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Seperated by a Common Language.

We only mostly speak the same language. I just finished reading a thread that went a little off the rails (pun intended) over the use of the word "Chunnel" to describe taking Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel. Several people said the word "Chunnel" was not just wrong but derogatory. So, I have two questions. First does anyone know why the term "Chunnel" would be considered not just wrong or out of fashion, but insulting? Second, I think most American travelers to the U.K. know better than to call their waist pack a fanny pack, when speaking to the British, but are there any other off-color or insulting mistakes those of us from North America might make with language in Britain?

Posted by
993 posts

And my mother in law had a "Chesterfield" in her living room (lounge) not a sofa, a couch nor a davenport in sight. I think I first read "Chunnel" in a National Geographic article about the final link up. The Brits celebrating with a nice cuppa and the French with champagne. At the end of the day who cares if one calls it the chunnel as long as they're paying the money to use it. It's a cozy nick name..rather like "Buck House."

Posted by
4684 posts

The most famous one nowadays is "rubber", which in UK English means "eraser", not a contraceptive device.

Posted by
375 posts

I asked my British neighbors about the "Chunnel" issue. They said that they didn't find it insulting, but did find it a bit odd, and perhaps a little arrogant for someone to go to another country and just rename a place or thing. One neighbor said, "After all, if I went to America and called the Grand Canyon the 'Granyon', people would think it strange."

Posted by
597 posts

I don't think many Brits would react with horror to hearing the words "fanny pack". Over here, the usual name is "bum bag", which is hardly more polite. One of the differences we always forget is that Americans do not use the word "fortnight" for a period of two weeks. It is common usage in the U.K. "Pants" in the U.K. refers to underwear. Don't forget also that different parts of the U.K. have different dialects. There are many Scottish words unknown to those living in southern England. Words like crumpet, muffin and pikelet have different meanings depending on where you are. As for "Chunnel", it is not necessarily derogatory or insulting, but just not common usage. As D.D. says, the insult comes when someone not blessed enough to live in these isles deliberately uses a word to annoy the locals. That may be OK in Frisco or the Windy City, but not over here.

Posted by
1829 posts

Although not strictly a language problem, the habit of truncating place names is very likely to lead to confusion. Eg when in London asking for directions to Liverpool Station (Liverpool St Station) or Shaftesbury (Shaftesbury Avenue) when both are also the names of places located some distance from London. Further, names are reused over and over again eg the name Addison is used over 20 times in London and is attached to road, avenue, close, crescent, terrace, gardens etc

Posted by
2664 posts

I feel that it's important to be respectful to call things their proper name...as Eurostar~~not chunnel.....and Afternoon Tea~not High tea (which is an evening meal).

Posted by
8293 posts

My problem with the word "chunnel" is that it sounds like baby talk and I would feel very silly using it. Eurostar, on the other hand, has a very adult even glamorous ring to it. I'd much rather be heard saying "We took the Eurostar" than "We took the chunnel train". (I know this debate will never end but continue to live in hope.)

Posted by
9110 posts

"When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean" - - Humpty Dumpty.

Posted by
209 posts

I agree it would be rude for Americans to invent a word for an English institution and then insist upon using that word rather than the one the English use. But, I first learned the word "chunnel" from the BBC News and World Report in the early 1980s. The BBC continued to nickname it the chunnel with some regularity through the 1990s. After the fire in 1996, the channel tunnel dropped out of the news here in the U.S. In fairness, I don't think I've ever seen the British press refer to the train service Eurostar as the chunnel, just the actual tunnel through which it runs. A quick goggle search reveals continued British press usage of the term chunnel through about 2007, though usually only in the headlines and captions, but not the main articles. So, I don't think it's presumptuous Americans who've named British and French engineering projects so much as Americans like me who haven't been paying attention to language usage changes. Not surprising really. Bear with us, we will learn. I think most of us have good intentions and I do agree, once we know the correct term, we should use it.

Posted by
28113 posts

Several people said the word "Chunnel" was not just wrong but derogatory. I didn't see where it was called derogatory but I did see where when someone has been told the correct term it would be arrogant to insist on the wrong term. I also saw a degree of childish bold font to try to rub it in. So much childishness that I think I may give the board a break for a while. bye

Posted by
571 posts

I own a fun little "British-American/American-British dictionary" that not only "translates" the words into the other language, but also tells some funny anecdotes. Like the Briton teaching in America who told her students to always have a rubber because anyone can make a mistake.
Or the first British edition of Dr. Spock's baby book that shocked people by recommending ing a pin into the nipple if baby wasn't feeding well. (Apparently "nipple" isn't used to mean the nub of a feeding bottle.) As for myself, I've seen a couple of incidents of confusion, such as napkin vs. serviette (diaper vs. napkin) though perhaps that's old now? The most serious involved a three letter word beginning with F that has several British meanings, including cigarette, but is offense enough here in the USA that I choose not to write it out.

Posted by
209 posts

Our daughters have each in secession had a British English teacher who "mistakenly" refers to erasers as rubbers sometime during the first couple of days of class. As he's been making this mistake three times a day in early September for the last ten years or so, I assume it's a kind of joke. His classes take it that way. It's classic Junior High humor anyway. We don't generally sit on our bums in the U.S. Having adopted the word homeless instead, we provide them temporary housing and avoid sitting on their prostrate bodies, even if they are sprawled across a public bench. After all, they are part of the public. I recently had a British person correct me on line about a reference to the Bureau of Indian Affairs-surely I didn't mean a chest of drawers. I explained that just like cabinet, bureau also means agency or department as in the FBI. The funny thing is, I think we got the usage from the British pre 1776. It's just that we hung on to it. In some parts of the U.S. we still put our clothes in bureaus, though not in the FBI. FBI agents, as far as I know, have no uniform and always travel plain-clothes, if suits can be called plain. Colonies generally tend to hang on to old words longer than the mother country. Our Mother Goose still includes Sing a Song a Sixpence despite the current lack of sixpences. The confusing thing to me in Britain is dates. Take 6-5-2012. Is that May 6th or June 5th? If I'm in the U.S. or Britain I know the answer. If I'm on a British internet site aimed at Americans I'm not so sure.

Posted by
209 posts

Numerous British/American dictionaries puzzle me. They tell me that a sofa is a couch or divan, or perhaps that a couch is a sofa, I forget which. All are common usage in the U.S. except divan which is widely used in the East and understood most places. Drapes and curtains mean the same thing here. Which we use might hint at where we or our parents come from, but you won't confuse us with either word. Food is more puzzling. Courgettes or zucchini? What is hock anyway? Yes that's a real question.

Posted by
3580 posts

When I was growing up in the midwest, we had a davenport in our living room. Not a sofa or couch.

Posted by
11292 posts

The one that is not "famous" or usually listed in travel books that got me was "scheme." In the US, a "scheme" is always something shady and possibly illegal. Thus, when I heard about Britain's "tax free export scheme" I assumed the worst. It turns out that in UK English, "scheme" need not have a negative connotation, and is a neutral word. The phrase merely referred to a totally legal and above-board VAT refund. In America, this would NEVER be called a "scheme." The use of terms like "courgettes," "serviette," and "aubergine" threw me at first too. In the US, since these words don't exist in standard usage, the listener will either have not idea what is meant (if they don't speak French) or will think the speaker unbearably pretentious (if they do know French). And then there's "rocket salad"; luckily I first encountered this phrase in Italy, and knew the Italian word "rucola," or I still wouldn't know that my salad wasn't airborne; it's Britspeak for "arugula." I don't think more than one American in a hundred (who hasn't been to Britain, that is) would have the slightest idea why "fanny pack" is so rude in the UK. It's certainly not like "lift/elevator" or "flat/apartment," where both words in the pair are pretty widely known on both sides of the Atlantic, even though only one is used on each side. The one that got my sister when she spent a semester in London was "taking the piss." She had no idea what that meant (at first) and emphasized that English people used it ALL THE TIME - far more than phrases we think of as "typically English," which they used either rarely or not at all.

Posted by
11450 posts

I had no idea what was wrong with the term "fanny pack " until I came on this forum.. once I was told, I stopped referring to the waist pack as a "fanny pack". It seemed like a simple thing to do .. And I do not think the term "chunnel" is derogatory, I think using a term in arrogance even after being told it is a term that is not favored or used by locals is being derogatory. BTW,, "Chunnel" is not even the train, the "Chunnel" is the merging of the words "channel" and "tunnel" so was used more in the beginning when the actual tunnel was being built. So using the term "chunnel" as in how much is the chunnel to Paris or London" or " we want to take the Chunnel to Paris" doesn't make much sense anyways, you could say " we want to take the Eurostar through the Chunnel " ,, it may not be a great way to say it, but at least it makes sence. I get confused in UK with terms dinner, lunch and supper,, but I just go with what people tell me.. it doesn't bother me at all to have to change the way I refer to things.

Posted by
209 posts

Actually I know a whole bunch of the common ones through English Novels: jumper-sweater; biscuit-cookie; ground floor-first floor; pissed-drunk; arse-ass; chemist-drug store; don-professor; flat-apartment; let or hire-rent; and so on. My husband had a year at Oxford University College and knows many more and more modern ones at that. The British/American dictionaries amuse me because they so often report words commonly used in the U.S. as British only and proceed to define them as reveled wisdom. I suspect dictionaries for Brits coming here make similar mistakes. Chunnel surprised me because of the vehemence on the other thread, and because I first heard the term on the BBC News and World Report. I never heard the bullet train referred to as the Channel, just the actual tunnel under the channel. Usually, differences in usage appear funny rather than insulting.

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4684 posts

Hock is an old British term for German white wine. Not used much now, but it still appears on the labels of some very cheap and nasty wines you get in supermarkets.

Posted by
15045 posts

On my first visit to London, I was invited to someone's home. I promptly insulted her with a compliment on her beautiful front yard. She was most affronted and said her garden was NOT a yard. Back in the Midwest, every house had front and back yards, which may or may not have contained a smaller area with a flower or vegetable garden. The next day I went to a bakery and then it really hit me that I didn't speak the language. I had no idea what to call anything, I could just point and say "one of those, please." I worked with an English girl who would turn bright red every time we had to send out the monthly mailing by stuffing all the envelopes. I still don't know the British expression but I did learn about getting stuffed. And I've met more than one Brit parent here who sent her children to an "English-speaking" pre-school to preserve the kids' English - but ended up with American-speaking offspring.

Posted by
1829 posts

Chani - the probable reason your hostess was insulted is that the word yard was/is associated with the small terrace (row?) houses built for the workers in industrial towns. The yards were small, concreted over and had space to hang washing out to dry and also, if they were lucky enough to have a private one, contained the outdoor lavatory. It is also used for land attached to commercial premises

Posted by
251 posts

I'm reminded of one episode of "I Love Lucy" when Ricky, Lucy, Ethel and Fred were in London. Lucy and Ethel were standing next to an English gentlemen who was talking nonstop to them and Ethel had this puzzled look on her face and replied, "I'm sorry. I'm an American - I don't speak English." That always made me laugh, but it's so true in many ways!

Posted by
2989 posts

How about the Austin Powers movies when the comedian Michael Myers is always using the term "shag"? To Americans, it means (a.) a womens' haircut from the 1970's, such as Farrah Fawcett's, or (b.) a dance done on the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts in beach clubs to the sound of 1950's, 60's and 70's music. How did it become a word for "you know what" in England? And what does the term "bugger" actually mean, as used by Hugh Grant every time he is late for a wedding, in "Four Weddings And A Funeral"? Obviously, he's using it as a curse word; but is it actually a profanity? I certainly won't ever say it when I'm in England.

Posted by
209 posts

I know what bugger means in America and I suspect it means the same in England. You don't want to say it. It has to do with that infamous you no what but through the back door and I don't mean Europe Through the Back Door.

Posted by
11450 posts

"shag" still reminds me of the carpet my mom got in the 70's a hideous burnt orange ,, and it came with a RAKE,, lol

Posted by
251 posts

I have learned so much reading these posts! We are going to England/Scotland in September and will be meeting for the first time distant English cousins. I know in her letters she refers to her "back yard" as their garden. Seeing her pictures, it is truly a garden. So I told my my husband not to say "you have a beautiful back yard" - say "garden". I guess anything with grass and flowers is a garden??? ... and the term "bugger" - oops, sure didn't know that one!! Thanks, Jenny, for starting this thread. It's invaluable!

Posted by
3428 posts

Some I just remembered-: 'Fairy cakes'. What we in America call cup cakes. And abuerguine is egg plant. Pies are seldom the sweet dessert we know here- they are usually main dishes (think chicken pot pie). Puddings are ANY kind of dessert- not just the chocolate 'stuff' jello makes. And desserts are also know as afters. And jelly is not to be put on toast- it is what we call jello! The stuff for your toast is jam or preserves or marmalade. Ice lollies are popscicles.
Cornet or Cornetos are ice cream cones.

Posted by
209 posts

Food was an adventure my first trip to the U.K. Primarily the problem was thinking I knew what I was ordering, when I didn't. I ordered chicken salad. What I expected was bite sized chicken meat in a mayonnaise or other dressing on a bed of lettuce. What I got was a small whole rotisserie chicken. It tasted great. I ordered a hamburger in a pub in Wales. I expected a meat patty between two buns. I got the meat patty. . . . Given another chance I would have ordered something else. Stuffed roll sounded very good. I expected bread coiled around a stuffing an baked. What I got? A small sandwich. Not bad, just not what I expected. Sandwiches. I expect mustard and mayo. I got butter. Not bad, just not what I expected. I'm sure I'll have more adventures this year.

Posted by
6470 posts

Different countries, different meanings. Without filters: Sod off = get lost Fag = cigarettes Rubbers =erasers Fizzy drink = soda pop Arse = buttocks Banger = sausage Snogging = French kissing Argy-Bargy = an argument or pushing and shoving Smalls = underpants Arse ove tit = head over heels Barrister = attorney who argues in both high and lower courts Solicitor = lawyer French letter = condom Cuppa = cup of tea, never coffee or other beverage Sweets = Candy Loo = bathroom Throw a Wobbly = have a fit Gutties = running shoes Trainers = sneakers Grotty= dirty Gobsmacked = amazed Spotted Dick = a pudding of sorts with currants Spot on = exactly
Toff = member of the upperclass

Posted by
11450 posts

yes,, puddings threw me,, I always thought gosh they eat at lot of "pudding" not realizing for awhile it meant dessert of any type.

Posted by
375 posts

As an American living here in the UK, I am pretty well used to the language differences by now, but when I first arrived I had some confusing moments. I remember being confused by the word "pavement", which here means "sidewalk", and not street. As I was walking downtown a construction worker directed me to please "step off the pavement" and so I walked right on the sidewalk in his way where he didn't want me to be. The term "estate" is used a lot as well, meaning a housing development or area. I heard a lot of people say, for instance, "She lives in my estate", or "here are the directions to my estate". I envisioned a large manor house with grounds, but no, it just means the neighborhood with lots of little houses in it. It goes both ways. I still get a lot of amused looks when speaking to people, so I figure I must have said something odd-sounding to them, but I'm usually not sure what.

Posted by
4684 posts

Raising the first and second fingers with the palm pointed away from your body is "victory" in the UK, well known from Winston Churchill (not "peace" as in the USA). With the palm towards your body it means the same as a middle finger in the USA. Nobody quite knows why, legends about medieval archers mocking the French are probably wrong. But it really amused everyone in the UK when a supposedly-British character using the palm-back version made it into the opening credits of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for several years.

Posted by
209 posts

Phillip, If you mean Spike (platinum blond gangster punk vampire) the show got it right. He was was giving someone the finger. That character would never use V for victory. Not that I'd vouch for his accent.

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4684 posts

His accent was pretty dodgy at times. Not as bad as Drusilla's though...

Posted by
209 posts

Whether Hollywood gets British accents right or wrong (I suspect mostly wrong) it does strange things with them. Ancient Romans (usually portrayed as evil oppressors) and Nazis tend to speak in upper class British accents (or at least they attempt to) the later being rather ironic. But when British characters are portrayed in the U.S., it's the good guys that have upper class accents and the bad guys who speak something intended to be Cockney or Liverpool. Spike's accent changes when he gets a soul to match his new moral status. Very odd. Actually, since they're supposed have been the U.S. since The Boxer Rebellion, it's odd Spike and Drusilla still have accents at all let alone ones intended to be modern. I hope you all find it funny rather than distressing over there.

Posted by
5669 posts

One of the words that gets used in a particularly British way is "sorted" and they are not referring to your sock drawer! The British sort an amazing amount of things including people and saying that you're going to get such and such a problem sorted can be very satisfying. I also like the phrase "bits and bobs" as it used in so many ways. It doesn't necessarily mean things. I was in a meeting earlier this week where we were launching a textbook and the editor said, "Now that we've gone over the bits and bobs, let's look at the big issue." It's a very useful phrase! And then there is a whole separate discussion that can be had on the word sorry and how much the British mean it when they say it. ; ) Just check out how many times Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson end up saying it during one of their challenges on Top Gear. Do we really think Jeremy Clarkson is ever really sorry? Pam

Posted by
597 posts

The British say "Sorry" when someone steps on their foot.

Posted by
425 posts

"Chunnel" is a word that (as I remember) was invented by the media during the time that the channel tunnel was being built. At that time, 20 years ago, I was working near there, in Kent, and that was used as a general term for the construction. Nowadays, you won't hear anyone using it as it would then require clarification, i.e. which service. Those not familiar with the tunnel may not realise that there are TWO types of train operating between England and France. Eurostar, which is a purely passenger service, mainly used between the capital cities and the "shuttle" which takes vehicles on the short "hop" under the water between the terminals near the coast. I've used both, and MUCH prefer them to flying that route. Roger

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425 posts

Look forward to when you pre-book a taxi and he tells you he will come round and knock you up at the agreed time! :-)

Posted by
192 posts

sigh After reading all of these, I am not only nervous about saying anything in England, I may never speak in the USA again, either! :) I say "bugger" a lot, as in "that little bugger/booger", referring to a naughty kid (not goat, but child) in school. Lots of teachers use it that way. I don't know what it means otherwise and I'm not sure I want to look it up. When I was a kid (child, not goat), "rubbers" were what you wore on your feet when it rained. Everybody had a front/back yard. "Soda" was anything carbinated, and "Pepsi" meant anything nonalcoholic to drink...could be a real Pepsi, could be a milkshake. "Pop" was your male parent, or what your brother did to you when he could get away with it"Hey, Ma, Johnny popped me on the shoulder again!"
Depends on where you grew up, and in which decade. I am now confused and am going to lie/lay down and take a nap.

Posted by
209 posts

Margaret, I wouldn't worry. Curses in other languages often sound cute. Get someone to translate some Yiddish ones and you might faint. Seriously, several trips to England and a few British friends here and nothing horrible has yet to happen. Mostly, we just understand that we sometimes are missing something. If the polite smiling woman at the ticket counter says something untoward she probably didn't mean to. If you say something that provokes a blush or a frown where you didn't expect one say it again in different words. It'll be just fine. But I do find the differences fun.

Posted by
993 posts

So, Roger, What you are saying is that in your memory the word Chunnel that started this whole thread was not made up by an American? Things that make you go hmmmmm....

Posted by
1316 posts

The other all purpose English word is 'Cheers'. I must use it at least a dozen times a day when having a drink (as a toast meaning good health), when someone passes me something (meaning thank you) and when leaving someone (meaning goodbye.) And then there are place names. Listening to William Shatner mangling names such as Marylebone on the UK quiz show 'Have I News for You' last week was a treat. (I suspect he was playing it up for effect. Or should that be hamming it up?) Accents, of course, are another thing. When I lived in Manhattan and said I was from England various people responded by saying 'oh yes, I thought you had a Boston accent'. Alan