Post-it note of the list of words that don't work in USA

Words that do not work in the USA

It has now been over a year, 14 months infact,  since I moved to New York. During that time there have been plenty of parades, bags of bagels, several trips to Seattlewinters to freeze fountains, a collection of key incidents and various visitors (Simon, Jo, Parents,Axelle and Rich). One of the things I haven’t touched on in this blog, but will be especially familiar to those who know me over here, the language barrier. Those who have traveled or lived abroad will be familiar with the importance of learning a new language and how it can be a barrier at first.

“The language barrier?!”; I hear you yell (In British English, of course), or perhaps, “Ahh finally a post about those words you use in the UK which over complicate our language” (said in American English, of course). Whichever party you belong to, my intent here is to educate and hopefully entertain a little.

It caught me by surprise when I moved here, innocently having a conversation or dictating something then all of a sudden this look – which I am now adept at recognising (or should that be recognizing?) -would spread across the face of the other person. While I said I can recognise (I am still British and will be damned if I start using Z’s in personal writings*)  this look it has at least a couple of evolution’s depending on how often the individual has been on the receiving end of my British vocabulary.

For a virgin to Britishisms, the look can best be described as confusion meets self doubt with a sprinkling of W-T-F. For those who have been on the receiving end before, the look starts as the aforementioned but soon the W-T-F sprinkling is replaced with a heavier dose of recognition that this is “one of those words”.

To the list – this did as I have alluded to start as a Post-It stuck to my monitor at work as a way to document “Words that do not work in USA”. That Post-It has now become rather full, so I will either have to stat a new Post-It or move to something bigger. But now, without further distraction, if you’ll excuse the pun, The Foxford English/American Dictionary. Letters A – G:

Abseil – Don’t ask how this came up it’s a bit random, however there is a nice symmetry to it beginning with ‘A’ and being one of the first words I came to put on the list. Abseil as in to use a rope to descend a building or wall. This is another word where everyone I talk to has to think for a minute as to what the term used over here is. The most common alternative I’ve heard is ‘repel’.

Biscuit – Usually referred to over here as a ‘cookie’. Apparently biscuits usually refer to scones in America. Incidentally, when confirming and researching this I came upon two links of interest. The first is this other blog, written in reverse to this – An American in London (Separated by a Common Language). Within this post the blogger, Lynne Murphy, links to this study of the pronunciation of the word ‘Scone’ (I’m firmly in the scon category)

Blue Tak – admittedly a brand rather than a dictionary word, none-the-less I have been unable to find anyone familiar with it or even find a substitute for it. Sticky blue (or white sometimes) putty often used to append posters to the wall.

Conservatory – I can’t remember how this came up but I believe the American term is ‘Sunroom’. Conservatory seems to often be used interchangeably with greenhouse over here.

Duvet – now this is one of the words that I’ve had most confusion around. Some have asked though “What is a duvet?”. I think the word exists, or at least there is some familiarity with the word, even if no one has succinctly and confidently defined it for me. So to give a little story behind how I came to realize this word is one of those words it was a Sunday night. Now one of the great things about living in New York is that whatever you want you can always find it, more or less whatever time of day or day of week.

So it was a Sunday night around 8 or 9pm now don’t ask why, as I can’t remember, I decided it would be a good time to buy bedding. This must have been a week or so after I moved into my apartment and had been using a sleeping bag and an air bed. Found a Bed Bath and Beyond open till 10pm on a Sunday, so I traveled up to it – in search of duvet, duvet cover, and some extra pillows and covers. I found pillows, pillow covers and duvet covers. I then spent what felt like an eternity searching for a duvet to go in my duvet cover. At this point I came to learn that what I actually needed was a comforter and that ‘duvets’ at least are not labelled as such. I found – and find – duvet v comforter utterly confusing. Duvet covers but not duvets, comforters but not comforter covers?

Football – Enough said. I’m trying to educate the masses over here guys, really trying.

Gherkin – ‘Pickle’. It’s funny to think of the level of confusion possible here. Firstly, as a British talking to an American “I’m in a pickle” is going to be as confusing as saying “I’m in a gherkin”. Secondly, Gherkinbacks sounds like some tropical skin disease – NOT a shot of whiskey followed by a chaser of pickled cucumber juice. Lastly, though surely not exhaustive (feel free to add suggestions in the comments section) the building in London coined The Gherkin, could lead to much confusion if it was actually called The Pickle – especially in the context of the first example – “I’m The Pickle”, “You’re in a pickle, what sort of pickle?”..


I’ll continue with the rest of the letters soon..suggestions welcome..

*It’s an A to Zed, not an A to Zee