American Struggles to Understand English in England

You would think that after living in non English speaking European countries for so long, I would feel at home in England, but I felt more foreign there than anywhere. Though technically Americans speak the same language, I had no clue what the Brits were saying. Times are tough when you resort to asking your Frenchman to interpret your native tongue.

“Pot, this is ridiculous!” Gerald said. “They are speaking your language not mine.”

True but in my language potatoes don’t wear jackets, children don’t wear jumpers and no one wears Wellies.

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandTo clarify the vocabulary, English waiters will ask if you want a jacket (skin) on your potato. Seriously, do say yes because no one does jacket potatoes better than the English. Mine was stuffed with melted Brie, British bacon and cranberry sauce.

Sweaters are what British refer to as jumpers. Sweatshirts are hoodies. Uniforms are kits. And everyone owns a pair of Wellies.

Popularized by British aristocracy for hunting in the early 19th century the Wellington boot, fashioned after the Hessian boot and made of leather, was named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. With the advent of Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process for natural rubber in the mid 1800s, waterproof rubber Wellies became standard even for the common class and replaced the farmers’ wooden American Struggles to Understand English in Englandclogs.

Ah, Wellies, those ill-fitting, formless, round-toed galoshes you hated wearing in grade school. I would give my right arm for a pair now. In England, it rains cats and dogs and puddles proliferate like rabbits. To be prepared like the English who carry Wellies in the boot of their cars, tourists should pack a pair of Wellies and a brellie (umbrella)on any visit to the UK.

I used to think my British colleagues in Switzerland were dumbing down their language with baby talk to help me understand. Apparently another idiosyncrasy is their tendency to chop off words by ending in ie.

Fortunately, my dear friend now living in Australia explained, “Pressie, (present) brekkie, (breakfast) and ciggie (cigarette) are all just lazy British ways of shortening words.”

It could be worse.

“The Aussies use the same abbreviations, and more besides!” she said. “My fave one is ‘arvo’ for afternoon. I use it all the time now, but with a British accent, which amuses the locals.”

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandNo one does humor better than the British. The language is full of expressions that make me laugh out loud.

Who else says things like “have a nosy” for a look around or “don’t get your knickers in a knot” when someone is upset?

And can’t you picture a group of gossipy old women having a “chin wag”or a bunch of teens throwing their “knees up” (to party) on the weekend.

But my all time favorite is “fall arse over tit” meaning to tumble head over heels.

Now you understand why an American might need a French interpreter. Visiting England leaves me feeling totally discombobulated and stuck in one giant kerfuffle.

I am so disorientated I may never get home to Switzerland. With all those cars whizzing by on the “wrong” side of the road, I am afraid to cross the street.

Posted in family, humor, social view, travel.


  1. Good Morning! What a clever post! Your final sentence expressed my biggest worry for you in England. You can feel quite off balance when crossing the street. Our American eyes naturally glance to the left when, whoa, we need to look the other way before stepping off that curb. Glad you made it home. I’m off to compete-ha/participate in a karate tournament today! I hope these 60-year-old bones won’t fall arse over tits against another adult 40 years my junior!

    • Oh Amy good on you! Can’t believe you are going to participate in a karate tournament. That is amazing. I took karate lessons one summer back when I was in college and got my leg stuck over my head on a high kick. That was the end of my karate career. ha Please let me know how it goes.

  2. Sis….hahahahaha!! I am still laughing over this latest post! You and I Share the favorite British phrase!! ???? Really needed some Laughs today as we are in Blizzard conditions in mid April here. ????THANKS!!❤

    • Glad you enjoyed the laugh. You folks in the snow belt deserve a giggle especially this season with the never ending winter weather. Hang in there –
      daffodils will be blooming soon and lazy, lake days are ahead although we might have to drill a hole in the ice to go for a swim.

  3. My father is British, so I had some exposure as a child. However, when I married my Scottish/Brit husband, it was a whole new world from day 1 when we met. He asked me how much “dosh” I thought he needed for the day (he was touristing in my city). Dosh. If hashtags had been a thing back then, I would have hashtagged every word of my response.

    Now I’m more fluent and our household speaks “bilingual” English. Plus, my Canadian kiddo has a British accent. #Whatsupwiththat?

    Love your pics. Oh, and BTW, we also speak a different English up here in Canada! haha

    • So you too live the “bilingual” life. Dosh is another funny term. Here in Switzerland they recognize 4 national languages and most people speak several although
      Swiss French sounds a bit different than the French across the border in France and same for the German. After living in England, my son is now developing the British accent. Even after years and years over here I still have my Midwest accent and have been jumbling up the languages for years. Have you been to Scotland? That is my next dream…to trace my ancestry across the Highlands.

  4. Have a nosy? That’s wonderful! I’m going to start using that. I belong to a Facebook group where many of the participants are British, so I’ve gotten used to some other expressions, except they say “don’t get your knickers in a twist” (regional difference?)

    • Although I had learned a lot of the more common British expressions from the school where I worked, I actually had my son’s girlfriend write me a list of their funny saying so that I could become more savvy. Have a nosy is one of my favorites too.

  5. Hi Pat, I just found out from Ancestry .com that I’m 35% British so your hilarious post comes at the perfect time! Great post. You had me laughing outloud at your adventures????

    • Glad you enjoyed this post Kathy. Like you I have been researching my family using and I am having so much fun tracing my roots. I know you are going to love this tool to help find out more about your Italian and British ancestry and then we will have more stories to share.

  6. Hahahahaha, I’m famous! ???? Ta for quoting me darl (Aussie abbreviation for darling). I giggled at this article. Full of priceless British gems and memories. ‘Falling arse over tit’ is a classic I agree. But you have only visited the south of England so far, and ‘up north’ you will stumble across even more ‘unrecognisables’!! ???? P.S. Wellies are gum boots out here in Australia, and I haven’t yet donned my very worn out British pair yet… ????

    • Thanks for letting me quote you, darl. I have learned so much from your friendship over the years and language is only the tip of it. I remember when Gus tried to teach me cockney English one field week. That was a real challenge. Glad to hear your Wellies traveled with you to the land of sunshine. Do you miss wearing your Wellies?

  7. whatever you do, don’t use the word “pants”!

    (it means underwear and NOT your trousers, but it WILL get a good giggle out of the locals)

    I lived in the UK for four years. For the first year back in the US my son berated me every time I said “parking lot” vs “Car park”.

    My favorite words/expressions that I still use are “I’m shattered (or knackered)” (exhausted), “strop” (meaning “tantrum”) and “prat” (stupid person, moron)

    • Thanks for the reminder about the word “pants.” I used the word knackered to describe how I felt at the end of everyday teaching. Do you miss living in the UK?

  8. Oh my! So true! I took my first sailing class in the BVI where we had an English and an Irish instructors. Between their vocabulary and accent and the locals accents and vocabulary our heads were spinning!!

  9. This comes at the perfect time, Pat. I’ve been reading a mystery novel by a Brit and having the darndest time trying to interpret! She mentions “jumpers” a lot — I figured they must be some sort of top, but I wouldn’t have guessed sweaters. The Wellies I did guess (though golly, they haven’t much “style,” do they?!) Wonder if these “translations” are fairly recent or if we Yanks departed that much from the King’s English so many years ago?

    • I am reading a novel by an Irish writer and learning new vocabulary all the time. I actually have to stop and look up some of the words. It would be interesting to research more of how and why so much of the language changed when it moved westward.

  10. I love the British expressions! With my son living in England, I have heard most of them and now understand what they mean. You’ve made me want to return for another visit.

  11. There is something about calling the trash “rubbish” that is oh, so accurate! I am a big fan of “having a proper” (fill it in) and saying “cheers” as a goodbye, a more positive farewell. My American daughter and her Brit husband live in London and I have explored every neighborhood, taking exotic cooking classes and even sat in on a couple of sessions of Parliament. As an independent traveler, I usually rent a “flat” on the weeks I visit to give my daughter and husband their space and it forces me to fend for myself a “wee” bit. While one can purchase Wellies in the US, UK Wellies are clearly made for “pea soupers.”

    • Susan, I chuckled as I read your comment. I, too, love the words rubbish and wee bit. So glad you have had the opportunity explore London with your family. I bet you feel right at home there now. At the International School of Geneva, I have worked with British colleagues for years, and have even adopted a lot of their expressions, but I still feel confused when I hear English spoken in England.

I would love to hear from you

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.