Language 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", even if he got his degree at a university)note This is because the line separating a "University" from a "College" is nearly nonexistent in the USA... and "college" frankly takes half the effort to say and spell.
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. 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.
Examples in fiction and media:
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.
Anime and Manga
In Detective Conan, the different meanings of horu (see Useful Notes page) were used to identify the criminal who came from Osaka.
"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.
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.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman in Screwball ComedyThe 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.
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...
Because of the heavy Edinburgh accent and slang in The Acid House, it was released with English subtitles in some parts of USA and Canada.
Lou: You want a Pepsi, pal, you're gonna pay for it!
Doc questions why Marty keeps saying "This is heavy" in moments of stress.
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.
"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.
And this trope is used for humor in "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor".
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.
Live Action Television
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).
Wesley: I'll see you in May! For sweeps! That's what we call spring cleaning in England!
The season 4 Downton Abbey Christmas special finds Martha and Harold, Cora's American family, arriving at the abbey to visit the Crawleys.
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?
Sherlock: Name or adjective?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nicely played with in Blackadder Goes Forth, when Melchett assumes the crossdressing George is a woman and says she's "full of spunk." Blackadder is quietly amused.
This gag from The Office (UK) was made funnier by Keith's general creepiness and monotone delivery.
Keith: "Fanny" means your arse. (Beat) Not your minge.
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 for a kiss, but Britta pulls away from him. "Ok, 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 of his Late Night show, Emma Watson told David Letterman 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.
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. shortly afterwards 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 Arisnio 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)"
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 the less-ambiguous "flip-flops".
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!").
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!
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.
A less grevious one, and one that couldn't possibly be changed even if it was: A minigame in Mario Party DS based around using the touch screen to wind up toy cars as you drive them through a race track is called Twist And Route. This is a pun on the phrase 'twist and shout' - except that due to pronounciation variation, British players either didn't get it or failed to see how it linked to the phrase. note For British readers, the word 'route' in America is pronounced the same as 'rout', making the two words rhymable. For American readers, the word 'route' in Britain is pronounced the same as 'root', meaning the joke falls flat because the words don't sound anything like each other.
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.
RuneScape has several of these due to the fact that the game is made in England. Most of them are pretty subtle, such as differences in spelling, but one that can confuse players is the fact that in England "First Floor" refers to what Americans would refer to as the second floor, instead of the ground floor. Another one is the the item called Biscuits, which actually means Cookies.
Some Americans were thrown off a bit when the Don in Grand Theft Auto III asked the player to deliver a bomb in a "dustcart", leading them to look for a golf cart or other small vehicle instead of the garbage truck he actually meant. The GTA series is theoretically based in the U.S. but is actually made in Scotland, which accounts for the use of British English here.
In Clerks 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.]
Dante: It wasn't until years later that we found out what "fag" really means. Right, mate? Randal: You're a fag! Dante: No, it's a cigarette! Randal: You'rea cigarette!
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).