nappy – diaper

pavement – sidewalk

estate – neighborhood or subdivision (though actually no one calls our little street an estate)

primary school – elementary school

ladybird – ladybug

lollypop man – crossing guard

yard – paved hard surface

mates – friends

tuck shop – snack shop

daft – stupid

quid – bucks

rubbers – erasers: definitely not what it means in the US!! 

queues – lines

infant wing –reception, years 1 & 2, (or preschool, Kindergarten & 1st grade – yes, 4-year-olds go to school all day here! So basically they start kindergarten a year earlier)

Key Stage 2 – years 3, 4, 5, & 6 (or 2nd-5th grade)

maths – math (they always add an “s”, and it’s very hard for me to get my mouth to do that without struggle)

full stop – period (but “period” here ONLY means a woman’s monthly cycle, so you don’t want to accidentally call it the wrong thing in front of your class!)

Zed – the letter “z”

football – soccer

tig – tag

break – recess

tells off – tattletales

half-three – 3:30

mum – mom (they also use “mummy”, and yes, it is the same word they use for the old dead Egyptians…all a matter of context)

come round – come over

proper – actual, genuine, or literal (we don’t exactly have an American equivalent, but I appreciate this word!) – though it can also mean “really” like in the phrase “last night we had a proper awesome time!” (thanks for the example Faye! =) )

green – grassy patch of land

post code – zip code

SatNav – GPS


city centre – downtown

nursery – preschool (the government provides 15 hours/week free for 3-year olds – nice)

give way – yield

zebra crossing – pedestrian crosswalk with black & white stripes on the road, and striped poles topped with yellow ball lights on each side of the road

overtaking – passing

prams – baby carriages

footpath – pedestrian shortcuts all over the place here

lead – leash

dummy – pacifier

students – college students (it’s been very tricky for me not to call the youth I work with “students”!) – Freshman are called “Freshers” and Seniors are called “Finalists”

Uni – college or University

keen – happy, willing, interested

fairy cakes – cupcakes

peg – hook

trolley – cart

advert – advertisement

fortnightly – every other week

reception – the front office

tick – check (a box)

rota – schedule, sign-up, or roster

mobile – cell

ring – call


diary – calendar, planner

doctor’s surgery – doctor’s office

poorly – ill

sick – throwing up (sick always means vomit, otherwise you say “ill” or “poorly”)

childminder – babysitter

creche – nursery

chemist – pharmacist

car park – parking lot

chips – French fries (my theory is that they don’t call them French Fries because of the long-standing rivalry between the French and English =) )

courgettes – zucchini

prawns – shrimp

pudding – dessert (of just about any kind – they don’t have what we think of as pudding)

tea – supper (yes, this can also mean “tea time” but it’s commonly used to mean supper)

washing up liquid – dish soap

kitchen rolls – paper towels

plasters – bandaids

till – cash register

notes – bills (money)

voucher – coupon

“Cheers!” – in this case, “Thanks!”, but it can mean a variety of things

garage – gas station

petrol – gasoline

knackered – wiped out, tired

first floor – second floor

cot – crib

ground floor – first floor

lift – elevator

bit – a little (a very frequently used word)


quite – pretty, like “it’s pretty cold outside” or “that’s pretty difficult”

torches – flashlights

fancies – likes

Year 6 – 5th grader

brilliant (or “brill”) – awesome, cool

loads – tons (another word that is used all the time!)

swimming costumes – bathing suits

garden – yard


My story only scraped the surface of the mountain of differences between British and American English. For more translation fun, you can check out this link that I’ve found very helpful:


17 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. Nicole Says:

    You’ve learned so, so much! I feel proud to have known all of those except for polystyrene – and that savory is actually spelled (spelt) savoury. :) So entertaining!

    • Miranda Byers Says:

      ah, yes, I forgot the “u” as I often do! =) I’m counting on you longer-term British residents and true Brits to give me tips and corrections as needed

  2. Epsie Says:

    I remember my first day as a waitress at Harrod’s and someone asked me for a “serviette”. I had no idea what they were talking about and that they meant a napkin!

    • Miranda Byers Says:

      hahaha, yes, there are many of those moments! I was thinking about you having lived over here just the other day and figured you could relate to a lot of this cultural immersion! And I am still SO VERY THANKFUL that you connected me to Nathan & Nicole!!!

  3. walter arroyo Says:

    Courgettes…. really now! I do have to say they have one right: football. I don’t think I care to learn English all over again! Thanks so much for your posts. They make my day. I hope when you come back to this side of the pond that you can release a book of your own. You are such a great writer. May God continue to bless your family and your collective efforts. I’d like to know how your job is going. Let me know if you come across good resources for kids.

    • Miranda Byers Says:

      of course you would like the part about FOOTBALL!!!!!!! =) My work w/ kids and youth has increased my already huge respect for you & the MBCC team!!! I’ll be in touch w/ more updates about it all. Thanks for keeping up with us!

  4. Jenni Soderberg Says:

    Wow! You have learned so much and have such a great sense of humor about it! When we lived in Virginia Beach I had a British friend that invited me to tea and said I would know her house because the “carriage gate” would be open. I thought I was going to a grand event at a home with a carriage gate….it was the garage door! I always enjoy your stories. Jenni

    • Miranda Byers Says:

      haha, you’ve taught me something. I have a carriage gate and didn’t even know it! I guess that one hasn’t come up in conversation yet =). So great to hear from you!

  5. Pamela Says:

    That was impressive!

  6. This is highly entertaining Miranda! I’ll read it fortnightly.

  7. Claire Eidson Says:

    Miranda, what a brilliant idea for a post :) Such a great reminder of last year. Sounds like you’re learning the language quite well.

  8. This is fabulous!!! I can’t wait to show this to my friend at church who is a Brit from Nottingham. :-)
    Love you!

  9. Ben Says:

    This is a brilliant post Miranda. It is quite remarkable just how much variation there is and how much your family has picked up since you arrived. I particularly like ‘first floor – second floor’ and ‘ground floor – first floor’. That made me laugh.
    I’ve been in the North East for 7 years now (originally from the South West) and I am still discovering new words/meanings on at least a weekly basis! My favourite (and ones to keep your ear out for) are probably…

    ‘bait’ = typically used to mean a packed lunch, pronounced the same as what a fisherman would attach to his hook.
    ‘clart’ = (small lump of) mud , ‘clarting about’ = messing about. Pronounced to rhyme with ‘art’.
    ‘bairn’ = Scots for child (so used north of the border and in these parts)
    ‘canny’ = pleasant, as in ‘she’s a canny lass’. This one caught me out when I first moved here because where I’m from it only means cunning or shrewd and definitely isn’t a compliment!

    Have you come across English people (most likely Geordies if memory serves me right) who use ‘pants’ in the same way you would? It seems to be a Northern thing and they’ll use the pants/underpants combo rather than the trousers/pants combo. This still confuses me.

  10. Greatly enjoyed reading this post. It’s a weird reversal of what I’ve experienced going in the opposite direction. And I still lapse into British English every now and then, e.g. yesterday asked about where to find the “washing-up liquid” when I was at the store (“supermarket”); I just couldn’t think of the American equivalent.

    The “pants” business is still a major cause of hilarity in our family, even after six and a half years. Even worse when people talk about “khaki pants”, which sounds to us like “cacky pants”, which is really hilarious to a Brit.

    If you don’t already know it, you might enjoy Lynne Guist’s blog, Separated by a Common Language — she’s an American married to a Brit and living in England.

    • Miranda Byers Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it from the reverse perspective. Several of my British friends have laughed a lot at that post, too, as well as given me some tips and tweaks. Yes, those khaki pants are some we try not to mention here!! I did come across Lynne’s blog recently and it seems like a great find. Thanks for mentioning it. And enjoy Duke – we were in that Durham for 2 years while my husband worked on a Master’s. Durhams are great places to live!

  11. […] of which have already made it into the blog, like the vast differences in US/UK English as seen here, and I’m sure there are more to come. Just like the Thomas song says, the surprises have come […]

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