Differences between the American and British versions of English (abbreviated by scholars as AmE and BrE) have been cropping up since the first British colonists began settling the east coast of North America in the early 17th century. The colonists, faced by a "new world" filled with new things that the mother tongue lacked vocabulary words for, began coining their own. The political upheaval and separation caused by The American Revolution and the fact that the two countries are separated by several thousand miles of water led to further diversion between the two dialects.
Some academics once believed that British and American English would diverge to the point of incomprehensibility, and later academics theorized that the influence of television and movies might cause the dialects to become identical. Neither has happened, but the differences in vocabulary and slang between the two dialects remain, with new words and slang expressions cropping up even as others become universal on both sides of the Atlantic.
In some quarters of Britain – and most of the rest of the Anglosphere, in fact* the exception being Canada, which is (much as they hate to admit it) part of a dialect continuum with the United States – the American dialects are looked upon unfavorably as a decayed version of the language, with American usages derisively called "Americanisms". The first documented observation of the distinction between the two dialects was a sneering comment from 1735 by an English visitor to Savannah, Georgia who pronounced the American word "bluff" (meaning a raised riverbank) as "barbarous". There are, of course, no intrinsic qualities that make any one dialect of a language superior to any other, and in any case, American English is in many ways a more conservative dialect than British English. American English has, among other things, retained the flat "a" in words like "bath", retained the figurative use of "I guess" for "think, suppose" (that one dates back to Geoffrey Chaucer), and retained the word "Fall" to describe the season that comes after summer (that being a usage that dates back to the Anglo-Saxons but was replaced in BrE by the Latinate "autumn").
This phenomenon obviously is not limited to English, but applies to any language that is spoken over wide geographical areas by people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. One language that probably has even more peculiarities of this type is Spanish, which is spoken in Spain as well as the vast reaches of the former Spanish Empire in North and South America. Examples from many different languages are listed below.
For instances where this is used in fiction as a trope, see the trope page, Separated by a Common Language. When this happens to puns, you've got a case of Accent Depundent.
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A common occurrence in Arabic, what with being spoken in about 20 countries, some of which have multiple dialects, and whose dialects are often mutually unintelligible (much as in German). NOTE: In general there are two broad dialect groups in Arabic, Western (Maghrebi in Arabic) and Eastern (Mashriqi in Arabic). The line between them falls somewhere in the big desert that separates Libya and Egypt. Within the Eastern group, there is further variation: there is Nile Valley Arabic (Egyptian and Sudanese), Levantine (Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian), Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait), Iraqi (also spoken in southwest Iran), and Yemeni. Each country typically has a unique dialect nevertheless mutually intelligible with the others within its group, and there is often some cross-group intelligibility as well: Egyptians – particularly those from Cairo and northward – can typically understand western Levantine (everything but the far eastern reaches of Syria, eastern Jordan being a desert wasteland), while eastern Syrians can understand at least some Iraqis, and many Iraqis can understand Kuwaiti and northeastern Saudi. Some examples:
The Standard Arabic term for a woman is imra'ā or mar'ā, plural nisā' (don't ask why). This becomes mara and niswān in dialect. However, while these are perfectly acceptable in some countries (like Lebanon), niswān is highly derogatory in Egypt, and mara is downright offensive. (It's rather analogous to the non-anatomical usage of "cunt" in British and American English, except that in Lebanon it's not even remotely offensive).note For the curious, the anatomical word for "cunt" in Arabic is fairly consistently kuss, which is always a curse word – although how strong of one varies based on the country – and occasionally gets visiting Germans in trouble.
The word niswanji/niswangi, "womanizer":note -ji/-gi being a suffix meaning "guy who does x"; the spellings are different because of pronunciation differences. In Lebanon it means, roughly, a player or The Casanova: a guy who's good with the ladies, and is vaguely positive, or at least cool. In Egypt, it has historically meant a habitual customer of prostitutes, or at least a guy who consorts with other kinds of low women, and is vaguely negative, although Lebanese influence has toned town the negative connotations somewhat.
In Moroccan Arabic, the word `ayyaṭ means "to call" someone (on the phone) or "to call on" someone (at a place). In Egypt and several other Eastern Arabic dialects, it means "to cry."
The word ḥūt means "whale" in Standard and Eastern Arabic. In Western Arabic, it can refer to most fish. Imagine an Eastern Arab's surprise at being offered a tagine of ḥūt in Tangier...
One of the most famous is queue vs. line, with the former being used in Britain and the latter in the United States. "Queue" has caught on somewhat in America in describing computer applications such as the printer queue. The list of movies you want to get from Netflix is your Netflix queue.
Another famous example is the spelling differences, most commonly seen with -er vs. -re, -or vs. -our and -ize vs. -ise endings (center/centre, color/colour, apologize/apologise). The difference largely springs from two influential early dictionaries standardizing spelling on either side of the Atlantic. Samuel Johnson (British) tended toward codifying the most common spelling at the time his dictionary was published, and at the time it was in fashion to emulate French spellings even in words with non-Latin origins or which English got directly from Latin as opposed to through Old French. Noah Webster (American) tended toward codifying the spelling more in line with a given word's etymology, thus using -re only in French loan words like genre and -er elsewhere, dropping the U in words ending in -our, and using the -ize suffix in words with a Greek root. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary (British) agrees with Webster on that last.
British writers often use the -our variant even when using American proper nouns. An American reader of Martin Gilbert's generally excellent history The Second World War may be thrown by the repeated references to "Pearl Harbour".
Reckon is an interesting example. In both Britain and America it means "think/guess/suppose", but in Britain it is a common expression among all classes while in the United States it has come to be stigmatized (at least in some areas) as uneducated speech associated with hillbillies and rednecks.
Almost everything about automobiles – petrol/gasoline, boot/trunk, bonnet/hood, stick-shift/manual, car park/parking lot, etc. Supposedly Jeremy Clarkson has said this may be the reason Top Gear took so long to catch on in the United States.
Be especially careful when talking about clothing.
"Pants" in America are called trousers in most of Britain (although Americans do understand what trousers are; in the USA, "trousers" refer specifically to dress slacks, as opposed to the more common blue jeans), while pants in Britain are called underwear by Americans. A British person's "suspenders" are an American's "garters"; American "suspenders" are British "braces". Though in Britain the term 'garters' is also used, but not in fine society (at least not anymore), and is rather common Oop North.
Because of the underwear association, in British English 'pants' can also be an adjective meaning 'a bit crap'. Not something truly dreadful, but underwhelming or a waste of your time. 'I went to the circus, but it was pants' has confused US speakers.
In Britain "vests" refers to undershirts, and what Americans would call vests are referred to in Britain as waistcoats (which in American English is considered a very fancy word for the same thing).
"Jumper" refers to two different articles of clothing in the States and in Britain. In Britain and Australia, it's the heavy long sleeve shirt Americans would call a sweater; however, in the States a jumper refers to a sleeveless dress worn over a shirt or another dress, often by little girls. In Britain these are known as Pinafores or Pinafore dresses.
If a British English speaker says "I got off with X all night" it means they kissed or made out. In America, it means X brought the speaker to sexual climax.
It doesn't help that the rough American equivalent, "hook up", can have both definitions depending on who you're speaking to—and that's just in America.
Brits have the slang term "snog", which means roughly the same thing (making out) but often sounds ridiculously obscene to American audiences.
In Britain the word "randy" simply means "horny", in a very straightforward manner. In North America on the other hand, the word "randy" carries the implication that the man in question (and it would always be a man) is also young, inexperienced, wildly exuberant, and not terribly threatening. A colt is randy; a stallion is horny. That's probably why Randy is a nickname in North America, usually short for Randall or Randolph, there's an element of "cuteness" to the word in North American English that doesn't exist in British English. From a letter to the editor in an issue of Wizard Magazine: "Do British people make fun of Randy Queen's name?"
There's 'rubber', which in some places is an eraser, and in other places it's a condom. In still other times and dialects, "rubbers" are rain boots. The standard American term is "galoshes", the Brits use "wellies" and the Aussies use "gum boots".
'Fit' in America and Australia means someone who is physically fit. In England, while it also means this, it adds the pleasant frisson of "highly sexually desirable."
'Pull' means 'attract a girl' in Britain, but means 'masturbate' in Canada.
'Pull' can mean 'kiss using your tongues' or 'make out' in the UK.
In both Britain and America, a thong is an item of ladies' underwear. In Australia, the word refers to what the others would call flip-flops. In the United States it tends to be a regional preference for thongs/sandals.
There's the word bender. In America, it's an extended drinking spree; but in Britain, while it can mean this, it's more often a derogatory term for a gay man. This goes meta, but it makes Futurama even funnier, and for this reason, Avatar: The Last Airbender is called Avatar: the Legend of Aang over there. This had led to problems for the film (which incidentally didn't get such a rename in Britain), however, which features such lines as, "From the minute I lay eyes on you, I knew you were a bender." Haru's line "The only way I can feel close to my father is by bending." is particularly narmtastic to British viewers.
In the United States, "root" as a verb means, among other things, to cheer something or someone on, or to support a sports team. In Australia and New Zealand, "to root" means "to have sex with". Australians barrack for sports teams.
"Shag" means one thing in Britain (and the Austin Powers movies made that definition popular in America) but something completely different along the coast on North and South Carolina, where Shag means a form of slow Lindy Hop dance popular since the 1940's.
In America, prior to the Austin Powers movies and even since, "shag" when used as a noun typically refers to a type of fuzzy carpet popular in the 1960's and 70's.
Even in Britain, some readers of Sherlock Holmes stories can raise their eyebrows when a character expresses a desire for "shag" —- meaning coarse-cut tobacco.
"Knocked up" used to mean "woken up" in Britain, although the American sense of "made pregnant" has pretty much taken over. Still, hilarity often ensues.
In Australia, in the the time of time of the Second World War, "knocked up" meant "exhausted and unable to continue". This caused confusion when American Navy personnel were asked to rescue Australian Coast Watchers who were knocked up.
In the Garbage song "Vow", the lyrics sheet uses the term "I came to knock you up" in what appears to be a rather unique sense of beating the crap out of a faithless lover. However, Shirley Manson swallows the initial consonant, and, well, it doesn't come out sounding like "knock". (It's not clear if her Scottish accent has anything to do with it.)
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. ("Pissed off" also means this in American English, just more emphatically.) 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.
A "dink" in the UK is a small dent, as in a car bumper. In the US it's a childless married couple, an acronym of "Double Income No Kids"; it can also be slang for "flake". In parts of Australia, it means to give someone a lift on your bike. In Western Canada, it's a particularly rude bit of schoolyard slang meaning "penis". The British "dink" is called a "ding" in America. Thus the Billy Mays - sponsored "Ding King". The Canadian definition—with the addition of a single "y"—is the one that made it into Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The word bum. In Britain, it refers to one's backside. In America, it's generally either a derogatory term for a homeless person or a verb similar to "mooch"; it's only ever heard to mean "butt" by little kids and adults trying to sound cute. In Canada in the 80s, "bum" was so G-rated that it could be used on children's TV shows. "Butt" was considered much more explosive, on the level of "shit" or "goddammit".
In the UK, when the word "bumming" is used without an object (e.g. a cigarette), it refers to the act of anal sex, usually of the male homosexual variety, and is considered a slightly immature phrase. "To bum" can also be used as a term to borrow or beg on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Tramp" in British English means "a homeless person", while in American it means both that and "a woman who gets around". See "Lady and the Tramp" vs. Frank Sinatra's "The Lady Is A Tramp".
A "discursive essay" is rambling/freeform in America, but tightly structured in Britain.
In America, a roommate shares the same suite or flat, not necessarily the same room as in England or Australia (they would say "flatmate" or "housemate").
In the UK, "mental" is a playgroundish insult for "crazy". In America it lacks that meaning, being simply an adjective describing matters of the mind. Similarly, a "mentalist" in the UK is an insane person, while in the US it can mean either a certain type of stage magician (such as Kreskin or Reveen) or a psychic who claims to speak to the dead.
Nothing dirty on either side of this one: "chips" refer to different types of food depending on whether you're in England or America. The British call the American chips "crisps", and the Americans call the British chips "French fries" or just "fries". This raises yet another difference as in the UK, French Fries refer specifically to the type you get in fast food places rather than chips as you would get in a Chippy. The popular meal known as "fish and chips" is still commonly called "fish and chips" no matter what side of the Pond you're on. However, in America the thick-cut, skin-on chips associated with chippies are commonly called "steak fries", "jojos", or "potato wedges", depending on the region.
Pringles brand crisps is an American exception to this rule – they were forced to brand their product as "crisps" because American law defines "potato chips" to be actual sliced potatoes, while Pringles are little bits of potato pressed together (and less than 50% actual potato content at that).
In Ireland at least "fries" are slowly becoming identified with the dry, very thin sort found in McDonalds or Burger King (or with steak in quality restaurants) while "chips" are the much thicker, chunkier stuff you eat with fish. If you eat it with vinegar it is probably a chip.
In Australia, on the other hand, the word "chips" refers to both what they call "crisps" in Britain and what they call "fries" in America. The "fries" variety are often called hot chips to differentiate, especially in the context of buying them alongside some fish from a takeaway store. Like in Ireland, the very thin McDonalds-style chips are often called "fries" to differentiate them from the larger chips you get in most other places.
In South Africa, neither "fries" nor "crisps" are a thing. Chips are chips; fries are "slap chips," "slap" being Afrikaans for "soft/floppy."
Another one is tinned/canned when referring to food. The process of home canning (preserving food not in tin cans, but in vacuum-sealed glass jars) adds another layer of confusion.
Soccer/football/American football/Australian Rules Football, etc. The international flame wars that have resulted from this are legendary. "Football" is a generic name for a group of sports with a shared history; the source of the word is that they are played on foot (i.e., not on horseback or with a bat/stick). In any part of the world where one of them is the dominant code, that code will be called simply "football".
In Canada and the United States, "hockey" refers to Ice Hockey, a sport played with a puck between two teams of six players on ice. In the rest of the English-speaking world (UK, Ireland, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand), "hockey" refers to field hockey, a sport played with a ball between two teams of eleven players on artificial turf or grass. Furthermore, the international governing body for field hockey is the International Hockey Federation (FIH), while the international governing body for ice hockey is the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). The Olympics uses this naming convention as well.
The British expression "keep your pecker up" does not translate well into American English. Pecker in Britain means spirits or nerve, but in America it is slang for penis. This is why the line "Be firm, be firm, my pecker" in Trial By Jury will inevitably make American audiences laugh; he's just telling himself to be more confident, not dealing with a case of The Loins Sleep Tonight.
"Screwed up" means "rolled up" in Britain. In America it means "messed up" or "disturbing", and in Australia it means "broken" (though the American version has filtered into British and Australian usage).
"Spastic" has the same literal meaning on both sides of the Atlantic: relating to muscle spasms. However, its colloquial use, "spazz" or "spaz" couldn't be more different. In the United States it is a rather mild, childish insult meaning "clumsy or inept". However, it has become a much more offensive word in the UK – originally applied to people with disabilities characterized by muscle spasms such as cerebral palsy, but later broadened to refer to mental retardation due to people's ignorance about disabilities.
The word "Paki" is a very derogatory term for a Pakistani person in Britain, while in parts of the US – notably New England – "packie" is a slang term for a liquor store ("package store").
What in the United States is called a "liquor store" is in Britain called an "off-licence," or "offie" for short.
Within the category of establishments an Englishman would call an "off-license", the United States has a bewildering galaxy of kinds of establishments (and thus terms for kinds of establishments) to buy alcohol, as each state regulates alcohol differently, and alcohol is usually heavily regulated and restricted in the place and time of sale; thus we get linguistic separation across state lines, let alone the Atlantic. In some states a store can sell either beer and wine, or spirits, but not both; in others a store can sell either beer, or wine and spirits, but not both; in some places you can sell all three, but need a special license for spirits; in some places the merchant has to specialize in alcohol sales; in other places, the alcohol can be sold at any corner store or supermarket; in some places the state has a monopoly on alcohol sales; and so on. In each state, each type of alcohol store—each of which, again, any Brit would just call an "off-license"—may or may not have a special name, but when they do the same term often means completely different things in different states,note For instance, in Georgia, a "package store" is licensed to sell liquor, and may sell beer and wine as well, while in Connecticut a "package store" is licensed to sell wine and liquor but not usually beer. In Oregon, the state monopoly sometimes called the "state store" only sells spirits and a few very high-alcohol fortified wines (e.g. vermouth); in Pennsylvania, the similar state store sells all wine and spirits in the state. and no matter what the terminology will confuse the hell out of anyone from out of state (a Bostonian in NYC talking about a "packie" would be looked at like he was from Mars), let alone from another country. Even the fairly neutral "liquor store" has gotten people's heads turned around: to someone from a place the "liquor store" can only sell liquor or liquor and wine, the sentence "let's go to the liquor store and buy some beer" can sound very weird, and learning that "the liquor store" doesn't sell beer can be very weird to someone from a place where it does.
Canada has the same tradition of regulating alcohol as the US, with the provinces doing the regulating. Most notably, this means (1) "The Beer Store" is a thing in Ontario and is actually called that, much to the amusement of the rest of English-speaking North America; and (2) Quebeckers get their beer from the dépanneur (corner store), which is called that even in English, and their wine and liquor from SAQ.
'Stuffed animal' in America means a plush toy shaped like an animal. In Britain, it means... well, it means a stuffed animal, like what a hunter might keep as a trophy from hunting game. They would refer to the toys as "soft toys" or "teddies" or specifically describe the toy, e.g. "teddy bear", "toy rabbit". Likewise, Americans would refer to the specific animal that was stuffed in the way British people think of when they hear when someone says "stuffed animal" (such as a stuffed deer) while "stuffed animal" only refers to plush toys when used as a general term.
The word "stuffed" in Britain has a sexual connotation it lacks in the United States, where it means one's stomach is full of food after a meal.
In Britain, "pudding" usually implies a hot sweet course (and dessert a cold one) although the lines are somewhat blurred nowadays. In parts of the country, a pudding may refer to a specific type of hot dish (such as a steamed pudding), some versions of which can be savoury. Specific types of pudding (Sticky toffee pudding, queen of puddings, suet pudding) are traditional British dishes. In the US, it's a dairy dessert thickened by starch (a British person would likely call it "custard", although in America that's specifically thickened with eggs).
Americans visiting the UK would not want to try Yorkshire pudding for dessert; it's actually a kind of dry batter dish accompanying roast meat. The closest American equivalents are the popover, from which individual-sized Yorkies are nearly indistinguishable, and the baby Dutch pancake, which is a decadently buttery, massively puffed breakfast pancake often served with fruit and whipped cream.
Black pudding is a blood sausage.
Pease pudding is a bit like peanut butter, or a dripping, only made from peas.
Australian and British savoury pies containing meat are very common, while in the United States "pie" seems to refer primarily to a sweet pastry stuffed with fruit or (less often) vegetables... or with dessert things like chocolate or creme. Occasionally, American productions will treat pies full of meat as unusual, which itself seems very odd elsewhere. There is also the "pastie" or Cornish Pasty, (pronounced "Pah-stee", not "pay-stee"), a type of meat and vegetable pie which is common in Australia and Britain but unknown in many parts of the US, where a pastie is apparently what strippers wear over their nipples to adhere to state decency laws. (Pasties – the pie – are rather closely associated with Michigan's Upper Peninsula though, where a lot of Cornish immigrants settled to work the copper, iron, and silver mines in the 19th century; most Michiganders and many Wisconsinites are at least aware of the dish.) In America, a meat pie will usually be referred to as a "pot pie", like "chicken pot pie".
A regional exception is the Natchitoches ("nack-a-dish") meat pie from Louisiana. And it's regional to that part of Louisiana. Another regional exception is the Southwest, where they do have these things, but call them empanadas.
According to The Other Wiki, a misunderstanding once took place between American and British planners during WW2 surrounding the verb, "to table". (US usage: "postpone", UK usage: "propose") The British wanted to table a matter immediately, as it was important, while the Americans felt that the matter was important and should not be tabled at all. The closest term the US has to the UK usage is "to bring [the matter] to the table".
Date marking convention: In America, dates are usually written mm-dd-yy or mm-dd-yyyy, so Christmas 2013 would be noted as 12-25-13 or 12-25-2013. In Britain, most of the British Commonwealth, and in fact most of the world, dates are written dd-mm-yy, so Christmas would be 25-12-2013. It should be noted that the American system matches how dates are usually spoken on either side of the pond.
It is a much worse insult in Canada than in the US, much worse in the US than in England, and much worse in England than in Australia.
It's more likely in North America to be aimed at women, making it not just a profanity but a sexist slur. In other places it's more or less gender-neutral (probably more likely to be used toward men, if anything).
It's very acceptable in some parts of Ireland, and in Connacht 'cuntish' is regularly used to drive something as bad or undesirable.
In the States, a fag is a nasty slur against gay people and other members of the LGBT community (to the point that nowadays it is bleeped on television). In Britain, a fag is a cigarette or cigarette butt. Can lead to cases awkward cases where an American is confused when a British tourists asks where he could have a fag.
One 1950's GoofyClassic Disney Shorts cartoon, called "No Smoking," sometimes uses the word "fag" to refer to a cigarette, despite the fact that the cartoon was made in the US.
"Faggot" historically meant either "bundle of firewood held together with string" or a kind of meatball in the UK - the former has mostly fallen out of use, but the meatballs are still fairly widely available (although the American usage is more well-known now). J. R. R. Tolkien would occasionally have his hobbits throw faggots on the fire. The urban legend that homosexuals are called "faggots" because the penalty for homosexuality was burning at the stake is a creative modern lie; the two words arose independently many centuries before the law was enacted. note For those interested, one word derives from French and the other from Norse.
'Shit', in colloquial US and Australian parlance, seems like it can be used to denote anything; a substitute for 'stuff' (whilst retaining its specific, scatological meaning), or as a general synonym for "nonsense". In the UK it remains much more of a negative word. A US observer commenting on, say, your fully-stocked fridge by saying 'Wow, you've got loads of shit in here' would probably be received a little coldly. You can describe random stuff as 'shit', but only to give the impression you don't think much of it. (Unless you are a World War II RAF pilot who speaks like a 2010s teenager.) Admittedly, whether "shit" as "stuff" has a positive or negative connotation is entirely dependent on context and tone.
The term "bollocks" seems fill the role of "shit" in the UK, much to the confusion of Americans. Whilst the literal term differs (bollocks being slang for testicles), the usage is the same: Example 1: "This is bollocks." = "This is shit." (i.e. negative term, means bad, terrible, etc.) Example 2: "This is the dog's bollocks." = "This is the shit." (i.e. positive term, means great, brilliant, etc.)
In the USA, the term 'handicapped' remains acceptable from a Political Correctness point of view. In the UK, it has fallen out of favour, and some disabled people will take significant offence if called handicapped. In Canada, "handicapped" refers specifically to disabled persons with mobility problems, and has no negative connotations whatsoever.
English as spoken in Ireland (and sometimes in the UK as well) has picked up a few words from Irish. Many Irish people have gone to America and had amusing reactions to their use of the phrase "How's the craic?". It means "What's up?/What's happening?", but craic is pronounced 'crack'. And was originally an English word spelt 'crack' that was adopted into the Irish language http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craic
"Solicitor", in Britain, refers to a lawyer who doesn't take part in trials. The American legal system does not have the Barrister/Solicitor separation, and as such, neither word is common – they're all lawyers (the type of lawyer who takes part in trials is sometimes simply called a "trial lawyer"). In the US, "solicitor" is synonymous with "telemarketer" or "door to door salesman". Some homes & businesses have signs saying "no solicitors".
In Britain, "outhouse" can be used to refer to any number of subsidiary buildings on a property, such as a barn, guest house, or shed. In America, it's used exclusively for that type of enclosed outdoor toilet which might be called a "privy" in the UK, a "dunny" in Australia, or a "long-drop" in New Zealand and South Africa. The British "outhouse" is the American "out-building".
Be very careful asking for a "napkin" while in a restaurant. It can mean either "serviette" or "diaper" depending on where you are. "Napkin" has even made its way into Japanese as a loanword, referring to sanitary napkins. Asking for one in a restaurant will get you some very strange looks, especially if you're a man. "Serviette" also tends to get used in Canadian English, especially among Easterners and older generations who may interpret "napkin" as the Japanese do.
In America, "fanny" means "butt". Particularly, it's similar to "hiney" or "rear" as a giggly euphemism used by little kids, so it's often used as Toilet Humor in children's shows. This must be pretty horrifying to British viewers — over there, "fanny" is a much ruder word which refers to female genitalia, similar to "snatch" or "pussy" in the US. On top of that, there's the American tourist garment called the "fanny pack", which makes things even more confusing as it's actually worn across the front. In the UK, they call a "fanny pack" a "bum bag". Yes, that's a bum as in your gluteus maximus, and yes they do still wear it on the front.
One example that frequently affects this wiki and other wikis like it: What American TV calls a "season"; i.e., a sequence of episodes produced and aired in a particular year, is part of a "series". For example, Friends was a series which ran for ten seasons, from 1994 to 2004; Season 1 started on Sept. 22, 1994 and ended on May 18, 1995. In the UK, these are often used far more interchangeably when talking about seasons (although not when talking about a series). So the UK Office consists of Series 1 in 2001, Series 2 in 2002, and a concluding 2003 Christmas special.
In America, 'Hooker' is a common term for 'prostitute'. In Ireland, 'Hooker' (properly the Galway Hooker, pronounced HOO-kah) is a term for a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay, and sometimes used for racing.
In Ireland "cute" is sometimes used to mean sly. A "cute whore" is an especially sly person, not an attractive prostitute.
In the US, "Oriental" means "of East Asian origin" and is properly applied only to things (i.e. "an Oriental rug") and considered outdated, politically incorrect, and potentially racist when applied to people, the term "Asian" being much preferred. In the UK, "Oriental" is considered politically correct and the term "Asian" tends to be reserved for people from South Asian countries (as opposed to the more specifically China/Japan/Korea/Vietnam connotation the word has in America).
When an American asks for a brew, it means a beer. In the UK, it means a cup of tea.
In the US, you travel between floors of a building in an elevator. In the UK, you travel between floors in a lift ("lift" in America usually refers to an open platform used in industrial settings, or an automatic wheelchair mover). In addition, in the US, you start at the 1st floor and go up to the 2nd (though there might be separate "ground" and "first" floors if the building is on a slope); in the UK, as in Europe, you start at the ground floor and go up to the 1st.
In the US, "cow" is slang for a fat or stupid woman (or both), while in the UK and Canada it's a mild word for bitch. So to an American "skinny cow" could be taken as redundant or contradictory.
In the UK, a flashlight is called a torch. In the US, a torch is a stick with a flame on the end.
In Australia, "bogon" or "bogan" is a class-based putdown, often used in a vaguely affectionate way. In Canada, it's a racist insult. (Possibly because in French, a bougnoul, or bougnoule is a derogatory racist word for a North African Arab, on a par with "wog" or "nigger"). In the rest of the world, a bogon is an address in unassigned or reserved IP space, which is clearly invalid and non-routable.
What Americans call a purse – a small-ish bag carried by women containing their keys, phone, etc. – is called a handbag in the UK. The small thing women keep their money and credit cards in—the female version of a wallet, is what Brits call a purse.
British tights and American pantyhose are exactly the same thing. Some Americans do use "tights" and "pantyhose" interchangeably (with "tights" referring specifically to the heaver opaque version). "Tights" is also associated with the thicker variety worn by little girls and dancers (also known as leggings), and which is acceptable as outerwear.
In most of the world, the word "barbecue" is a verb, meaning "to grill". However, in the American South (and part of the Midwest) it refers to a specific style of outdoor cookery, distinct from grilling. Grilling is done fairly quickly, over an open flame and/or coals. Barbecue is a far slower process (several hours at minimum) involving lower heat, which may or may not involve the subspeciality known as "smoking", which is even slower. The word barbecue can also be applied as a noun to the products of the whole process. In Britain, it generally applies to any form done outside without a specific process, as well as as a noun to the object this is done on. This technique—and insistence that it is the only thing entitled to be called "barbecue"—is tremendously Serious Business to its practitioners and aficionados (for details, see Cuisines In America). In Britain, a grill is an indoor appliance, often part of the oven, consisting of a downwards heating element with a rack underneath it for the food—Americans call it a "broiler." It's good for making food, especially anything with melted cheese, go brown and crispy on the top. A barbecue (or BBQ to most Brits) is something outdoors, and to barbecue is to use one of these outdoor appliances with coals in the bottom and a rack on top to slowly char your food - not grilling it at all.
A biscuit in America is a small- to mid-size round, savory quickbreadnote Bread raised with chemical leavening, like baking soda or powder, rather than yeast with a soft and rich inside (usually being made with a great deal of butter, buttermilk, shortening, and/or lard) and slightly crispy and very flaky outside. Scones are a whole other matter; it's best you just don't bring them up. In the Commonwealth, a biscuit is a dry cookie that in America would be called a cracker or simply cookie (that popular accompaniment to A Spot Of Tea, the digestive biscuit, is similar to a Graham cracker, but much thicker). For further confusion, there's a similar item called "beaten biscuit" in the American South or "sea biscuit" in New England, or "pilot biscuit" or "pilot bread" in other regions.
And in Australia "Biscuit" is the general catch-all term for all of the above, though "Cookie" has recently come into use for particularly large sweet biscuits, at least 15cm-ish across.
In the UK, letters arriving through the door are the post, are posted when sent, and the man delivering them is the postman. In the US it's the mail, is mailed when sent, and delivered by the mailman. Just to confuse things further, the postman is an employee of Royal Mail, whereas the mailman is an employee of the Postal Service.
While not as common as mailman, the term postman is used in the States. However, when a document is "posted", it means it's been hung on the wall as a notice. "Postman" is a somewhat more formal term than the common word "mailman". This is probably why the notorious Kevin Costner flop (or rather, the David Brinnovel on which it was based) was called The Postman.
In America, the fruit of the capsicum plant is typically called a "pepper", or sometimes "chili pepper", whereas in Britain said fruit is typically referred to simply as a "chilli" (note the spelling), and "pepper" by itself refers exclusively to the dried and ground fruit of the piper plant, which Americans usually call "black pepper", while "peppers" generally refers to American bell peppers. The term "chili", when used by itself in America, usually refers to chili con carne.
Actually, a British chilli is something hot and spicy, the fruit of the capsicum plant is a pepper here, too.
And in Australia, we call the small spicy ones "chilli" and the larger ones "capsicum"
And what Britons refer to as an "aubergine" is called an "eggplant" by Americans.
Additionally, the UK/commonwealth "marrow" refers to the US "squash", and the UK "courgette" refers to the US/Australian "zucchini".
In Britain the squash is called a squash, as is often the 'marrow'. They are two different foods but usually called by the same name. Sometimes the squash is called a 'swede' in Britain, but more often that word refers to what Americans (and Canadians) call a rutabaga.
"Lemonade" is a drink made from lemon, sugar, and water in the US; and a similar but carbonated drink in the UK. However, in Australia and New Zealand, it refers to clear carbonated drinks like Sprite.
American style Lemonade does exist in the UK, though is usually explicitly referred to as Still Lemonade to differentiate from "traditional" UK varieties: likewise, UK-style lemonade can occasionally be found in America (typically called "sparkling lemonade").
Also, in Britain, ask for lemonade at a restaurant and you are likely to be served 7-up, which is to Sprite what Coke is to Pepsi. It's all lemonade to us, unless it's lemon-flavoured sparkling water.
Carbonated drinks have many names, depending on the region you're in—pop, soda, coke, fizzy drink, etc.
Food example: "candy" (North America) vs "sweets" (UK and Ireland) vs "lollies" (Australia and New Zealand).
In America, "sweets" is a catch-all term that includes both confectionery sugar candies and chocolates - and, depending on context, can even incorporate pastries and cakes.
What Americans call "candy bars" are "chocolate bars" in Canada.
British people often use "meant" in casual language, where an American would say "supposed". For example, in America, the question "Who am I meant to be?" would only be used if the person speaking was contemplating their existence; in Britain, one could ask that question in order to clarify after being mistaken for someone else, in which case an American would say "Who am I supposed to be?".
Likewise, to an American, "it was meant to be a red pen" implies that a higher power intended the item in question to be a red pen; a reference to pulling out the wrong item from your pocket would be "it was supposed to be a red pen".
Brits mostly say "different to", while Americans prefer "different from" or "different than" and argue about which one to say where. Oxford dictionary considers all three forms correct.
Some Brits use "what" where Americans would use "that" (as in That Play What I Wrote). In America, this usage is considered uneducated country speech (see reckon above).
"Cider" is always alcoholic in Britain — it's what Americans would call "hard cider". The non-alcoholic variety is just called "apple juice" in the UK. Since "hard cider" was banned during Prohibition, Americans now make a distinction between apple juice (which is heavily filtered and not spiced at all) and what came to be called cider (which is unfiltered, commonly spiced, and often seasonal, the season being the fall—when apples are harvested). NOTE: American usage has been shifting around a bit in the past ten years or so with the rise of alcoholic craft cider along with the craft brewing movement, with some beginning to use "cider" to refer to the alcoholic drink and "apple cider" to refer to the unfiltered juice, so watch this space!
In North America, a "straight-A student" is a student who excels at everything academic.note This is due to the grading system going alphabetically – A, B, C, D, and F. If you say you were a "straight-A student" in New Zealand, everyone will think you're a slacker, as A (for Achieved) is the lowest passing grade under the NCEA secondary school grading system.note The four grades in the NCEA system, from worst to best, are Not Achieved (N), Achieved (A), Merit (M) and Excellence (E).
The straight-A isn't a familiar concept in England, either, as it doesn't come into play until GCSE (which is usually at 15 years), and if you take exams on the Foundation level of GCSEs you can only achieve a C. It then disappears after A-Levels (the 'A' stands for 'Advanced'; these are usually done at about 18).
The British "bird" and the American "chick" are both avian-based slang terms for young, attractive women.
Trainers in UK are sneakers in the US and runners in Australia. Ask an American for trainers and they'll likely point you to children's underwear. At least one survey on social media sites such as Facebook will ask what one's first pair of trainers were. Americans typically wonder what the question is referring to, with some people making random guesses (training bras are one fairly common assumption).
A 'tube sock' in the USA is a calf-length white sock with no defined heel and (often) stripes at the top. You will not find these in Britain (and if you do, they will just be a sock). A 'tube sock' in Britain is what you might call a muscle bandage (but not that tape stuff from the Olympics). A 'tube sock' in Australia is what we'd call an ankle sock.
A 'bike' in British English can mean anything from a push-bike with stabilisers to a motorcycle to a young promiscuous woman with no shame. The latter are along the lines of a 'hooker' in American English, which causes hilarity when visiting Yanks ask young British women who work at cycle shops if there's a local bike hire. There aren't many bicycle rental places in Britain unless you're at an outdoor activity centre, anyway. Granted there aren't many bicycle rental places in America either. 'Bikes' seem to be used much more often in America to mean motorbike than in Britain, where the usual meaning of bike is a bicycle.
A toilet is that porcelain bowel in pretty much every English-speaking country. The room it lives in, however, is to an American a 'restroom' or 'bathroom', to a Canadian a 'washroom' or 'lavvie', to a Brit a 'loo' or 'toilet' in polite conversation (see below) and to an Aussie a 'dunny' (or loo, toilet, bathroom ... Australians borrow a lot).
Saying toilet to mean 'restroom' in America is traditionally considered quite rude, but it's the polite British version.
If the toilet-room the British are describing is outside, they will handily add the word 'public' to the front of their chosen word ('loo', 'WC', 'lav', etc.). Apparently, these only exist in Europe (maybe because of the major design flaw).
A 'bathroom' in Britain must A) be inside and B) contain a shower, bath, toilet, sink, mirror, (opaqued) window, a towel rack, and a shelf or cupboard for wash-stuff. Some include a bidet, too. A room with just a toilet and sink is a 'cloakroom'. In America, a room with only a toilet and sink is sometimes referred to as a "powder room".
In American English, the room where you go to void your unmentionables goes by many names, often varying depending on where it is located and who you are talking to. Bathroom, restroom, lavatory, latrine, etc. Many of these words have slightly different definitions and connotations with common overlap. A latrine, for instance, could be an entire dedicated building full of toilets and sinks, or it could be a hole you just dug out in the woods, and anything in between, at least in the military.
In US usage, "lavatory" exclusively refers to toilets on airplanes.
Canadians will refer to a small guest bathroom on the main floor of the home (with only a sink and toilet) as being a 'Powder Room', while a bathroom that is accessible only via a master bedroom or other large bedroom may be called 'En Suite'.
An American going to high school will attend from around age fourteen to age eighteen depending on how the school district is organized; a Brit from eleven to sixteen and an Australian from twelve, thirteen or fifteen to seventeen or eighteen, depending on the state or even the school.
The word "College" has wildly different definitions depending on what country you're in.
In America, "college" and "university" are often functionally interchangeable, and "college" is the vernacular shorthand for attending either. There is no legal and little if any academic distinction between the two. Where there is a distinction is between these two and "community college", which is a technical schools that grant certifications and lesser academic degrees (an "Associates")... and is usually much less expensive.
In Canada, a stricter distinction is drawn between "colleges" (certificate- and diploma-granting institutions) and "universities" (degree-granting institutions). A university student would never refer to "going to college" the way an American might, for instance. Adding a complication is that certain universities, in a holdover from the UK system, contain "colleges" (notably the University of Toronto).
In England, "college" is what in America would be the last two years of high school (also known as "Sixth Form"). In Scotland, the word College can either be used for a (usually older) high school, or more commonly for what Americans would call Community college.
In New Zealand, "college" is another term for a secondary school alongside 'high school'. Depending on the region, the difference between a high school and a college can be single-sex vs coed, Years 9 to 13 vs Year 7 to 13, state vs state-integratednote Put simply, private schools which have gone bust and bought out by the government, becoming state schools but retaining their special character. Two-thirds of them are Catholic schools. and private, old schools vs new schools, or completely random.
In Australia, private high schools are often called colleges (e.g. St. John's College), although they are still referred to as schools ("I went to school at St. John's College"). However in some jurisdictions, colleges are senior high schools like in New Zealand. To add to the confusion, the residential houses on university campuses are also called colleges, and often have similar religious-based names; they are only referred to in terms of accommodation, not university itself (e.g. "While I was Sydney University I lived at St. John's College").
Kindergarten, a colourful room full of American kids who apparently eat wax crayons and do nothing else, doesn't exist in Britain. It could be any one of nursery, nursery school, pre-school, playgroup, reception or Year 1. "Nursery school" and "Pre-school" are mostly interchangeable in America, and refer to what educators and politicians often shorthand as "Pre-K".
Primary school in Britain is from four to eleven, and is broken down into infant (four to seven) and junior (seven to eleven). In America, there are no further subdivisions, and it broadly designates Kindergarten through fifth grade, sometimes sixth depending on the school (that would be about five to ten or eleven).
"Public school" means a standard government-run school in America and Scotland. In England, it means an expensive, highly prestigious private school (the term "public" was originally not in the sense of public ownership but rather distinct from private tutoring – i.e. home-schooling). As Scotland is bombarded with English media, the English usage of public school is commonly understood, however "Anytown Public School" would be a school run by the local board of education, not a private school. The term "state school" is commonly used in both Scotland and England to differentiate from one that is private. The British "public school" would be known in America as a "prep school" or (more pretentiously) a "collegiate academy".
In Ireland the word "deadly" can mean "cool" as well as "very dangerous" to the confusion of the rest of the English speaking world.
Irish slang: "shifting" is common slang for French kissing, more commonly phrased as "getting the shift". For Irish teens the word's more likely to be "maul" and for younger teens it'll usually be "meet". This kind of thing is constantly in flux though; Irish slang changes a lot. "Shifting" in America refers to Driving Stick (e.g., "shifting into second").
The popular painkiller paracetamol is called acetaminophen in the United States, Canada and some East Asian countries. Brand Name Take Over takes this even further — its called "Tylenol" or "Panadol" depending on where you live.
No matter where you live, a "kiwi" is a brown, furry New Zealand icon. However, if you are in New Zealand, you most definitely will not eat one. New Zealanders call the green-fleshed fruit "kiwifruit", and use "kiwi" to refer to their national bird — the fruit got its name from looking similar to the bird. Kiwi birds are an endangered species and protected by the law. "Kiwi(s)" may also refer to a New Zealand person, the New Zealand dollar,note In terms of currency trading, e.g. "The Kiwi is up half a cent against the Euro" - in everyday speak, New Zealanders like Americans use the term "buck" the New Zealand national Rugby League team, or it may just be an adjective meaning "of New Zealand" (because it's a pain to write "New Zealander" every time we want to describe something). Kiwifruits are actually not native to New Zealandnote It used to be called "Chinese gooseberry" or considered the plant that represents New Zealand - that honour would go to the silver fern.
The game known as Tic Tac Toe in North America is known as Noughts and Crosses in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one line mentions a woman in the hospital being given "a pot plant" for Christmas. To at least some Canadian and American readers this is highly entertaining, because the commonly used term here is "potted plant"; a "pot plant" is marijuana/cannabis.
The word "cut" means "muscular, well-built" in some parts of the US or a colloquial term for "circumcised" on either side of the Pond. One should be aware of this when describing one’s taste in men. In America, someone with well-defined musculature is referred to as "chiseled" or "ripped".
The once commonly-seen-in-British-pubs sign "No football coaches allowed" which translates to "No tour buses carrying soccer fans allowed".
In European French, "gosse" is an informal term for "child". In Quebec, it means "testicles". It is a very common source of gags.
In French, gosses and crosse mean "kids" and "stick" (as in "hockey stick") respectively. In Canadian French, they are also euphemisms for "testicles" and "masturbation". So when a Frenchman tells his Canadian friends that he can't wait to handle the stick with his kids...
One cultural difference between France and Canada is the definition of turlutte. For the North Americans, it’s a folkloric dance. For the Europeans, its an euphemism for a fellatio.
French-Canadian seem prone to funny Anglicisms too : when a Quebecois says "Je suis chaude" (literally from English "I'm hot", in the "too warm" meaning of the word), a French will understand "I'm horny" (they would use "J'ai chaud"). Confusion (and expectation) particularly arises when you take off some clothes since you're "hot". It gets funnier: The most common Quebecois meaning of the phrase "Je suis chaud/chaude" (adjectives are gendered in French) is "I'm drunk".
According to most French speakers "chauffer" means "to heat" as in over a fire. In Quebec, it's a loanword from English, derived from "chauffeur" and means "to drive". Along a similar line, "char" in France means "tank" or "chariot", but in Quebec it means "car". So, if you're going to "chauffer mon char"...
There's also the minor problem of "sacre", the Quebecois system of swearing. Europe isn't nearly as strict about religion as Quebec was when the swears were established, so they don't translate. This leads to French speakers in Europe adopting them without understanding their severity. But saying "tabarnak" in Quebec is considered worse than any English or European French swear word (an American equivalent would be at somewhat over the "Jesus motherfucking Christ" level of profanity). In France, it's more of a Goshdang It To Heck replacement for France's swear words, which are related to sex, not religion. So when a Quebecois travels to Paris... That's something of a two-way street, with the Quebecois thinking nothing of using French swears. Perhaps fortunately (for this trope anyway), Quebecois tend to prefer using American swearwords for mild ones.
Occasionally pops up in French / Belgian conversations, such as a Belgian asking for a towel and getting scented wipes instead ("essuie" for Belgians, "serviette" for the French).
Normally, French speakers translate seventy, eighty, and ninety as "soixante-dix," "quatre-vingt," and "quatre-vingt-dix" respectively. In some French dialects, particularly the ones spoken in Belgium and Switzerland, people have been known to use "septante," "huitante," and "nonante" respectively.
In Metropolitan French, breakfast translated as petit déjeuner, while lunch and dinner are known as "déjeuner" and "dîner" respectively. In Switzerland and Québec, breakfast becomes simply as "déjeuner", while the words for lunch becomes "dîner" and dinner as "souper" (supper).
The term "dépanneur", mentioned above in the bit about English terms for places to buy alcoholic beverages (being what even an English-speaking Quebecker will call where he/she goes to buy beer), also causes problems in French: in Quebec French, it means "corner store/convenience store," but in France it means "repairman" or "troubleshooter."
There is a line somewhere between the South and North of Germany that marks the separation between Bavarian/Alpine and Central German dialectsnote (this is NOT to be confused with the parallel line even further north between High German – to which both Alpine and Central dialects belong) – and Low German, which is a completely different language more closely related to Dutch). Which is not to say that the various countries and regions south of the line are not also Separated by a Common Language. For example, the phrase "Half ten" can shift in meaning by a full hour over a distance of a few hundred kilometers. In most of the world, this means 10:30 (half past ten), but in German, it means 9:30; as in "half to ten". People from North America use a different set of phrases for giving the time without reading the whole thing out; half past ten means the same thing as half ten in British English, quarter past ten means 10:15, and quarter till eleven means 10:45.
Generally speaking, due to the fact that Germany was politically and culturally fragmented for a very long time (with cultural unification only somewhat beginning to happen a few centuries back, and political unification even later), being more a set of somewhat related tribes than a nation, the differences in dialects are much more severe than in many other (European) languages. While the examples below reflect differences in vocabulary and idioms between Northern and Southern variants of Standard German, for the actual dialects (which are still widely spoken) it's less a matter of "false friends" or different idioms and more of a matter of hardly being able to understand anything, because it sounds almost like an entirely different language. See here for further details.
In Germany, "Stuhl" means "chair", and "Sessel" means "comfy chair". In Austria, it's the other way round.
Most Swiss are aware their dialect is just a standardized orthography and a serious literary tradition away from being a separate west Germanic language (like Dutch) and thus try to speak "standard German" when conversing with Germans. However, there are some subtleties not everyone is aware of, like "Peperoni" meaning (fruity) bell peppers in Switzerland and (hot) chili peppers in Germany. "You are going to put what into the salad?"
"Finken" is a form of the German word for "finch" and in Swiss German means a sort of shoes you wear inside the house.
The word "Fotze" can mean "bitchslap" in Bavaria or Austria, while in Germany as a whole, it is mostly a vulgar term for vagina.
In most of the German-speaking world, anmachen, "turn on," has a similar slang meaning as in English, though it can also be used to mean "hit on" or "chat up." In Berlin, it means to piss someone off. However, the latter meaning did ultimately expand beyond Berlin in youth slang and so-called "ghetto language", although in common, non-subcultural slang it still primarily means "to turn on".
There was a case of a Bavarian teacher who got to teach in a more Central German school. He was accused of insulting a female pupil whom he, precisely, called "Luder". In Bavaria, this is a common and pretty harmless term meaning "naughty girl". In other parts of Germany, it means "bitch".
The Nordic languages Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are close enough that native speakers of one language will understand the other two. Basically it's three dialects that happen to be separated by political borders, and use slightly different spelling conventions. This, of course, means that the occasional differences in vocabulary (particularly where the same words have different meanings) can lead to much hilarity. One frequent source of puns and misunderstandings is the word "rolig", which means "calm" in Danish, but "funny, amusing" in Swedish.
There's "rar", which is the Swedish word for "cute, sweet", but means "strange, weird" in Norwegian. "You're the strangest girl I've ever met." (In Swedish "rar" can also mean "rare". However, it's almost never used that way.)
The word "yr", which in Swedish means "dizzy", but in Norwegian can mean "frisky" (although used, in that sense, about as rarely as the word frisky in English) or "light drizzle". However, the Norwegian word "ør" (pronounced as American "her" without the h) has approximately the same meaning as Swedish "yr", so that confusion will often be avoided.
A notable example is the Swedish word "grina". If someone from Stockholm says to someone who lives in Scania: "Jag grinade när min katt dog", they mean "I cried when my cat died", but the Scanian would probably think they're talking to some kind of demented animal abuser since the word means "laugh" or "smile" in the Scanian dialect.
Not even the two written forms of Norwegian, Bokmål and Nynorsk, are immune to this. In Bokmål, the pronouns "han" (he/him), "ham" (him), "hun" (she) and "henne" (her) are reserved for persons. In Nynorsk, "han" (masculine), "ho" (feminine) and "henne" (feminine object) can be used about anything as long as the grammatical gender is right. Have fun writing Nynorsk sentences like "Bob found Alice's cake (feminine) and ate 'her'".
Portuguese in Portugal and Brazil is similar, but many words mean different things overseas:
"Banheiros": in Brazil, bathrooms/restrooms; in Portugal, lifeguards.
"Durex": in Brazil and Australia, duct tape; in the rest of the world, a brand of condom common in North America, the UK, and Europe.
"Puto": in Portugal, kid; in Brazil, masculine of "whore". In Tagalog, rice cakes, though that depends largely on the intonation: pu-to means male-whore, pu-to means rice cake.
Similarly, "Rapariga" in Portugal means girl, young woman; in Brazil, it means "whore".
If you say "Vou tomar uma pica no cu." in Portugal, you're about to go get a shot for, say, flu, on your buttocks. In Brazil, not only are you telling people that you're gay, but you're also announcing that you're about to be sodomized. And being quite vulgar about how you say it, in fact.
Computer jargon in Brazil and Portugal is also pretty much mutually exclusive, since Brazil prefers to import words from English or do only mild adaptations, while Portugal translates.
Sometimes you need to think about the etymology of the translated word to be able to understand the other ("Arquivo"/"Ficheiro", both meaning File. Brazilians can only understand "Ficheiro" by thinking about what "Arquivo" meant 50 years ago)
There are also significant differences in grammar, such as the gerund. Portugal usually uses "estar a <<plain verb>>" (with the "estar" appropriately flexed), while Brazil uses "<<verb>>ando" (or "endo" or "indo").
Spanish is chock-full of these on account of being spoken in 20 countries in North, Central, and South America, plus a very heterogeneous country in Europe, an African and an Asian country (Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines respectivelynote though since World War II, Spanish has been largely supplanted by English in the Philippines), and a significant chunk of the United States. Dialects differ to the extent that Spanish pages have to either focus on a specific target country or use a region-neutral dialect.
"Caliente" means "hot" in Spanish. When said about a person, in many Latin American countries it means that person is good looking, like in English. However, in Spain it means that person is horny, and in Venezuela, that is very angry.
"Cajeta" is Argentinian for "vagina", and Mexican for a caramelized milk confection known in Argentina as "dulce de leche".
"Euzkadi" is the Basque language name in Spain for the Basque Country, but in Mexico, it's the name of a famous brand of tires named "Euzkadi Radial".
The Spaniard phrase "por la cara" is a literal translation of the British phrase "by the face" who normally mean "free" in Spain and the U.K. but in Mexico (and possibly the U.S. too) "por la cara/by the face" could be translated as "receiving something in the face" (normally a punch).
"Pendejo" is Mexican for "moron" and Argentinian for "brat". It can also mean "pubic hair" or "coward".
"Cachondo" is Spaniard for "funny" and Mexican for "horny" (although "cachondo" can also mean "horny" in Spain); "guarro", meanwhile, is Spaniard for "dirty" and Mexican for "bodyguard".
The verb "coger" is probably the most (in)famous example of Separated by a Common Language in Spanish. It means "get" or "pick up" in Spain and a few Latin American countries, but in Mexico and many South American countries, it's an offensive word that means "to fuck." In Costa Rica, at least among younger people, it can mean both. So if you say something completely innocent like "voy a coger eso" ("I'm going to take/pick that up") some people will look at you weirdly or make fun of you.
The word "guagua" means "bus", "van", or "truck" in Canarian Spanish and several dialects influenced by it (e.g., Cuba, Puerto Rico, Louisiana). So, "coger la guagua" means "take the bus" in Canarian and Puerto Rican Spanish. In Chile, however, "guagua" means "baby." Ahem. It is also very close to the babytalk word for dog, "guauguau" (guau is the Spanish rendering of woof).
Computer-based terminology can be a royal pain to translate depending on which Spanish-speaking country you're talking about:
In Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, and Puerto Rico the word "computer" is translated as "computadora" but in the rest of the Latin American countries is translated as "computador" and in Spain as "ordenador".
Using "ordenador" could possibly be a way to avoid a version of the Scunthorpe Problem, as the Spanish word "puta" (whore) is in the words "computador" and "computadora." The same problem occurred in French. The word "computer" sounds like "con putain", meaning "cunt whore", so the word "ordinateur" was proposed instead.
It's common for 19th or early-mid 20th century inventions to have names derived from English in Latin America but from French in Spain. Another example is elevator, which is "elevador" in the former and "ascensor" in the latter.
In programming, the English word "array" (a series of data elements in a certain order) doesn't really have a translation in Spain: many people use the English term, while some try to shoehorn the word "vector" if the context allows for it.note Vectors are much the same thing as arrays, but some programming languages treat them as different things with different properties. In Mexico and maybe the rest of Latin America, the word used to translate it is "arreglo", usually meaning a fix for something broken, or a musical arrangement.
The Mitsubishi Pajero is a car named for the Pampas cat (from "paja" meaning hay). But it had to be renamed for certain markets because "pajero" also means "wanker" in various Spanish dialects. In America, it is the Mitsubishi Montero, and it is the Mitsubishi Shogun in Britain.
Gaming terminology can be a bit confusing between countries:
A Game in Mexico is translated as "Juego" when it's referred for both videogaming and sports games, but in Spain, there's a two different words for Game there: For videogaming, it's "partida", and "partido" for sports.
When you press a button in a joystick or control pad, you say "presionar un boton" in Mexico and "Pulsar un boton'' in Spain.
The name Arcade has different names between Spanish-speaking countries: In Mexico, they are called Maquinitas or Chispitas and in Spain, they are called Recreativas.
In Spain a "pinche" is a kitchen help. In Central America it is The Scrooge. And in Mexico it is a pejorative word akin to "damn" or "bloody".
Cars. While equivalents of "vehicle" (vehículo) and "automobile" (automóvil, as well as its short-hand "auto") are used on both sides of the pond, the most common, coloquial term akin to the word "car" is carro in Latin America and coche in Spain. In Spain, a "carro" is a cart, while in Latin America, a "coche" is a carriage.
The name of the seed Soy is a rather confusing example: In Mexico and other Latin American countries is translated as Soya, when in Spain is Soja (Despise being pronounced the same as in Latin America). The root of the problem is the fact is the word Soy came from the Japanese word Shoyuu, who is normally used in Japan as Soy Sauce, while the seed itself is named Daizu. The Spaniard spelling is the closest version of the Japanese spelling, while the Latin American countries translate the word phonetically.
Gringo is universally a term for someone whose native language isn't Spanish, usually people from the US. However, it varies extremely in how pejorative it is among countries, from being essentially the inverse of "spic" to being just a neutral, informal term like "Kiwi" for New Zealanders. Americans tend to be offended by it because in northern Mexico and the United States, where most Americans are likely to encounter Spanish speakers, it is an offensive or condescending term, which causes many, many problems when they encounter Spanish speakers from other countries who use the word with no negative connotations. Problems like the Argentinian not being able to understand why his pal from Houston just broke his nose.
Dutch and Afrikaans
In Flemish Dutch, "Ik zit vol" ("I'm full") is a way of saying one is pregnant. In Netherlands Dutch, it's a way of saying one has had enough to eat.
The phrase "Ik zie u graag" ("I like seeing you.") means "I'm in love with you." in Flanders, but not in the Netherlands. So when a Flemish person says this to a Dutch person, the message will quite probably not get across.
Also famous for this is the verb "poepen", which to Dutch people means "to shit", but which for Flemish people means "to have sex".
In the Netherlands "lopen" means "to walk", but in Flanders, it means "to run".
Dutch and Afrikaans both have the word "Kont". In Dutch it's fanny as the Americans would say it. In Afrikaans... Fanny as the English would say it, with the cultural faux pas of the C-word.
In China, 搞 means "to do". In Hong Kong, it can mean "fuck".
This can happen with Chinese characters across different languages, as well. In Japanese, 手紙 (tegami) means "letter" (as in, one sent in the mail). In Chinese, 手紙 (shouzhi) is "toilet paper". The compound noun here is literally "hand-paper".
This happens in all of China's spoken dialects, including even the official one of Mandarin (Putonghua); for example, in mainland China 土豆 means "potato(es)", but in Taiwan the same phrase is used to mean "peanut(s)".
The Philippines, being an archipelago, has had several very different languages develop among the certain isolated island clusters. While there are many shared local words and similarly loaned words from former colonizers, quite a lot can mean different things even when spelled and pronounced similarly. For example, the word "langgam" means "ant" in Tagalog while in Visayan it means "bird."
Some English words also mean very different things in Philippine English. For example, salvage in the military and police context means "summary execution." Girls should be careful about calling themselves tomboys – that term often means "lesbian" in the Philippines.
There are so, so many in Indonesian and Malay. Not exactly a common language, but they're generally mutually intelligible languages so these are actually pretty common. (Most of the time, awkward silence happens first, 'then' Hilarity Ensues.)
Malaysian cooking show hosts may ask their viewers to "menggauli", or mix a certain concoction. An Indonesian listening in may wonder why and how they'd rape a concoction.
In Indonesian, "buntut" is perfectly normal word meaning "tail", but in Malay it means "butt". Malay uses "ekor" instead. (which is a synonym of "tail" in Indonesian)
In Malaysia, the national census is known as "Banci Penduduk". An Indonesian would have presumed that transvestites are banned there....
Modern Hebrew, despite having almost no actual dialectical variations, does have one prominent example: while metsitsa (מְצִיצָה, lit. ‘sucking’ as in ‘the act of sucking something out of something else’) means ‘lollipop’ in Jerusalem, it means ‘blowjob’ to any Hebrew speaker elsewhere.
Japanese regional dialects can cause a lot of confusions. For example, "horu" in standard Japanese means "to dig". In Kansai and some other parts of Japan, it means "to throw away rubbish".
Avianca Flight 52 was low on fuel after being placed in a holding pattern by New York controllers due to bad weather. The pilots radioed a request for a "priority landing," as the plane was running out of fuel. "Priority" would be understood by Spanish-speaking controllers as a need to land immediately, but English-speaking controllers are used to "emergency landing." The plane crashed, killing 73 people. This trope can be fatal.
In Irish, the consonant clusters "cn" and "gn" are usually pronounced the way you'd expect, but in Ulster the "n" becomes an "r". Thus, "cnoc" (hill) becomes "croc" (hang), and "gnáth" (usual) becomes "grá" (love).
Differences between Finnish dialects, mainly between the Eastern and Western dialects, usually end up causing lack of understanding at most, but there are some well-known examples:
'Itikka' is a mosquito in the east and a cow in the west.
'Kehdata' is "to bother", "to mind" (as in "I couldn't bother to...", "would you mind...") in the east and "to dare", "to have the nerve" (as in "I can't believe he dared to...") — the latter meaning has its own word 'iljetä' in the east, which in the west is easily misunderstood for something doing with being mean or disgusted depending on the conjugation.
'Käskeä' means "to command" in both east and west, but in west it has a widely used second meaning of "to invite". Cue major misunderstandings when eastern refugees relocated in western dialect areas received "strict orders" to come and eat, to visit, and help with some work.