Heading to the UK? What to Say (or Not to Say)

by Heather Robinette /
Heather Robinette's picture
Aug 13, 2018 / 0 comments

This past week, I was watching season 6 of Parks and Rec, where the department visits London. One of the characters ends up being offered a job and stays to work. The reason I bring this up is because when he comes back to visit, he points out that words mean different things whether you are in the US or UK. 

Heading to the UK? What to Say (or Not to Say)

Here are 15 common words that mean one thing in the US and something different in the UK.

This should help you become more familiar with them before you go abroad. I was lucky enough to study abroad with a program provider, Academic Programs International, who provided an orientation where we discussed these types of terms. I know I took the orientation for granted, but some of the small tweaks to my vocabulary made a big difference whether or not I sounded more like a local versus a tourist, and whether I got funny looks for what I said. I hope this helps prepare you for your adventure! 
British English: Football
American English: Soccer

While this is pretty obvious, you’ll want to be careful with this one. While professional soccer is becoming more popular in the USA, it is one of the top sports in London. While abroad, you’ll find a common theme. Most of the worlds in the King's English are very literal. So the name football comes from the fact that you use your foot on the ball. 

British English: Pants
American English: Underwear

This one surprised me a little, but in the UK, pants are referred to as underwear. So if you ever mention pants and get funny looks, now you’ll know why, but hopefully you’ll remember this tip and will mention trousers, instead. 

British English: Bum
American English: Butt

You may have heard this one in movies and on tv, but in the UK, the butt is referred to as a bum. Calling someone a bum has a totally different meaning in London, so be careful how you use it! 

British English: Biscuit
American English: Cookie

If you ever want anything sweet, just make sure to ask for a biscuit. This one is very common in restaurants, so make sure you aren’t trying to order biscuits and gravy. 

British English: Crisps
American English: Chips

This one is pretty interesting, especially as it goes along the next one. Asking for crisps is asking for (potato) chips. Once again, this one is literal, because chips become crispy when they are made.  

British English: Chips
American English: Fries

As mentioned in the previous one, chips are actually fries. The most common meal is fish and chips, aka fish and fries. Don’t forget to have some while you are there! 

British English: Boot
American English: Trunk

While not typically used often if you don’t drive, the truck of the car is referred to as the boot. 

British English: Lift
American English: Elevator 

This one was fascinating to me and something I used very often, since I lived on the 5th floor. 

British English: Flat
American English: Apartment/Dorm/Etc 

I stayed at International House in Central London. While it was a multiple floor dorm, we technically lived in a flat. While the word was almost spot on, the one difference for me was the bathroom and kitchen. In a flat, it comes with a full kitchen. Check out the next section about the bathroom. 

British English: Bathroom
American English: Shower/Tub 

So, another interesting word used literally is bathroom. This is a room with a bath/shower in it. The interesting part was there was one that was shared for our floor. That said, there are only about 5 people on the floor, but it was interesting to walk into and see literally just a shower/tub. 

British English: Loo
American English: Bathroom/Restroom

Continuing from the last one, what we call a bathroom, is called the loo in the UK. You may have heard this before. If you ask for a bathroom, you’re asking for a room with a shower/tub in it. So you can end up somewhere completely different than you expect! 

British English: First Floor
American English: Second Floor

This word can be critical if you are trying to go somewhere, so make sure you really grasp this one. In the US, we refer to the first floor as the ground floor. In the UK, the ground floor is the ground floor, so the next floor up is the first floor. Once again, this is quite literal. 

British English: Trainers
American English: Tennis Shoes

While these shoes are sometimes called trainers in the USA, they are typically called tennis shoes or athletic shoes. So, keep this in mind if the topic of shoes come up (or if you are buying some!). 

British English: Post
American English: Mail

While you may be familiar with the mail being called Royal Mail and knowing what the red Royal Mail boxes look like, but you may not realize that in the UK, the mail is called the post. It is still referred to as mailing, so the letter or item is referred to as post instead of the noun form of mail. Make sure to send a postcard home!

British English: Fag
American English: Cigarette 

This is a big one that was pointed out to us during our study abroad orientation. If someone talks about a fag, they are referring to a cigarette. In the US, this has a negative/derogatory connotation and is rarely said, while in London this is a more common term. So don’t be surprised if you hear it. 

Heading to the UK? What to Say (or Not to Say)

I hope this helps you prepare for your time abroad! English is spoken differently all around the world - there are some words that are different and worth learning before your trip. Personally, the more I could do to blend in and look/act local, the better off I was…and the more I enjoyed the experience. Really being able to immerse yourself in a culture abroad helps give you a fuller experience. 


Heather Robinette is the London Study Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators. She notes, "During the summer of 2011, I studied abroad for six weeks in London at the University of Westminster with Academics Programs International. I graduated from Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS in December 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. In May 2018, I graduated from Emporia State University in Emporia, KS with my MBA. I currently work as a marketing manager for a tech start-up in Dallas, TX. While I was abroad in London, I was able to create many unforgettable memories that I will never forget! My study abroad experience helped me gain various skills, but above all else, it helped me to learn more about myself and the world around me." You can find her online at http://www.heatherrobinette.com


Click here to read more of Heather's articles about studying abroad in London.