Separated by a Common Language
"These chips, are fries
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"
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
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
Examples in fiction and media:
Anime and Manga
- 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.
- In Detective Conan, the different meanings of horu (see Useful Notes page) were used to identify the criminal who came from Osaka.
- Parodied when Bandit Keith in Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series speaks to some British people, with "Try speaking American, it's the only language I understand!"
- In Cold December Night, England ends up very confused at America's ugly sweater party when everyone starts showing up in truly terrible jumpers.
Live Action Television
- 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.
- 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.
- Back to the Future:
- Happens between two Americans of different time periods as Marty McFly of 1985 attempts to get a drink at a 1955 diner:
All right, give me, uh, give me a Tab
? Can't give ya a tab, unless ya order something.
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.
- 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 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: Well, the gang's all here!
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.
- 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.
- 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), 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.
: "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.
- 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 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 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".
Stand-up and Recorded Comedy
- 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!").
- 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.
- 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
- 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.]
It wasn't until years later that we found out what "fag" really means. Right, mate? Randal
a fag! Dante
: No, it's a cigarette! Randal
: You're a 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).