"These chips, are friesLanguage can cause confusion even when two people aren't using separate languages. Often, it's enough for them to speak different dialects of the same language. This trope applies when the differences in dialects of a common language are used for humor or characterization. Most of the examples here are about the differences between British English and American English, but this can occur in any pair of dialects, in any language. Confusion over dialects in Real Life varies from person to person, and depends on the situation. If British Alice says "throw it in the boot" to American Bob in a story, without context he may be confused; but when they're obviously near to a car, it isn't a huge leap that she means that something should be put in the "trunk". It can also be a giveaway when a writer sets a story in a land besides his native one. Many English and Canadian writers write for American audiences. Often they're so good at it that the reader doesn't notice—until a Texan character mentions something that happened "when I was at university." (An American would say "when I was in college" or "...in grad school" or simply "in school", even if he got his degree at a university.)note People who read or watch a lot of fiction in another dialect will understand more words than expected, which may even be Lampshaded by the writers. Before the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s it was posited that the different versions of English might eventually diverge into separate languages, however these days the Internet has made it possible to inexpensively speak to a friend in a like-language country on a daily basis in both text and voice - plus watch their TV shows and play video games with them, so time will only tell. Interestingly, this phenomenon was and still is far more severe when it comes to Spanish and French, to the point where Same Language Dubs are usually required — especially Spanish, which is the official language of the majority of the western hemisphere and varies wildly across the continent and has two radically different dialects in Spain to boot. See also Australian English and Did Not Do the Bloody Research. Compare Have a Gay Old Time, where the same word means different things in two different time periods rather than countries. Contrast Language Barrier, which is Separated By Lack of a Common Language. Do not add Real Life examples here. For Real Life examples, see the Useful Notes page.
This queue, a line
This tap, a faucet
Wardrobe, a closet
Chemist, a drugstore
Autumn, is fall
A garden, a yard
You see now? It's not hard"
This queue, a line
This tap, a faucet
Wardrobe, a closet
Chemist, a drugstore
Autumn, is fall
A garden, a yard
You see now? It's not hard"
Examples in fiction and media:
open/close all folders
- Jerry Seinfeld featured in an American Express advert where he performs a Stand-Up Comedy routine in front of a British audience... and is greeted with silence because the Americanisms he uses go straight over their heads. So he proceeds to tour England and immerse himself in the culture, including the local dialect. (And his second joke, which the British audience finds hilarious, is just gibberish to Americans.)
Anime and Manga
- "Knocked up" gets used in Supergirl, when the British-accented demon Buzz asks Linda to knock him up in the morning. Eventually they get it sorted out.
Supergirl: Demons...Buzz: Americans...
- One Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 has Faith go undercover to defeat a rogue slayer. The other slayer asks Faith for a cigarette. It takes Faith a moment to realize it wasn't some kind of Double Entendre.
Slayer: Do you mind if I bum a fag?
Faith: What do I care? You can go bum whomever you... Oh. [hands her a cigarette]
- In an eighties Justice League comic, The Flash (who has no Secret Identity here) introduces himself as "Wally" to a group of English girls, who respond with derisive laughter. Afterwards someone explains to him that "Wally" means idiot. It's a very gentle insult, like something your nan would say. Using it non-jokingly would be seen in a similar way to Have a Gay Old Time.
- The Smurfs story "Smurf Vs. Smurf" (and the Animated Adaptation cartoon special "The Smurfic Games") has the Smurfs fighting over the proper use of the word "smurf" in compounded words and phrases. In the comic book story, this leads to a Silly Reason for War which gets resolved by Papa Smurf reluctantly enlisting the aid of Gargamel using a "Freaky Friday" Flip to get the Smurfs fighting together against a common enemy. In the cartoon special, it gets resolved with the creation of The Olympics in their culture.
- In Cold December Night, England ends up very confused at America's ugly sweater party when everyone starts showing up in truly terrible jumpers.
- Ashes of the Past has a bizarre example due to the Fantasy Counterpart Culture involved. In Chapter 54, the Team Rocket Pokémon are going to take part in Pokéathlon and Meowth describes one of the events as "football". When Victreebel asks what type of football, Meowth reiterates "football. This ain't Unova or Orre, ya know"—Unova and Orre being the two regions based on parts of the United States. Of course, Japanese is one of the few non-English languages whose name for association football is derived from the American "soccer" rather than the British "football", so this turns into an unintentional bit of Creator Provincialism.
- In "Living With Danger", the Pack regales Dumbledore and Hagrid about their trip to the US, including the time Sirius walked into a shop and asked for a jumper, meaning what an American would call a sweater. What the clerk thought he was asking for was a dress that is sleeveless and normally worn by young girls (specifically the then-pre-Hogwarts-aged Hermione is referenced).
- Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman in Screwball Comedy The Lady Eve. When she is pretending to be the Lady Eve Sidwich, she leans on this trope pretty hard, dropping a lot of British slang to the befuddlement/amusement of her American hosts.
- In Paul, two British comic-book nerds attend Comic Con in San Diego and then go on a road trip in the American Southwest. Clive asks where they parked the RV.
Graeme: It's in the car park.Clive: I think you mean the parking lot.Graeme: (cowboy voice) Ah sure do! [laughter]
- In America, "pissed" means angry; in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, it can also mean "drunk", while angry people tend to be described as "pissed off" rather than just "pissed". On the commentary for Shaun of the Dead, it's stated that the only thing they consciously did to avoid confusing Americans was to say Mary the zombie was "so drunk" instead of "so pissed", because they were aware of this trope and knew how that would sound.
- The meanings of "pissed" led to a memorable scene in the Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back. In a hotel in London, Dylan (who is American) threw a fit when someone threw a glass out the window. The guy was drunk and tried explaining that he was pissed, so Dylan said something along the lines of "Oh, you're pissed?! Don't tell me you're pissed!"
- In Austin Powers in Goldmember there's a scene where Nigel Powers is talking about his sexual exploits and Austin requests that they speak in "English" English (actually Cockney rhyming slang) in front of the Americans. The proceeding conversation has subtitles, though not all of it, as Even the Subtitler Is Stumped...
- Back to the Future:
Marty: All right, give me, uh, give me a Tab.Lou: A tab? Can't give ya a tab, unless ya order something.Marty: Give me a Pepsi Free.Lou: You want a Pepsi, pal, you're gonna pay for it!
- Happens between two Americans of different time periods as Marty McFly of 1985 attempts to get a drink at a 1955 diner:
- Doc questions why Marty keeps saying "this is heavy" in moments of stress.
- A Running Gag in The Dish. Al, the visiting American from NASA, is regularly puzzled by the local Australian slang.
Mitch:: You treat us like a pack of galahs!(Al looks confused)Glenn:: That's a type of parrot.
- In Chasing Liberty, Anna, the US President's daughter, is visiting London and doesn't understand the phrase "Tele's broke, and there's no lift" before it's translated: "Telephone's broken, elevator: none."
- In the Harry Potter films, the British wizarding population uses the term "Muggle" to denote humans who cannot perform magic. In the spin-off film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place in New York City, the American wizards use the term "No-maj" instead.
- In Smilin' Through, Kathleen the Brit and Ken the American have a Running Gag where they are constantly correcting each other's accents—she dings him for his flat "a" in "ghastly" and his long "i" in "neither", and he later gets her for her pronunciation of "after". Also, apparently Americans called doughnuts "sinkers" in 1915, as Frederick does, only to be corrected again.
- Vet Hard: In this Dutch / Belgian movie, Flemish Belgian character Koen is getting brutally yelled at by another, Dutch, character because his Flemish idioms and accent differ from theirs:
Bennie: Dickhead, speak Dutch properly!
- In Jeeves and Wooster novel Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie observes that Aunt Dahlia's French chef Anatole had been in service with an American family for several years before coming to work with Aunt Agatha. Bertie pronounces Anatole's English as "fluent, but a bit mixed." In the next paragraph, Anatole mixes up American slang ("Hot dog!", "hit the hay", "mad as a wet hen") with British ("jolly well", "blighters").
- In "Money, A Suicide Note" by Martin Amis, the main character is sent to try to get a very clean cut actor called Spunk Davies to use a stage name instead.
- In Good Omens, Newton Pulsifer has a Witchfinder's card which states that faggots (meaning chunks of firewood) should be turned over to him. When an American soldier asks what they do with the faggots, Newton replies "We burn them." The soldier is quite impressed...
- Though most of these are now obsolete, G.K. Chesterton notices a number of these Anglo-American differences in his writings. He was told that a lady journalist had referred to him as "a regular guy" and did not see how that was meant to be complimentary; in the American usage of the time, the phrase meant "someone who was affable and not snobbish", whereas in the British use then current, it meant "a figure designed to be mocked, a scarecrow, or an object of ridicule". He was warned by an American friend against certain people because they were "very bad actors"; GKC did not know why their defective thespian abilities should cause him anxiety, until it was explained that this was American for "malefactors". Similarly, an American friend told him her sister had "gotten a beau" — by which he understood her to have devoted herself to archery.
- Not too much between Charlotte and her cousin Zee in the Cronus Chronicles, but there is a little bit of idiom confusion when they first meet, especially since Zee is an avid (British) football player.
- Sherlock Holmes stories:
- "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" uses this for a plot point. Holmes is able to divine from the spelling of the word "plow" (in British English, "plough") and a couple of vocabulary choices that an advertisement purportedly from an Englishman is actually from an American.
- This trope is used for humor in "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" (though the conversation being described ultimately proves plot relevant):
Lord St. Simon: Lady St. Simon said something about ‘jumping a claim.’ She was accustomed to use slang of the kind. I have no idea what she meant.Holmes: American slang is very expressive sometimes.
- "Murders in Pastiche" by Marion Mainwaring - the usage difference while/whilst gives an important clue who wrote the note.
- The Baroque Cycle: Lord Gy, a Scottish lord, speaks with a nigh-impenetrable Funetik Aksent and litters his speech with Scottish-specific words. One of his jailers very bluntly tells him that he does not speak English.
- In Morgan's Run, late 18th-century Britain is full of this. A Scottish criminal needs a translator because no one can understand his Scots, some Scottish prison guards later must self-translate so their English prisoners can understand, and even English people can't understand each other in some cases if they're from diverse parts with different dialects.
- In Witches Abroad, the witches are from Fantasy North England and visiting Fantasy Louisiana. A discussion of how words means different things in foreign parts results in Granny Weatherwax being under the impression that "hobo" is Genuan for "backside" (she's grasped that it's synonymous with "bum", but...)
- In Whispers Under Ground, some British coppers have to run through half-a-dozen slang synonyms ("ends", "manor", "patch", etc) before hitting upon a term ("hood") that conveys the right meaning to a visiting FBI agent.
- In one Agatha Christie novel, a character is revealed to be American when she says “I would call my lawyer long-distance” instead of “I would place a trunk call to my solicitor”.
Live Action Television
- Our Miss Brooks: This trope is Played for Laughs when a English schoolmaster visits in "Hello Mr. Chips".
- In 30 Rock Liz's boyfriend Wesley Snipes claims that in England film cameras are called "film-pods" and bikes are "velocipedes" or "foot cycles" (for those reading from America, they aren't).
- The season 4 Downton Abbey Christmas special finds Martha and Harold, Cora's American family, arriving at Downton to visit the Crawleys.
Martha: Well, the gang's all here!Violet: Is that American for "hello"?Martha: Harold, I don't believe you've met Tom, Sybil's husband.Tom: It seems strange we never met when she was here to introduce us.Harold: Well, I'm glad to know you now.Violet: How curious these phrases are!
- Weaponised in Sherlock. After finding a connection to America in "The Hounds of Baskerville" case, Sherlock deduces the murderer’s identity, and cites, among other evidence, their former suspect’s use of the word cell phone – as opposed to mobile – due to time spent in America.
- In episode "Internal Audit" from Elementary, Sherlock meets someone new.
Randy: You're Sherlock, right?Sherlock: And you are?Randy: Randy.Sherlock: Name or adjective?Randy: What?Sherlock: Short for "Randall" or state of sexual arousal?Randy: Are you asking me if I'm horny?
- Since Daphne, a Brit, is a major character in Frasier, this trope comes up fairly often. For example:
Frasier: Is Dad home?Daphne: Nope, I haven't seen him since he knocked me up early this morning.Frasier: What?Daphne: Knocked me up. Woke me up. It's an English expression. What does it mean here?Frasier: Oh, something else. You'd definitely be awake for it, though.
- From Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Amnesia Danger episode "Tabula Rasa":
Spike: (checking the label in his jacket pocket) "Made with care for Randy"? Randy Giles? Why not just call me "Horny" Giles, or "Desperate-for-a-Shag" Giles? I knew there was a reason I hated you!Giles: Randy's... a family name, undoubtedly.
- And the spin-off, Angel, gives us a glorious example when Gunn and Wesley discuss their chosen profession as occult detectives.
Gunn: Five herb shops in Chinatown; we've been to four. How come whatever we're searching for is always in the last place we look?Wesley: I suppose it's one of the unwritten laws of being a dick.(Gunn gives him a really weird look)Wesley: Ah, a sleuth, a gumshoe, a Sherlock.Gunn: All I know is you use the word "dick" again and we gonna have a problem.
- An episode of Have I Got News for You had lots of fun with the fact that there's a staffer in the Obama White House named Randy Bumgardener. To elaborate: Randy = horny. Bum = ass. Gardner = "Uphill gardener" (a rarely-used slang phrase referring to a gay man).
- An episode of The Graham Norton Show in the UK had this confuse guest Johnny Knoxvile after an audience member tells Graham on how she stuffed a rubber up her nose. Johnny's reaction led fellow guest Catherine Tate to tell him it's an eraser. Graham was very amused.
- In Blackadder the Third, there is a rotten borough named Dunny-on-the-Wold. Combined with the Myst entry below about what "dunny" means in Australian English, the location can be literally interpreted as "a shithole in the moors".
- This gag from The Office (UK), in which Keith decides to give Dawn some advice on American slang after hearing she's going to the States, was made funnier by Keith's general creepiness and monotone delivery.
- In Community, Duncan the British professor occasionally uses British terms as part of a joke. All of which are part of the larger joke that Duncan doesn't actually know any English slang and knows very little about England, having come to the US at a young age with his grandfather.
- Duncan claims, "I seem to have left my purse in my duffel and my duffel in the boot of my lorry," when trying to borrow money. These are all British-specific terms, though a "lorry" would be a large 18-wheel truck, not a personal pick-up truck, which Duncan doesn't own either.
- In-universe example: "Let's blow this pop stand and head out back for a spot of slap and tickle. That's sex, in case the lingo hasn't made it across the pond."
- In one episode, Britta (a hottie of the group) wants to high-five with Professor Duncan and he leans in for a kiss, but Britta pulls away from him. "Okay, American high-five it is."
- The word 'rubber' means an eraser in the UK, but in other places (particularly the USA) it's a condom. As a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, Emma Watson said that she committed this infraction during her first semester at an American university (Brown), asking a male classmate for a rubber during class.
- American newsman Ted Koppel (who was born and raised in Lancashire before his parents moved to the US when he was 13) has also told the story of asking the class for a "rubber" and getting laughed at.
- In iCarly, Spencer orders Canadian bacon, only to find out that it's just sliced ham.
- In Torchwood: Miracle Day, when Gwen adjusts to the US:
Gwen:I had to go to the petrol station and all they had was crisps.
Esther: I think you mean "gas station" and "chips." Crisps are called "chips" over here.
Gwen: Thank you, Miss Translation.
Esther: And a mobile is a cellphone and by cashpoint I think you mean ATM.
Gwen: Don't ever leave my side.
Gwen: This lemonade is flat.
Esther: It's lemonade. It's supposed to be flat.
Gwen: What, fizzy fizzy lemonade?
Esther: It's fizzy in the UK and flat in the US.
Gwen: Yeah, that just about sums it up.
- 'Shit' can mean 'stuff' in American or Australian English, though it's still connected with the original meaning. In British English it remains a profanity in any context. Stephen Fry once pointed out that if an American says: "I was eating hamburgers and shit", you can tell what he means. But written down it looks like he's saying: "I was eating hamburgers and shit."
- In one episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Detective Goren deduced that a kidnapper was British and not American because he threatened that if he wasn't paid his ransom, "it wouldn't be a very happy Christmas." An American would have said Merry Christmas.
- A Running Gag in the season 8 opener of Psych is that the Americans (Gus and Shawn) can't understand the British criminals even a little bit, because everything they say is completely laden with slang.
- The British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? had a more varied lineup of performers compared to the US version, including British, American, and Canadian comedians. Sometimes the humo(u)r comes from an American/Canadian performer not understanding what a British performer is referring to, or vice versa. It gets even weirder in the episodes filmed in the US—you've got a British host, American and Canadian performers (and in some of the New York episodes, British performers as well), performing in front of a live American audience, for a British TV audience.
- Brit Joseph Marcell, who played butler Geoffrey on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, talked about some of his problems with British vs American English when he was a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show, specifically the slang for calling someone on the telephone: in the US it's "giving [someone] a jingle" but in the UK it's "tinkle," which means urinating in the US.
- When Jamaine goes missing in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, Dave is confused by Murray's New Zealand accent that shifts the short e to the short i sound:
Murray: He [Jamaine] may be dead!Dave: He maybe did what?
- Rodney McKay of Stargate Atlantis, a Canadian, insists on referring to Zero Point Modules as "zed-pee-ems", much to the initial confusion of his (mostly American) teammates, not to mention the aliens that his team talks to.
- "The Gambler Song" (a parody of the Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler") by Australian comedian/singer/songwriter Martin Pearson contains this lyric:
"Then he bummed a cigarette/(Most people smoke them with their mouths)"
- "Super Mario Land With Lyrics" has Dave Bulmer giving several British insults to an uncomprehending Brent, until Dave pulls out an English-to-American dictionary.
- The differing meanings behind the word "thong" were used as a joke in the comic strip Zits. When Connie expressed a desire to wear thongs, it was quite the mental image for her son Jeremy. It is actually a language difference within America; certain parts of the country (and older folks) use the more English-y term "thongs", whereas everyone else uses sandals.
- Canadian example, but Chris Jericho said of the Deep South area that was home to Smokey Mountain Wrestling that he might as well have stayed in Japan even though the language was now English since there was so much he didn't understand.
- Chris Hero and Larry Sweeney would like to remind Nigel McGuinness of the second pure wrestling commandment. Thou shalt not speak British!
- The Bob & Tom Show: In "Cooking with the King", Elvis goes to England to try fish and chips and is completely confused by his host Ian St. Ian's speech. Eventually they get into a fight over the chips, which Elvis recognizes as French fries ("And they ain't even Ore-Ida's!").
- One episode of The Adventures Of Harry Nile had Harry realize that a supposedly American man was actually British because he frantically shouted at Harry to take an injured man "to hospital" as opposed to "to the hospital" (the way someone raised in America would have said it).
Stand-up and Recorded Comedy
- Jasper Carrott once built an entire routine around the idea of going into an American shop to buy a pencil eraser.
Jasper: Hello, can I have a rubber please?Storekeeper: How many would you like, sir?Jasper: Just the one! Gawd, I don't make that many mistakes!Jasper: Oh! Have you got any of those ones with a Mickey Mouse head? Cos I like to chew on them when I'm thinking.
- Russell Brand talks about an encounter with this trope in his New York comedy special, describing the time he was introduced to LL Cool J.
"'Yo, yo, yo, wazzup my homies?' — 'Oh yes, you're wonderful. I love all your homos.'"
- Brian Regan has a brief routine about how, in college, his roommate was from New Jersey, and when they first met said roommate suggested they go for "a pie". The roommate was talking about a pizza, but since Brian had never heard it be referred to like that before, he thought he wanted to get the dessert.
Brian: So we got half pepperoni, and half pumpkin.
- Eddie Izzard (who is British) plays with the Trope Namer when performing in the US: "They say that Britain and America are two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And it's true!" He goes on to demonstrate various pronunciation differences, notably "you say 'erbs,' and we say 'herbs,' because there's a fucking H in it!"
- Copies of Mario Party 8 had to be recalled in the UK due to the character Kamek using the word "spastic" (as in "Magikoopa magic! Turn this train spastic! Make this ticket tragic!") on the Shy Guy Express level. In the UK, "spastic" is an offensive derogatory slang term to refer to disabled or mentally retarded people. The word was changed to "erratic" in re-releases.
- Myst: The chamber where Atrus is trapped is called "Dunny". While later sequels retconned the spelling of this place to "D'Ni", the directory containing the files for this area on the original Myst CDROM is clearly spelt "Dunny". The idea of Atrus being trapped in Dunny for all eternity has a special, hilarious meaning in Australia where the word "Dunny" means toilet.
- Lampshaded in an Axis Powers Hetalia comic:
England: Do you have a rubber?America: Do you even have a partner?!
- The Devil's Panties uses the variant meanings of "knocked up" for a joke with Jennie Breeden.
- Two Running Gags in Scandinavia and the World are Denmark being an Innocent Bigot, and the fact that the main Nordic languages all sound like mispronunciations of each other. Put them together, and you get this strip, in which "major downer" gets mistaken for "master negro".
- In Clerks: The Animated Series when Dante and Randal recall working in a British convenience store and a customer asks for a "pack of fags." Hilarity Ensues.
British Customer: Pack of fags.
Randal: You're a fag!
British Customer: It's a cigarette, mate.
Randal: I'm not your mate, fag!
[Randal jumps over counter and tackles the customer.]
- In South Park's fifth season episode "It Hits the Fan", the gang visits the casino Excalibur to ask about the curse words and "words of curse."
Excalibur employee: Ha! Leave it to Americans to think that "no" means yes, "pissed" means angry, and "curse word" means something other than a word that's cursed!
- In one episode of Codename: Kids Next Door, Numbuh 1 goes with his father overseas to his homeland of England. Despite having a pretty robust English accent, Nigel is worried that he won't be able to comprehend their language while his father assures him they speak English. Unfortunately Nigel indeed ends up confused due to the massive number of idioms that fly over his head once they arrive (and compounded by thick British accents that mask what he would otherwise be able to understand).