n bent bit of wire intended to collect radio waves for your computer, television or some such device. The manufacturers don’t call them bent bits of wire. Their marketing chaps have many fancy words like “impedance” and “gain,” but back at the factory all the guys are just bending wire. Americans call these devices “antennas,” though aerial is in limited use in the U.S., too.
n range. A large cooking stove with heavy metal doors, almost large enough to fit a small person (Aga is a brand name). This type of stove is a little dated now, but they were very popular with middle-class families in the mid-20th century.
n device plugged into the telephone which answers it for you when you’re out, playing an oh-so-hilarious message that you got from the internet, recorded from Seinfeld or made up yourself whilst plastered and forgot about. Americans call them “answering machines,” which has become more common than “answerphone” in the U.K. nowadays.
n coaster. In the sense of a coaster you put your drink onto, not a roller-coaster.
n trashcan. This is simply a contraction of “dustbin” (which means the same thing, to save you going and looking it up). wheelie bin a bin on wheels. Normally refers to bins provided and emptied by the local council. bin bags garbage bags. The plastic bags one puts in the bin.
n ball-point pen. Named after Hungarian journalist Ladislo Biro, who invented it. It’s slipped into the common vernacular in the U.K. and the rest of Europe as a generic word for a ball-point pen.
n telephone: just a second, I’m on the blower. Yes, it sounds a bit rude. May stem from the days of party telephone lines, where people would blow into the mouthpiece in order to gently remind whoever was using the line that you wanted to too. Alternately, it may originate with the navy, where intra-ship communications operated using a similar system.
n five-pence piece. Before the U.K.’s currency system was decimalised in 1971 and became simply “pounds and pence,” the Brits had “pounds, shillings and pence.” Like all crappy Imperial measures there wasn’t ten or a hundred of anything in anything and good riddance to the lot of it. In order to work out how to pay for anything you had to be able to divide by sixteen and nine tenths, subtracting room temperature. A “bob” was a shilling, and these days it’s still vaguely recognised as meaning five pence. Only vaguely, though.
n parentheses. The things that Americans call “brackets” [these ones], Brits know better as “square brackets.”
n broom. Brits use the word “broom” too (they don’t talk about witches flying on brushsticks), but not as often.
n dresser. Just so that one single device can have not one, but two slightly illogical names.
n hard, deep-buttoned leather sofa. The sort of thing you could imagine Sherlock Holmes sitting in.
n (ah, how to describe these…) bit of fancily-coloured paper wrapped much like a lozenge, with twisted ends. A small sort of explosive device is put inside a cracker so that when two people pull at alternate ends, the whole thing comes apart with a snapping noise and — ah, the joy — a small piece of trinket crap falls out. This will be something like an ineffectual miniature sewing kit, a set of blunt nail clippers or one of these mysterious “get the bits of metal apart” puzzles, which will cause some degree of interest from the surrounding family until someone realises it’s very easy to get them apart because it was made in China and came out of the factory bent. As the name suggests, these are mainly used at Christmas but sometimes pop up at birthday parties and the like.
n machine that does the actual cooking of your food. While this is a peculiarly British term, “oven” is used both in the U.K. and the U.S. to mean exactly the same thing.
n cooler. The device one carries to picnics and uses to keep cold things cold: Was there a particular reason why you put the biscuits in the cool box and left the beer in the sun?
n crib. Americans call a sort of frame camp bed a “cot.” Brits don’t. I’d say they just called it a “camp bed,” as God intended. I’m guessing that he intended that. The Bible is fairly ambiguous about which day God chose to create camp beds.
n cotton swabs, or “Q-Tips.” When I came back from Tenerife with an ear infection I deduced had come from swimming in the sea, I got a telling-off from the doctor for attempting to cure myself with the aid of some cotton buds. According to the doctor, you should “never put anything at all into your ear smaller than your elbow.” Medical advice dispensed here at no extra cost.
n cotton ball — the little furry blob that women use to remove makeup and men use to clean inlet manifolds.
n résumé. C.V. stands for the Latin curriculum vitae, “life’s work.” Brits don’t use “résumé” at all. In North America the term “C.V.” is sometimes used to refer to a fairly regimented timeline of academic achievement.
n decorative wooden track that some people think is nice to have around walls at the height of a chair back. Those people are blithering morons. Brits also know such a thing as a “dado rail;” Americans call it “wainscoating” or “chair rail.” It is, perhaps fittingly, more popular in mobile homes than in normal homes. To confuse things slightly, a dado to an American carpenter is a slot in a piece of wood (usually for fitting shelves or cabinets) which Brits call a “rebate” or “housing.”
n stubbed-out end of a cigarette. More commonly Brits use the international term “butt.”
n money. A fairly London-based term until being popularised by the Harry Enfield pop song “Loadsamoney.”
n pron. “draft” the flap inside the chimney of an open fire which you can open or close to allow more or less air into the hearth. Americans know it better as a “damper,” which is a part of car suspension in the U.K.
n thumb-tack. A pin with a fairly large flat head. So called because they were once used to draw blood during satanic rituals. I just guessed that one, it might be wrong.
1 n pacifier. One of those teat-things you put in babies’ mouths to stop them crying. 2 idiot (universal); mannequin (universal).
n comforter. In the U.K. one sleeps on top of a sheet and directly under the duvet – Brits do not layer sheets underneath it.
1 n cigarette. In very widespread use. One of the most amusing emails I’ve had concerning this word was from an American who had arrived at her company’s U.K. offices to be told that the person she was looking for was “outside blowing a fag.” 2 n first year senior-school kids who have to perform menial tasks (cleaning boots, running errands and the like) for the seniors (slightly antiquated). Another email tells me of a man who was met with aghast looks when he told a group of New Yorkers that he “was a fag at school last year.” Modern thinking on slavery has seen that the practice of fagging all but die out.
n Christmas lights. I’d like to describe these by reading from an entry in a fictional encyclopaedia for aliens: Human beings celebrate Christmas by cutting the top off a tree, moving it to a pot in their living room, covering it with small electrical lights and standing a small model of a woman on its tip. As it dies, they drink alcohol, sing to it and give it gifts.
1 n slightly old-fashioned homonym for “face-cloth,” which is in turn a British term which means “washcloth.” Hope that’s cleared that one up. 2 n nonsense; drivel: I watched the Prime Minister’s statement on telly this morning but it was just a bunch of flannel.
n period. The little dot at the end of a sentence, not the part of the menstrual cycle. Brits also use full stop for emphasis the same way that Americans use “period”: And I says to him, I’m not putting up with this any more, full stop.
n C-clamp. I’d say they look more like ‘G’s. If you’ve no idea what any of this means, don’t worry your pretty little head about it.
n duct tape. Sort of. The heavy, slightly meshed sticky tape used to silence potential murder victims and to reliably and effectively attach small animals to tables. Unlike duct tape, gaffer tape is designed not to melt onto things, and is used extensively in the theatre and film industry. Probably derived from the fact that the Gaffer is the chief electrician on a film set.
n textbook. A very antiquated term – would be met with blank stares by most schoolchildren these days. Can’t think of anything witty to add. If you’re sitting there working on a “grammar / grandma” joke, please don’t. Whatever it was, my father has probably already used it.
n carry-on baggage. Belongings you are intending carrying into an aeroplane rather than checking into the hold.
n rangetop; stovetop. The top bit of a cooker with the burners on it, where you put pans and things.
n ATM. The term derives from a time many years ago when these devices were nothing more than holes in walls, stocked carefully in the mornings by bank employees. Next to the hole was a notepad, upon which customers wrote their names and the amounts of money they had taken. After some years it became apparent that the system was open to a degree of abuse, and a more elaborate one was invented to replace it. This is not true. Brits do not use the American definition of “hole in the wall” to mean a very small store or food vendor. Of course, this might not be true either. You’ve no way of working out whether to trust me or not now.
n vacuum cleaner. –ing v vacuuming. The Hoover Company was an early manufacturer of vacuum cleaners, though originally they were invented by a company called British Vacuumation. Where are they now? They could have cleaned up. Sorry.
n police car. Also “jam butty.” So called because they are white, with a red stripe down the middle, and therefore are almost indistinguishable from a twelve-foot metal jam sandwich.
n paper towel. The disposable paper cloth, much akin to a larger, stronger version of toilet paper, that one generally keeps in the kitchen and uses to mop up bits of food and drink that have been inadvertently thrown around. So called, I’d imagine, because Brits keep it in the kitchen and it comes on a roll. Americans call it “paper towel,” no doubt because it’s made of paper and works like a towel.
n elevator. The word derives from when the devices were once called “lifting rooms.”
n 1 money. 2 ice- popsicle. A sort of frozen sugary flavoured lump wrapped around a small bit of wood and designed specifically to drip all down your front as it defrosts.
n 1 one of those fiendishly complicated wrench-type devices which can have its tension adjusted by means of a screw on the handle end. Americans know them better as “vise grips,” but it’s probably safe to say that if you don’t know what I’m talking about on either score then you are not going to live life at a great deficit. 2 popular sexual position. This is a joke.
n pocket knife. A small retractable knife, often with several handy fold-out accoutrements for getting into alcoholic beverages and removing girl scouts from horses’ hooves.
n Plexiglas. A sort of plastic equivalent of glass. Perspex is a brand name of the acrylic company Lucite. Their advertising literature probably has all sorts of fancy terms in it about covalent bonds and stress ratings, and perhaps doesn’t even use the phrase “a sort of plastic equivalent of glass.” Unless maybe they have a layman’s FAQ at the end.
n phone booth. One of those boxes with a telephone in it that used to be commonplace but are dying out somewhat now that everyone has a mobile phone. The government still erect a few to give errant youths have something to vandalise in the long winter evenings and prostitutes somewhere to advertise. Of course, they all do that via email now.
n modeling clay. It’s a particular brand in the U.K. but no Brit will ever have heard of any others.
n a sort of prefabricated hut, most often used as temporary offices on a building-site. A portable cabin, if you will. Portakabin is a U.K. trademark.
n baby carriage. An abbreviation for the rather Victorian and now largely unused term “perambulator.”
n baby buggy; stroller. A device in which a small child is pushed along by an obliging parent. The American term “buggy” is squeezing its way into everyday use in the U.K.
n moly bolt. If you don’t know what either of these things is, rest assured that your life may continue.
n eraser. Be very, very careful. Limeys visiting the United States are urged by the government to write this translation on the back of their hands and not to wash until they leave.
n, v, adj junk. While Americans have junkyards and put junk on junk-heaps, Brits have scrapyards and scrap-heaps, upon which they put scrap.
n Scotch tape. Sellotape (a contraction of “cellophane tape”) is the name of the largest manufacturer of sticky tape in the U.K.
n pre-decimalisation U.K. unit of currency – worth a twentieth of a pound, which was then twelve pence.
n dumpster. It’s odd that something as revolting should develop such a pleasant name. The dumpster was invented by a man called Skip Mandible. This is a lie.
n baseboard. The little wooden bit of edging that goes around the bottom of the walls in your house so that when you stub your toe you don’t put your foot through the plasterboard.
n speed-bump. The name probably derives from a time when narcoleptic policemen were employed to slow down traffic.
n bar of soap. To a Brit, soap is specifically the soap you use to wash yourself in the bath, not something you’d use to wash clothes or dishes.
1 n wrench. 2 adj A very mild friendly insult: Bob’ll be a bit late; the spanner left his phone in a taxi.
n training wheels. The little extra set of wheels that your parents put on your bicycle to stop you from falling off all the time when you’re learning to ride. My parents never got any… I think they secretly enjoyed watching me injure myself in the name of learning.
n box cutter. The small retractable knives used for cutting up cardboard boxes and hijacking aircraft. In the U.K., these are mostly manufactured by a company called Stanley. The knives, not aircraft.
n Weed-Whacker. A gardening device held at waist level, with a piece of nylon cord near the ground which whips around to slice the stems of errant plants and the toenails of inebriated pensioners.
n public address system. The odd name derives rather simply from the fact that a company called Tannoy were among the more prominent early developers of such a device.
n dish-towel; dish-cloth. The thing you use to dry the dishes if you don’t have a dishwasher. It’s my belief that dishwashers are the most important invention of the twentieth century. Perhaps it’ll be your belief too, now.
n TV. The term “TV” is well used and understood in the U.K., but telly is more common.
n cash register. The device at the checkout of a shop upon which the assistant works out how much you have to pay, and which contains the money paid by other customers. That has to be the most long-winded and hapless definition I’ve written lately. The word “till” is used in the U.S. but refers to the removable drawer tray in the machine, not the whole device.
n whiteout; Liquid Paper. You know, the stuff that you use to paint over mistakes you’ve made on bits of paper. The stuff that smells good. Fuck, that’s good. Look at the pretty colours. Who wants popcorn?
1 n flashlight. The word originally referred to real burning torches and so … 2 v …has also developed into a verb meaning “to set fire to”: Diego’s mate fucked us over with the DVD deal so we torched the place.
n 1 shopping cart. The device in which you put your shopping while going around the supermarket. 2 refreshment cart, as seen on trains, planes, in offices and such like. What Americans call “trolleys,” the Brits call “trams.”
n The baton used by policemen to quieten down rowdy charges. The Brits still have sticks, whilst many American police forces have replaced them with unusually heavy flashlights.
1 n VCR: I left it in the living room sitting on top of the video. And yes, they do call the tapes “videos” too. These days the general concept of a video tape is fading into the distant past as DVD takes over. Perhaps eventually I’ll remove this. 2 v record onto videotape: Mary and I spent the weekend videoing the neighbours copulating.
n toilet. A currently-used acronym which stands for the not-so-currently used term “water closet.” This term stems from a time early in toilet development when they were nothing more than a carefully waterproofed cupboard filled halfway up with seawater. Not to be confused with a “W.P.C.” (Woman Police Constable).
n Z. The letter that the Americans pronounce “zee,” the Brits pronounce “zed.” Products with the super-snappy prefix “EZ” added to their names don’t tend do quite so well in the U.K. And yes, this does mean that British schoolchildren never hear the “alphabet song” that ends “now I know my A-B-C / next time won’t you sing with me?” as it relies somewhat on the G / P / V / Z rhyme. Perhaps G, P and V could be renamed “ged,” “ped” and “ved” in order to adopt it. I might write to the education minister saying as much.