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As the playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed, the United States and United Kingdom are ‘two countries divided by a common language’. Oscar Wilde agreed: ‘We have really everything in common with the United States nowadays, except, of course, the language.’
It is in spoken rather than written English where there are the most differences, as written English is generally more formal and known as ‘standard English’. Since the arrival of the English language in the Americas some 400 years ago, there have been many changes on both sides of the pond. Today, there are differences in everything from pronunciation to vocabulary. Some words are only used in one of the two dialects.
New words were coined in the 19th century to the mid 20th century in both countries, independently from each other. This explains, for example, why most of the vocabularies for the car and railway industries are different, such as ‘lorry’ and ‘truck’, ‘sidewalk’ and ‘pavement’.
If you were a child in the UK, you would go to nursery and then primary school. If you were a child in the US, you’d go to preschool and then kindergarten and elementary school. Later on, you’d go to secondary school or middle school and high school. British schools are run by head teachers; American schools are run by principals.
Politics is different, too. In America, political candidates run for office. In Britain, they stand for election. Neither country ever uses the other’s term.
Most Brits and Americans are at least somewhat familiar with each other’s words through their interest in popular culture – television programmes, films and media - as well as travel and learning about history and language at school. In the UK, we have lots of American shows on television and go to see their ‘movies’ (‘films’ to us!) – we know that their football is American football, and that our football is their soccer.
However, in the past, the differences in the two dialects have caused problems. Winston Churchill said that the different meanings of the verb ‘to table’ caused a misunderstanding during a meeting of the Allied forces. In British English, to table an item on an agenda means to open it up for discussion. In American English, it means to remove it from discussion.
Even today, some differences in use and meaning can cause embarrassment. The American English word ‘fag’ is an offensive term for a gay man. In British English, it is a normal (slightly vulgar) word for a cigarette. In American English, the word ‘pissed’ means annoyed. In British English, it is a slightly vulgar word for being drunk! And American ‘pants’ are British trousers – British pants are underwear! But it is rare that anyone is offended – it’s normally just funny!
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