Naturally, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of differences between American and British usage of the English language. I’ve selected a few below that come up frequently for authors who write dialogue between both nations. Knowledge of these differences will add dimension to your dialogue, and hence more credibility.
“Quite”: In the US, we tend to use “quite” to mean “very”. However, in the UK, “quite” is used, in everyday speech, to mean “somewhat”. An American friend of mine once made the mistake of telling a British girl that she looked “quite nice”, and he had to pay for it all evening. He later found out his mistake, but the damage had been done. Ironically, “quite”, in its main definition, means “completely, totally”. So neither side is using it right.
“Table” as a verb: Personally, I find using “table” as a verb to be awful. Anyway, in the US, as a verb, it means to postpone or suspend (a proposal or plan). In the UK and Commonwealth countries, it means to begin consideration of (a plan or proposal). Hence, “table” as a verb has two completely opposite meanings. This is another reason to avoid using it altogether.
“Clever” vs. “Smart”: While we Yanks use “clever” to mean “smart in a shrewd or crafty way”, our Cousins across the pond use it to simply mean “smart”, i.e. intelligent. In the UK, “smart” is used to describe being dressed elegantly, in the same way that we would use the word “dapper”.
“Pissed”: In American slang, being “pissed” is the same as being “pissed off”: you’re angry. In England, “pissed” is a synonym for “drunk”. Hence, going “out on the piss” means going out to get drunk. Useful.
Compère: I was recently the MC at a function organized by a British firm, and was described by this term. Later I found out that it is the standard British term for Master of Ceremonies. Yes, it’s from French, and confirms my suspicion that the Brits are a lot more Francophilic than they would like to admit.
Kerfuffle: I insert this one, as I once tried to look it up in the dictionary and didn’t have the faintest idea how to spell it. It didn’t help that I was living in East London, where no one pronounces the letter “r”. It means “a noisy disturbance, fight, fracas”. (Incidentally, the English pronounce the latter as “FRACK-ahh”, once again borrowing from the French.)
Chinese Whispers: This term, which the PC agenda has not managed to stymie yet, corresponds to the children’s game that is called “Telephone” in the US – i.e., when a message is passed from person to person and becomes distorted along the way.
“Don’t” + “Half”: One of my friends, who is fond of sending forwarded jokes over email, was recently told by a mutual British friend that “you don’t half send round some crap”. Here, combining “don’t” plus “half” equals “completely”, or roughly, “very”. Another example: “That lousy boxer didn’t half get beaten by Mike Tyson” – that is, the boxer got totally humiliated.
–By Tom McKinley