The Best of British

The American's guide to speaking British


AA - The Automobile Association. Similar to your AAA these guys come to your car when you breakdown. Unlike the AAA, they carry a workshop with them and fix the car at the side of the street if they can, or carry your car anywhere in the country if they can't. Saved my life a few times. Not to be confused with Alcoholics Anonymous who will come to your car and counsel you on your drinking problem. Make sure you ring the right AA!

Aerial - Antenna. An aerial is on a car, an antenna would be found on insects and aliens from outer space.

Amber - Not only do our traffic lights go in a different sequence to yours but we don't have yellow! Well actually we do but we always call it amber. The sequence is red, red and amber (together), green. Then green, amber, red. Yours go from red straight to green.

Articulated lorry - This is a trailer truck. Nothing to do with being well-spoken of course! Usually shortened to artic.

Banger - An old car. Your first car is usually an old banger. Not to be confused with a kind of sausage!

Belisha beacon - These are the orange flashing globes at each side of a zebra crossing.

Bonnet - Your car's hood. Also an old fashioned hat.

Boot - Your car's trunk. In England, elephants have trunks, not cars!

Bulb - When your indicator stops working you probably need a new bulb. Don't ask for a lamp.

Bump start - When you buy your first car as a student in the UK, one of the first lessons you learn is how to bump start it. When the battery is flat you get a couple of strong mates to push you along the street, with the key in the ON position, second gear engaged and your foot on the clutch. When you reach enough speed you take your foot off the clutch, your mates hit their faces on the back of the car and with luck - the car starts! Don't try this in America, it doesn't work with automatics! If you do have a manual car it would be popping the clutch.

Bus station - The place where the busses start from on their journey. You might call it a terminal.

Cab - In London you will hear taxis referred to as cabs. The London black cab is not only famous for being very distinctive but also the first cab to take wheelchairs through the doors.

Cabriolet - Convertible. As in - why do blondes prefer cabriolets?. Obvious really - more legroom!

Call - I remember the announcer at Bristol railway station telling us that the train at platform 10 would call at Nailsea, Backwell, Weston-super-Mare, Highbridge, Bridgwater and Taunton. It would call at the stations, not stop at them.

Car - Your auto. Whilst you also say "car", you won't find Auto in use much in Britain.

Car park - Parking lot. Normally uncovered.

Cat's eyes - In the middle of British roads there are little white reflectors. They are made of glass and are designed just like the eyes of a cat. They are mounted in a rubber housing and inserted into a hole in the road surface. When a car drives over them, they are pushed into the hole and when they pop back up - they are cleaned! Clever huh? Road reflectors are the nearest thing you have in the US. The guy who invented them actually came across a cat facing him on a dark night. Lucky it wasn't facing the other way - or he might have invented the pencil sharpener!!

Cattle class - A rather unflattering, but not inaccurate, description of coach class air travel!

Central reservation - Not where you call for airline tickets or where Indians live. This is the bit of grass or kerbing between the carriageways on a dual carriageway or motorway. Median in American.

Chunnel - The famous channel tunnel is called the chunnel. If you visit London it is well worth taking the 3 hour train ride from Waterloo, right into the heart of Paris.

Coach - We differentiate between a coach and a bus. A bus is usually the sort that you pay as you enter and the routes are not generally that long. They drive through the towns and villages of the UK. A coach normally goes from city to city, more like US greyhounds. They have fewer or no stops at all and you would buy a ticket in advance and have to go to the terminal to get on one.

Crash - Same as a pile-up but involving fewer vehicles. Also called a wreck in the US.

Cul-de-sac - Dead end to you. The American expression "dead end" is a bit more to the point really. Cul-de-sac comes from the French.

De-mister - De-froster in American. Most cars have them on the back window. Some have them on the front too. Very useful during your first date when you borrow your Dad's car! Most Texans would never have a use for either!

Diversion - Detour in America.

Double decker - This is a bus. One that has an upstairs and a downstairs. They were abundant when I was using them as a kid but nowadays most of them seem to have ended up as tourist buses around New York and other large US cities. Sometimes with the roof removed. They also have "Genuine London Bus" in huge letters down the side for some reason.

Double yellow lines - The double yellow lines are the no parking zone. Well I suppose you could park there but the chances are the car won't be there when you return. The traffic wardens are pretty hot on cars parked on double yellows. By the way - you can generally park on single yellow lines after 6pm and at weekends unless it says otherwise on a nearby lamp-post.

Drink driving - This particular pastime is illegal in both countries. You call it drunk driving.

Drunk in charge - In the same way that you have DWI and DUI offences for "driving while intoxicated" and for "driving under the influence", we just have "drunk in charge" (never shortened to DIC for obvious reasons!). All three are best avoided in both countries occifer!

Dual carriageway - Divided highway. All have a 70mph speed limit unless indicated (posted) otherwise.

Due care and attention - This is the name of a motoring offence that covers many driving sins. I got my first ticket on the M4 at about midnight for driving without due care and attention. I was actually driving in the middle lane of the motorway, when I should have been in the inside lane.

Economy - When we travel in an aeroplane in the cheap seats we are travelling economy. You would be travelling coach. To us - that's a sort of bus, more suited to the roads than 37,000 feet!

Estate car - An elongated version of a normal saloon car. Many cars have an estate version. In American the nearest thing is a station wagon.

Excess - Deductible. The amount you pay before your car insurance does. Insurance is one of the few things that is much cheaper in the UK than the USA. My car insurance cost me between 2-4 times as much in Texas as it did in England.

Fire engine - What you would call a fire truck.

Flyover - No - not what happens in Starsky and Hutch, when they drive too fast in San Francisco over bumps - this is an overpass.

Fog lights - This one took me two years to realise. In America fog lights are white and are at the front of the car, low down. In England they are very intense red and are on the back of the car, so that in real fog, the car behind you can see you. This is important if you are importing a US car to the UK as you have to get this fixed.

Ford - If you see a sign saying "ford ahead" in England, it is not warning you that an American car is blocking a country lane. It is actually telling you there is a low water crossing ahead.

Gallon - This would be 1.25 gallons to you. Ours are 25% bigger than yours. Well actually, since your ounces and our ounces are also slightly different, it reduces the true difference to more like 20%.

Gas - A substance used to cook with and to heat homes. Cars do not run on gas, they use petrol.

Gearstick - The stick shift. Most cars in England come with a gearstick. If you learn to drive in one without a gearstick you may not drive one that does until you take the test in that sort too! I thought Texans must have thought I looked like a witch when they asked me if I drove a stick!! What a strange question.

Give way - Yield. At a roundabout you give way to the right. In Texas, apparently, yielding is optional, more dependent on the size of the vehicles involved.

Glove box - This is the little cubby hole in the front of the car where you keep sweet wrappers, parking tickets and old chewing gum. A glove compartment to you.

Hard shoulder - The paved lane that runs along the side of British motorways. You may not drive on it, only stop there for emergencies. Or when a jolly nice officer of the law zooms up behind you and asks you to!

Hand brake - Your parking brake. Some American cars have foot operated ones but in the UK they are generally hand operated only. Since most UK cars are manual they are probably more often used in the UK.

Head lamp - Headlight, though we use either word.

Hire car - Rental car. When hiring a car in England, remember to specify an automatic or you will get one with a gearstick.

Hooter - The hooter is the horn on your car. It is also another word for a persons' nose. Therefore, if someone steps out in front of you in the UK, be sure to press the right one!

Indicator - Turn lights. The little orange lights on each corner of your car that tell other road users your intended direction of travel, if not straight on. In England it is illegal for the brake lights to double up as indicators, like they do in the USA. In America use of these lights appears to be optional (unless travelling in a straight line).

Jam sandwich - This is a motorway police car. It is called a jam sandwich because if it is white with a bright orange stripe along the side, that's just what it looks like. Obviously it is a bit bigger and has wheels and a couple of uniformed gentlemen inside it, but hey!

Juggernaut - What you would call an 18 wheeler - any large lorry would be a juggernaut.

Lay-by - On the side of the road you will often find a lay-by, probably just a widening of the road without any kerbing, to allow you to stop and take a break. It doesn't quite qualify as a rest area as there are generally no facilities.

Level crossing - This is what you call a grade crossing - where a railway crosses a road.

Lights - The little triangular windows on some cars.

Lorry - Truck. Although the chaps that drive them ARE sometimes called truckers. They are usually called lorry drivers and are not allowed to use the fast lane on England's motorways. To add to the confusion I just met a lady in Minnesota called Laurie, which I thought was hilarious, so I call her "truck"!

Lorry driver - Truck driver or trucker to you.

Magic Roundabout - As if our normal roundabouts aren't bad enough for our visiting American friends, we also have these wonderful magic roundabouts. They are basically the same as a normal roundabout except the traffic travels in both directions around the outside and at each intersection there is yet another mini-roundabout! Avoid them at all costs!

Manual - A car in England is either a manual or an automatic (transmission). A manual has a gearstick. You would call them a stick or stick shift. When we say we drive a manual, you say you drive a stick. In England the only people who drive sticks are witches!!

Motorway - Freeway. Very strict rules apply to motorways, only drive faster than 100mph if you are happy to lose your licence (or are very good at haggling!). Always drive in the slow lane, unless overtaking (or risk being arrested). Always enter and exit via slip roads on the left hand side.

Multi storey - Short for multi-storey car park. Means a parking garage on several levels.

Near side lane - The slow lane to you, though to us, all your lanes are slow! (Sorry - couldn't resist it!).

No entry - I love the "no entry" signs in the US - they are so descriptive. They just say "Wrong way"! No chance of mistaking the meaning there!

Number plate - Licence plate in the US. In the UK they tell you the age of the vehicle and have some coding to identify the area of the country the car was registered in. Our number plates generally stay with the car, whereas your licence plates seem to stay with the person.

Overtake - Pass in the US. We can only do it on the right. In Texas they do it in whatever lane they like. Don't try that here - you'll be arrested. Our cops don't have guns but they don't half take the piss!

Pavement - Pavement in English is sidewalk in American. The first chapter in the Texas driving handbook says that you must drive on the pavement at all times! Yikes!

Pedestrian crossing - Crosswalk to you chaps. As you'll see we have several versions - mostly involving animals like Pelicans and Zebras!

Pelican crossing - The black and white bars across the road with a green and red man lighting up to show pedestrians when to walk and when to stay.

Petrol - Gasoline. Ask for a petrol station when you run out. More expensive than the American sort but comes in bigger gallons.

Petrol station - Gas station to you. Prepare to be shocked at the prices!

Pile-up - What happens when a number of cars collide into each other. Known as a wreck in America.

Prang - If you have a prang in your car - it means you have hit a car or another object. Prangs tend be less serious than write-offs as they can be fixed.

RAC - Royal Automobile Club. Another roadside assistance company, similar to the American AAA. They drive mobile garages and can fix most things on the roadside. They will even drive you to the other end of the country if necessary, to get you there!

Red route - When driving around London watch out for the roads with yellow lines that are RED! These are special red routes designed to keep the traffic moving and free of obstructions. Park on a red route and the British police will shoot to kill!

Road works - If you see a sign with "road works" on it, be careful because it means men working.

Roof - The top of a convertible car is called the roof in England.

Roof-rack - This is the luggage rack to you.

Roundabout - Traffic circle. The best bit about arriving in England after a long transatlantic flight with no sleep and finding there are no automatic cars, is that the first obstacle you find at any airport is a big roundabout. They are scary if you have never seen one before. The simple rule is 'give way (yield) to the right'. In other words, the traffic already on the roundabout has right of way. In Malta, however, the traffic approaching the roundabout has right of way, which is why Brits on holiday in Malta keep killing themselves!

Saloon - A non-estate car. You might call it a sedan. Saloon is also one of the bars in a traditional pub.

Second class - When we travel in the cheap seats of a train or plane, we are travelling second class. You would be travelling coach.

Silencer - Muffler. Or the thing you put on a gun to make killing people quieter.

Slip road - Entry ramp or exit ramp.

Spanner - Something to keep in your boot - a wrench.

Subway - This is the tunnel that allows pedestrians to walk under a busy road. You would call it an underpass.

Tailback - To see a proper tailback in England - join the M25 at any point on a Friday evening. It means bumper to bumper but on the M25 there is no start or finish - it goes right round London. That's why they call it the "London orbital car park".

Tick over - If you leave your car ticking over, it would be idling in the US.

Ton - I remember telling my friends at the office that I was stopped doing a "ton twenty" up the M40 at the weekend. We use the word ton to mean one hundred miles an hour. Clearly a "ton twenty" is a hundred and twenty miles and hour. It's a long story but he even let me off! Lucky huh?

Traffic wardens - We never came across traffic wardens in Texas. The nearest thing we saw was the traffic cops. Our wardens wander the streets of our towns in their black uniforms, hiding until you leave your car illegally parked for 1 or 2 nano-seconds then they write you a ticket and stick it your screen before you can say "You B****rd".

Transporter - I think these are referred to as car carriers in the US. They are the huge lorries that carry up to 10 cars in precarious positions.

Turn right - Make a turn. We don't "make" turns in the UK, we just turn. So when you'd make a left at the light, we would turn left at the light.

Verge - The grassy edge to a road. You park on the verge if you break down to avoid being hit by the traffic.

Windscreen - The English word for windshield.

Windscreen wipers - The English for windshield wipers.

Wing - Fender to you. To us a fender is a kind of guitar!

Write-off - This is when you have wrecked your car. Or totalled it. We don't use either of those expressions. It comes from the fact that the insurance companies have calculated that it would cost more to repair the car than to replace it. So the value is written off the books. If you are in a serious crash and you don't fancy some garage trying to put all the pieces back together as good as it was to start with, then you hope that your car becomes a write-off as that means you get a nice new one!

Zebra crossing - Similar to the pelican but with flashing orange beacons on either side. If a pedestrian steps onto a either crossing, you should stop. Unless you are in London in which case your job is to kill them.