In the United States, United Kingdom and most of their former territories, English is the main language. However, there are some significant differences in spelling and word usage among the British influenced varieties (also called Commonwealth English) and US English. This article discusses some of these differences that may be useful for travellers to know.
Usage by countries
Commonwealth English is the most important language variety in Australia, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, the Cook Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guernsey, Ireland, Jamaica, Isle of Man, Jersey, Malta, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Turks and Caicos Islands and the United Kingdom.
It is widely used, especially by the educated elite and is an officially used language in Botswana, Cameroon, Eritrea, Fiji, the Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, South Africa, Southern Sudan, the Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu and Uganda, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It is not an official language, nor the most important language, but is widely used by the educated elite in Malaysia, Brunei and Cyprus.
It is usually the Commonwealth variety of English that tends to be taught in European schools and a widespread and high degree of English fluency has been achieved in such countries as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland - especially in those under 60. However, US spell checkers have had a deleterious effect in the last 10 years.
US English dominates in the United States of America, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Philippines.
It is not an official language, nor the most important language, but when used by the educated elite, US spelling predominates in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Canada uses a mixture of British English rules for spelling and US English for vocabulary and many idioms.
In all countries where English is used there are variations in vocabulary and usage that are peculiar to that country.
US - Commonwealth
airplane - aeroplane
analog - analogue
armor - armour
center - centre
check - cheque
color - colour
dispatch - despatch
gram - gramme
license - licence
liter - litre
meter - metre
inquire - enquire
offense - offence
practice - practise
program - programme
theater - theatre
The American live theatrical community generally uses "theatre" to describe its art form.
tire - tyre
US - Commonwealth
anesthesiologist – anaesthetist
In US English, "anesthetist" often refers to a nurse who is specially trained to administer anesthesia under a doctor's supervision.
apartment – flat
The word "apartment" is used in Commonwealth English, but specifically for rented luxury housing units in larger or historic buildings.
Asian (people) – East Asian; (less often) Oriental; or a nationality-based term; in the UK census, the term is "Chinese or Other".
ass/buttocks/fanny - Bum/bottom/arse
American: Generic term for sport. By extension, "athlete" refers to any sportsperson.
British: Sport consisting of track and field, cross country running, road running, and race walking. An "athlete" is a person who participates in this specific sport.
ATM - Cash point/cash machine/Hole-in-the-wall
attorney/lawyer - barrister (or advocate in Scotland)/solicitor (UK-wide)
The US English terms "attorney" and "lawyer" are interchangeable, but the corresponding Commonwealth English terms are not. The legal professions in the two countries are fundamentally different. In the UK, clients generally deal directly with solicitors, who provide legal advice and can represent their clients in lower courts. Barristers, titled advocates in Scotland, are specifically trained in trial advocacy, and are usually hired by solicitors to appear in higher courts, draft pleadings, and provide more specific advice on a given case. Historically, only barristers/advocates could appear before all courts; today, solicitors who receive additional special training can appear in the same courts as solicitor advocates. By contrast, the U.S. has a "fused" legal profession; the functions that are divided between two different classes of professionals in the UK are all part of a single profession in the U.S.
bangs (hair arrangement) – fringe
bill (money) - bank note
biweekly - fortnightly
a fortnight is a period of two weeks
call (verb form) - ring
carry-on bag - hand luggage
cash register - till
cell phone - mobile phone
check (in a restaurant) - bill
chips (snack food) - crisps
In US English, a circus pertains to a group of performers that do amazing stunts, usually with animals
In Commonwealth English, this word pretty much refers to an intersection in the shape of a circular road in a city (US English: "traffic circle")
closet - cupboard (room)
construction zone (road) – roadworks
cookies - biscuits
cot – camp bed
counter-clockwise - anti-clockwise
course (post-secondary education) – module
In Commonwealth English, the word "course" in this context refers to the entire program of study leading to a degree.
crib (infant bed) – cot
day care – crèche
In US English, "crèche" refers to a nativity scene (i.e., relating to the birth of Jesus).
diaper - nappy
driver's license - driving licence
drug store - pharmacy/chemist ("pharmacy" is also widely used in US English)
drunk driving – drink driving
The associated legal terms are also different—US English DUI/DWI (driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated); Commonwealth English DIC (drunk in charge of a motor vehicle) or "driving with excess alcohol".
eggplant - aubergine
elevator - lift
expressway or freeway - motorway
fall (season) - autumn
fanny pack – bum bag
In Commonwealth English, "fanny" is obscene slang for the vagina.
fender (of a car) - wing
field (sports) – pitch
first name - Christian name/given name
The term "Christian name" is now rarely used in Commonwealth English.
flashlight - torch
football - gridiron football, not soccer
fries - chips
garter – suspenders
gas (intestinal) – wind
gasoline - petrol
in British English, "gas" is used to refer to energy used to power buildings and other infrastructure (US English: "natural gas" when necessary to distinguish from "gas" as a short term for gasoline).
American: ice hockey; British: field hockey
Some people with personal connections to one of these two sports will call that sport "hockey", regardless of their country of origin.
hood (of a car) – bonnet
In Commonwealth English, "hood" as an automotive term refers to the top of a convertible.
(public) holiday – bank holiday
See also "vacation".
In US English, "the holidays" is often used to describe the entire period between Thanksgiving (late November) and New Year's Day.
Jell-O - jelly
jelly - jam
jumper (dress) – pinafore/pinafore dress
last name - surname
US English: non-carbonated drink made from lemon juice, sugar, and water (UK: "traditional lemonade")
ironically, the central postal authorities in the US and UK use the terms of their counterparts in their names; i.e. US: United States Postal Service; UK: Royal Mail.
median (road) – central reservation
Note that in the New Orleans area, this feature is called "neutral ground".
mom – mum
movie theatre - cinema
muffler (of a motor vehicle) – silencer
In US English, "silencer" typically refers to a firearm accessory, also known as a suppressor.
napkin - serviette (now largely obsolete in Commonwealth English; "napkin" is now used in the UK as well)
overpass – flyover
pacifier - dummytit
pants - trousers
in most dialects of Commonwealth English, "pants" refers to underwear. However, many dialects in Northern England agree with the US English usage for "pants".
pass gas (slang: fart) – break wind
pavement - road surface
period (punctuation) – full stop
physician – doctor/medical practitioner
In the UK, a "physician" is a specialist in internal medicine or one of its many sub-specialities. The term specifically excludes surgeons of all types.
"Doctor" is also widely used in US English as a generic term for medical practitioners of all types.
prepaid - pay as you go
US English – refers to academic staff of all ranks, with typical progression of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and (Full) Professor.
Commonwealth English – the highest academic rank, largely equivalent to the American (Full) Professor.
pump (women's shoe) - court shoe
Some Americans use "court shoe" as a catch-all term for athletic shoes designed for indoor court sports.
push cart - trolley
ramp (highway exit) – slip road
In US English, a "slip road" is a term for a street alongside a main highway to allow access to local businesses, sometimes also called a "frontage road" or, in both US English and Commonwealth English, a "service road".
restroom/bathroom - toilet/loo
However, Americans also use 'toilet paper' to refer to the exclusively British term 'loo roll'.
in Commonwealth English, a bathroom is where you take a bath or shower. A restroom is a place for office staff to take breaks (US English: "break room").
in US English, a lavatory is used to refer to a restroom in a form of transportation
revenue - turnover (in finance)
review (exam preparation) – revise
round-trip (ticket) - return
Roundabout in Commonwealth English refers to an intersection in the shape of a circular road in a city (US English: "traffic circle")
run (for elective office) – stand
sedan (car) – saloon
shot (inoculation) – jab
sidewalk - pavement
sneakers/athletic shoes - trainers
soccer - (association) football
The term "soccer" originated in Commonwealth English, but is now often incorrectly viewed in the UK as an Americanism.
soda/pop/Coke - soft drink/pop
US English has no universal term for this type of beverage. Each of the listed terms is standard in at least some regions, with the most widely used terms being "soda" and "pop". "Coke" is the generic term for carbonated beverages in the Southeastern US.
while in the US and the UK it technically means an employee of a certain company of any rank or responsibility, this wider definition is used more commonly in the UK; in the US it practically refers to employees in lower ranking or clerical positions
(television) season - series
in US English, the word 'series' refers to the entire run of a television show.
South Asian (people) – Asian
station wagon – estate car
stroller - pushchair (for babies)
US English – person of any age studying at any educational institution
Commonwealth English – person studying at a post-secondary institution; young people at primary or secondary schools are typically "pupils"
subway - underground train / tube (colloquially)
subdivision – housing estate
suspenders – braces
sweater – jumper
In Commonwealth English it means to put a motion up for consideration; in US English it means to remove the motion from consideration.
trash/garbage - rubbish/litter
truck - lorry
trunk (of a car) - boot
tube top – boob tube
In US English, "boob tube" is a slang term for a television.
US English – money paid to receive an education at any educational institution (Commonwealth English: "tuition fees")
Commonwealth English – educational content transferred from teacher to student at a university
(pedestrian) underpass - subway
vacation – holiday
wrench (tool) – spanner
In Commonwealth English, "wrench" in this sense is usually used in combination, such as "torque wrench".