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British English is a term coined by Americans to contrast their dialect of the English language, created by Noah Webster, to that used in the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth. In theory it is the form of the English language used in the British Isles; you know, the English people.[note 1]
Just as the English language varies from place to place worldwide, there are numerous dialects of English spoken in the United Kingdom.
It is a basic principle of linguistics that variations in a language are greatest where the language has been spoken longest. Thus spoken English varies far more within the UK than within North America or other places where English (of a sort) is spoken, and some dialects of British English are unintelligible to other speakers. While the form of the language called "Received Pronunciation" (RP) that is learned in British public schools (termed private schools in the U.S.) would be understandable to all, the English spoken in such areas as the rural south-west (largely just the phrases "oo-arr" and "yarp"[note 2]) and parts of Glasgow (e.g. "Nawzatsatesnotook" and ""Geiswanoyerfagsahvranoot") is intelligible only to natives of those areas. Americans can get a taste of this in some of the Monty Python sketches.
Although there are now many types of English in the world, the two main written versions of the language are British and American English. British spellings, but not necessarily pronunciations, are generally used throughout the
Empire Commonwealth of Nations as well as Ireland.
English is reputed to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world - although this does rather depend on how you define a "word". This is largely due to the addition of many Latin and French words to the older Germanic base.
Historically, French began to exert a powerful influence on the English language when the Normans invaded Britain and began to rule the country. The influence of a ruling class that spoke French can still be seen in the fact that most words for domesticated animals (raised by the Saxon peasantry) are based on the Saxon language, while most words for the meat of these animals (served at the meals of the Norman lords) are derived from the French. For example, cow vs beef, pig vs pork, sheep vs mutton, and chicken vs poultry. This influence can also be seen in synonymous words or phrases in which one is derived from French and the other is Germanic, in that the French-derived synonym often is perceived as more formal. An example is "cordial reception" (from French) versus "hearty welcome" (Germanic); another would be value (from French) versus worth (Germanic). The difference between "ruddy complexion" and "bloody cheek" is a bit less nuanced.
The spellings of all types of English are idiosyncratic and have to be learned - as the rules connecting the written and spoken words are dependent on the historical evolution of the language. It is possible that British English, being the "ancestral" form, is the least phonetic. As the spelling of English words had not yet been
standardized standardised made uniform at the time the American colonies were founded, it may at times be difficult to determine exactly which variation is actually older or more "archaic."
For example, in British English many words retain their archaic spelling, which Noah Webster excised from the American version: 'colour', 'humour' etc. are representative of the retained 'u'. Although there are many other examples no version of English can really be regarded as phonetic.
There are some instances where American English has the more archaic version, for instance gage is a no longer used version of the British gauge. Whichever version of English the previous sentence was written in, it makes no sense. Just remember that Americans use "-or" instead of "-our" and you're probably about right.
There are few actual rules to spelling English, but one that is always obeyed is "i before e except after c"[note 3]. The only trouble is: see the next section's header.
Weird examples of spelling and why you use "an"
The word apron actually derives from "napron" by way of "a napron" to "an apron". In the reverse direction, "nickname" is from "ekename", and even "tawdry" is from "Saint Audry".
A pronunciation difference often noted is that RP British English officially drops the H in hotel (though British people usually pronounce it) and retains it in herb - the contrary (which was the original pronunciation) being true in the US. Also, "you say tom-ahhh-toe, I say tom-ay-to, let's call the whole thing off". It wouldn't have worked anyway.
Some non-rhotic dialects of English (that is, those which generally drop the "r" at the end of words) will actually insert an "r" at the end of a word which doesn't have one, if that word is followed by a vowel. Thus, "we had pizza and beer" is pronounced in such dialects as "we had pizzer and beah". This curiosity, known as the "intrusive r", occurs in both British and American English. (Although when it occurs in American English, you end up sounding like Gomer Pyle.)
The most absurd English letter pattern is "ough." Whilst its true phonetic rendition is a laboured caveman "uuggh," the English language accords it nine different sound-symbol relationships, each of which bears little or no phonetic resemblance to the letters themselves. For this reason, it is usually considered polite to offer a short apology before teaching this letter pattern to non-native speakers.
The madness in full:
- through = "oo"
- though, dough = "oh"
- thought, ought = "aw"
- bough, plough = "ow"
- rough, enough = "uff"
- borough, thorough = "uh" ("oh" in American English)
- cough, trough = "off"
- lough, hough = "ock"
- hiccough = "up"
The following sentence contains all nine: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed, houghed, and hiccoughed. 
Some (but not many) of these have been amended in America; for example, "plow" for "plough", "hiccup" for "hiccough", and "hock" for "hough".
Z and H
A notable British/American difference is in the name of the last letter of the alphabet: the British letter "zed" is pronounced "zee" in the USA (to rhyme with b, c, d, e, etc.). Similarly, the letter H is pronounced "haych" by some people in the UK and "aych" by everyone else in the UK (and in the US). In the 1980s thugs in Northern Ireland would ask people to pronounce H, the trick being that Catholics pronouced H as haych and thus got a beating from the Protestant thugs, or vice versa.
Consider the homophone "rose". If you couldn't speak English, how would you explain that that very same phonetic word has forty-three bazillion meanings. Viz:
Rows of houses; the rose is a pretty flower; the sun rose in the morning; she rows the boat; a watering can has a rose to make sprinkly water, you can eat cod roes; and rhos are used frequently in Greek. And I arose this morning for work.
There is also the new European Union product safety standard, ROHS.
In Britain "English muffins" are known as "Muffins", because they are. Well, they were English, but "the Muffin Man" hasn't "lived down Drury Lane" for a century or two. In England, muffins are rather plain bread items that people often eat at breakfast. Of course, in "America" (the US, at least), a "muffin" is more like a single-serving cake, usually enjoyed at breakfast time. Americans call English-style muffins "English muffins", intuitively enough.
City, town and village name pronunciation
Some visitors from the US to the UK are completely unable to pronounce British names for various cities, towns and villages, because their pronunciation is completely arbitrary and makes no goddamn sense whatsoever. Of particular note are the following:
- Cambois (people outside Northumberland actually refuse to believe that it isn't pronounced "camb-bwah")
- Cirencester (in fact, any name ending in -cester.)
- Shrewsbury (actually, even the locals can't agree on how to pronounce this)
- Stiffkey (likewise, as it's actually pronounced "stookie") - most memorable for Harold Davidson
- Worcester (or even better, Worcestershire)
Enjoy trying to figure them out. And, for giggles, see what happens when you explain to the Welsh and Scots that all the Celtic-derived names on this list are actually "British English".
These are various terms and euphemisms used in different regions for the rooms in which we excrete bodily wastes, what we call the act of excreting, and so on.
USA and Canada
- Bathroom, derivative of the washing function also performed in the room.
- Restroom - usually the word on the sign in public places (a restroom would be distinct from a bathroom by its lack of a bathtub or shower).
- Toilet - the place in which solid and/or liquid wastes are released.
- Privy, outhouse - before indoor plumbing, so not so relevant.
- Crapper - an early name for the appliance also known as a "flush toilet"
- Commode - one more euphemism for a toilet bowl. (Also the bowl for washing your arse afterwards. Normally with an up-pointing tap - very posh usage.)
- John - when needing to urinate (not polite)
- Said to derive from a Mr. John Crapper, who supposedly patented an early flush toilet.
- The distaff equivalent is, rarely, referred to as the Ruth. Why "Ruth"? Who knows? Perhaps Mrs. Crapper was named Ruth.
- Can - when needing to defecate (not polite)
- Shithouse - (very not polite)
- Head - nautical/naval term for the room
- The Mens' Room
- The little boys' room (twee)
- The Ladies'/Women's Room
- The little girls' room (also twee)
In order to excuse oneself to use the above, a less-than-gentleman might say "I have to go see a man about a horse". Lord only knows what a less-than-lady might be shopping for.
- Lavatory; lav. derivative of the washing function also performed in the room.
- Lavvie/lavvy (from above)
- Loo (this is one that Anglophilic Americans like to adopt)(apparently from the French for water)
- Privy (derived from "private")
- W.C. (standing for "water closet")
- The smallest room
- The facilities as in "Would you like to use the facilities?"
- Bog (not polite)
- Cludgy (not polite)
- Craphouse (not polite)
- Nettie (northeast England)
- Out back (from former times when the facility was in a shed in the yard (not to be confused with the Australian "outback")
- Shitter (not polite)
- Doughnut in Granny's greenhouse (humourous, but well-known)
- Poe, Gezunder (chamber pot, so consciously archaic)
To use the above device, a lady powders her nose and a gentleman turns his bike round or sees a man about a dog. The contrast between the American "see a man about a horse" and the British "see a man about a dog" should not be taken as a comment on the average size of urination equipment in the respective countries. Also : "Shake hands with the unemployed" and some even cruder ones imported from Australia (admittedly via Barry Humphreys).
- Dunny. From "dunnikin" - a container for dung. A little out of vogue, a little blue-collar. Like rhyming slang.
- eyebrow raise. If you are in someone's home and need to use the facilities, one would go "Mate, ahh - " indicate in the direction of the more private areas of the house, and eyebrow raise. Which would elict the response "third door on the left", or whatever.
Dick Van Dyke
Dick van Dyke's spirited rendition of a cockney accent in the film Mary Poppins marked the lowest point in Anglo-American relations since the War of 1812.
We've got over it now, and he's become a sort of honorary National Treasure. Gorebloimy Mayerey Poppuns, he did apologise later! And you've got to make allowances for someone with a double schoolyard-bully-magnet name.
Some vocabulary differences between British English and American English
“”"Son, why did you kick your little sister in the fanny?"
"I didn't know she could turn round so fast."
This is a small and incomplete list.
|tyre||tire (or "taaar", in the South)||tyre|
|indicator||signal, turn signal (sometimes "blinker"). Unknown in the South.||either.|
|petrol (petroleum distillate)||gas (gasoline)||petrol or fuel|
|people-carrier||minivan||people mover, mpv|
|estate car||station wagon||estate|
|hire car||rental car||rental car|
|motorway||highway, freeway||highway, freeway, motorway|
|miles per (Imperial) gallon||miles per (U.S. liquid) gallon||litres per 100 kilometres|
|food and drink|
|corn (e.g. corn circles)||cereal crop|
|streaky bacon, 'not eating that shit'||bacon||bacon|
|gammon medallion||Canadian bacon||pork|
|first floor||second floor||first floor|
|underground||subway||not really used. Just "train".|
|suspenders||garter belt||garter belt|
|pram (perambulator), buggy||baby carriage, buggy||pram|
|aeroplane||airplane||spelled aero, pronounced air- but with a vowel distantly suggesting the missing letters|
|road surface, tarmac||pavement or asphalt [note 4]||road, or "asphalt"/"bitumen", even if it isn't|
|American football||football||Rugby for pussies|
|trousers||pants||pants, sometimes trousers|
|pants||rapid breathing, underwear||jocks (from "Jockey", a band name). Or underpants.|
|slut||slut, tramp||aren't they all?|
|condom, johnny, French letter, Durex®||rubber, condom, Trojan®||condom, franger|
|Sellotape®||Scotch Tape®||Durex® (!)|
|rubber||eraser||rubber or eraser|
|snog||French kiss||the verb "to pash"|
|metres and litres||meters and liters, or, er... yards and quarts (not to be confused with Imperial quarts, which are larger)||metres and litres. Except for penis size.|
|noughts and crosses||tic-tac-toe||noughts and crosses|
|dear||expensive||Fucking everything, these days.|
|note (e.g. 5 pound note)||bill (e.g. 5 dollar bill)||note|
|flip-flop, probably too cold for them||flip-flop||thong|
|mobile phone||cell phone||cell phone|
Certain words exist in both American and British English which may be unspeakably horrible in one country but quite innocent in the other. Faggot and fag are the most famous examples (in the UK they're a type of meatball and slang for cigarette, respectively). The term wog, an ethnic slur in the UK referring to black people, Indians, or some other ethnicities, was used by L. Ron Hubbard in a derogatory sense to describe anyone who was not a Scientologist. If you were to say wog to most people in the US, they would think you were slurring your speech in reference to some passing canine. Similarly the slang term fanny refers to the buttocks in America, but in the UK refers to the female vulva (not horrible but definitely unspeakable on British TV before the 9PM watershed). A "fanny pack" is not, therefore, a Dutch cap, or even a femidom, but a bum bag. And any Brit reading this is probably thinking of Keith from The Office.[note 6]
Similarly, if you're in America and need one of those pink things for erasing pencil marks, don't ask for "a rubber," because that means a johnny. And if your friend's wife is asleep in her hotel room, don't offer to go and knock her up, because that would be an offer to impregnate her.
Cockney rhyming slang
Despite US perception, not all English people communicate using rhyming slang, preferring instead to take a walnut whip down the wormwood scrub with our china plates for a few pints of nelson and a ruby.
Some CRS words which have been completely "normalised" into British English to the point where most people use them without realising where they came from : "Berk" (silly person), "Raspberry" (rude noise). Apart from these words, anyone using CRS non-ironically (Septics may need a translation here) will be regarded outside Eastenders as a bit of a Merchant (Banker). When using CRS ironically, it is permitted (or compulsory) to make up your own rhymes to show that you ARE being ironic (sorry again, Chieftains / Petrols / Five-fingereds).
Want to read this in another language?
- Here is a page explaining British/American language differences.
- How Americans preserve British English
- And the Scots, and the Welsh, though apparently with the intentional exclusion of Northern Ireland for some reason.
- As heard in the film Hot Fuzz.
- Except that there are actually more exceptions to this rule than there are words that obey it... Wikipedia has a nice list of a few.
- Journalists sometimes use "tarmac" when referring to paved surfaces at airports, on which aircraft taxi or wait — which are generally made of concrete, not tarmac, but that's Americans for you.
- Well, more Conservapedian than American
- The Ricky Gervais one, not the Steve Carell one.
- A "History of the English Language", Oxford University, explains that the "u" was added by the British at the time of codification in order to look more French.
- A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia, Page 3
- Philip Gooden: Shibboleth
- WP:List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations