An American guide to British English for the London Olympics

In 1882, Oscar Wilde wrote about Great Britain: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."

That still rings true today.

So if you're one of the estimated 250,000 Americans going to the Olympics Games in London this summer, you might want to pack a dictionary.

For English-to-English translations.

For example, "The lorry driver taking kit to the football pitch was so knackered he pulled into the lay-by near the petrol station for a quick kip," means this in the United States, according to the Associated Press:

The truck driver delivering uniforms to the soccer field was so tired he pulled into the rest area near the gas station for a nap.


The differences are endless, from pronunciation and punctuation to spelling and slang. So here is a beginners guide to the differences between British English and American English.

When watching sports (that would be sport in England, singular not plural):

  • Track and field is called "athletics."

  • At the Olympics, you will likely spend a lot of time in line. But don't call it that. The preferred term is "queue."

  • "Torrid" has the opposite meaning for sports in England. In the U.S., if a sprinter runs a "torrid race," it means they captured gold. In Britain, it means they made it to the finish line during the medal ceremony.

  • The most obvious difference is football. Only in America does it require shoulder pads. Everywhere else it means soccer, which is played on a "pitch", not a field. The players wear "shirts" and "boots" not uniforms and cleats. Uniforms are called "kits."

[Related: London Underground map changes names of stations to Olympic athletes ]

More clothing caveats:

  • Be careful with the word "pants," because in Britain they refer to underwear. Go with "trousers" instead. Pants can also mean bad, such as "that game was pants."

  • At night, you may wear a "jumper," another word for sweater. And your jacket will be called an "anorak." Be warned -- "anorak" may also mean a geeky or obsessive person.

[Related: Queen Elizabeth II asks James Bond to open the Summer Olympics ]

When you're eating:

  • If you are served a biscuit, it will be a scone, not a cookie. Pudding means any and all desserts, not just the jiggly kind. They may also be called "afters." Be careful of blood pudding or black putting, because that is a sausage. Same goes for bangers and mash — the first of which also means sausage. If someone is cooking bangers on the "barbie" it is not a sacrificial use of the doll. It's another way of saying barbecue.

  • A "bitter" refers to beer. And your bitter is served on a "beer mat" another way of saying coaster. And you shouldn't be serving "cider" to children, since the British version generally contains more alcohol than most beers.

When it comes to appetizers and entrees, it's all mixed up. In England -- and the rest of Europe -- the entree is the appetizer, not the main course.

  • The word "cracker" moves beyond food across the pond, meaning a very good thing. "That race was a cracker!" Or it can be an adjective: "That gymnast gave a cracking floor routine."

  • When you're ready to pay in a restaurant, ask for the bill, not the check (or cheque as it's spelled…)

[Related: Ryan Seacrest will join NBC's primetime Olympic coverage ]

Everyday life …

  • To get around London, you will board the "tube," meaning the subway. The tube has "carriages" not cars, and when you board one, you will be warned to "mind the gap," the space between the carriage and the platform.

  • If someone excuses themselves to go to the bathroom, they mean that literally — they are going to take a bath. To use a restroom, ask for the "loo."

  • Expect to see a lot more of the letter "u" on signs. Instead of color, it's colour; harbor is harbour — the letter must have dropped in the Atlantic on the way over. And er is transposed to re as in centre, theatre.

  • Get ready to do some math to tell time in the afternoon, because it will be in what Americans refer to as "military time" or a 24-hour clock.

  • More math. If the subject of your weight comes up, tread carefully. The British use the word "stone" for their weight. A stone is 14 pounds.

  • If someone says to turn around "anti-clockwise" it doesn't mean they are against clocks. It means counter-clockwise.

Cheerio good chap, and good luck!