A photo by Gabrielle Ribeiro of a line of shopping carts against a white brick wall.
Everyday Lifestyle

British vs. American English: Grocery Shopping

The differences between British and American English, for the most part, are usually easy to understand. But there are times when no matter how hard we try, something gets lost in translation. It seems that these miscommunications most often occur when out shopping ...

As a British person in an area of America that doesn’t typically have very many of us about; I‘m used to people asking me to repeat certain words because they enjoy how I sound, or they don’t recognize what I‘m saying. A recent trip to the grocery store ended up being unintentionally amusing when something I said didn’t quite translate as effectively as I assumed it would.

An infographic called, “British versus American English: Shopping Edition” and created by Molly from Transatlantic Notes. The infographic reads: Bollards (UK) vs. Posts (US), Trolleys (UK) vs. Carts (US), Tannoy (UK) vs. P.A System (US), Queue (UK) vs. Line (US). Food Items: Aubergine (UK) vs. Eggplant (US), Swede (UK) vs. Rutabega (US), Spring Onion (UK) vs. Scallion (US), Coriander (UK) vs. Cilantro (US), Porridge (UK) vs. Oatmeal (US), Semolina (UK) vs. Grits (US), Scone (UK) vs. Biscuit (US), Sweets (UK) vs. Candy (US)

You can see how confusing it can get when a British word has a very dissimilar American counterpart (and vice versa). When I told my husband (the American) to wait for me by the big bollards in front of our local grocery store, he was completely perplexed. Once I explained what I meant, he spent the entire shopping trip laughing at how ridiculous (and rude) it sounded to him.

There are many more examples of the sometimes unexpected differences between British and American English, not to mention the whole confusion around crisps/chips and chips/fries. And the time I asked my husband if he’d ever eaten fish fingers (fish sticks); and he sarcastically wondered out loud if I was aware that American fish don’t have hands (at least I hope it was sarcastic).

It’s probably best not to mention the whole spotted dick debacle — well, I may write about it another time — but let’s just say that mentioning this to any American, no matter where you are, will produce some of the funniest misinterpretations about a sponge-based desert you’ll ever encounter.

Have you had any lost in translation moments?


Further Info:

14 Foods You Didn’t Know Were Called By Different Names In The U.K. – Reader’s Digest

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31 thoughts on “British vs. American English: Grocery Shopping”

  1. Visiting my long-distance love in California (I was still in Australia then) I remember asking for a coke in a restaurant. It was as if everyone in that establishment just stopped talking and looked (like in a movie). I asked again if I could have a coke please. My now-hubby quickly said “she means a coke cola”. To this day, I can’t understand how my Aussie accent resulted in them hearing anything other than coke! 🙂

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    1. Haha, I can imagine that sometimes if the ear is not tuned in, and expecting a different accent, it can make for some interesting miscommunication!
      I’ve had people assume I am French – which is so odd, as I sound very, very English!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha, you are the opposite to me, the American words have infiltrated my vocabulary! My Scottish friend has been living in Canada for thirty years though and she still uses English/Scottish words!

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    1. Oh, yes some have indeed infiltrated into my vocabulary, but mainly grudgingly, and just to be understood, but I shall stand firm on some words always being the English ones!

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    1. I know! I get caught out far more than I had expected, and sometimes when I try to describe what it is I actually mean, it all gets so hard I just use the American term!

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    1. A friend on FB said they call a trolley/cart a buggy – that would confuse me more, haha! A buggy to me is the thing you put babies in to take them out and about in. I called the tv remote a remote control and I am with Fredrik on that one!

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  3. Brilliant, I always say courgette, but if I post a recipe on my blog I have say zucchini too or there will always be someone who says ‘what is a courgette?’ My French friends often ask me to translate recipes from English they have found online but even I have no idea what a ‘cup’ measures in grams!

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    1. I try to remember the US and UK terms when doing a recipe too, it can be so hard as I still have to learn some of the way things are named over here as they still catch me out!

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  4. After three years in New Zealand, I still have issues being understood, struggle with the metric system, and can’t for the life of me spell things in English that I was struggling with in American. Why the extra “I”?!?! Lol!!

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    1. There are so many things that can catch us out – sometimes I wonder how I remember what I actually do manage to remember!

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  5. I loved this post! I am Mexican, but I teach English As A Second Language, and every now and then I’ve had to explain the subtle differences between American and British English, or at least follow the lesson marked in the book. Honestly, I have no idea if it’s true that “trainers” is the British word for “sneakers”, but it confuses the students like you wouldn’t believe!

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    1. Yes, trainers are what we call sneakers! I get tripped up on that one too as my husband also calls them tennis shoes!!

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  6. Love it. I’m an American in Australia, so I know well how different English can be from one country to another! It’s fun to pick up the new expressions that are fun, and leave the ones you don’t care for. Hope some of yours will rub off on the Yanks!

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    1. I think I have started to rub off on my American chums! My husband likes to now say ‘bloody hell’ and a few other choice phrases!

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  7. Very cute! I love differences in dialects! It’s funny how you still discover differences even after living somewhere for a long time isn’t it!! I found when I lived in America that my American friends found me to be super British but when speaking to my friends back in the uk they all thought I’d gone full blown Californian girl on them!! My husband still picks me up on americanisms that pop out every now and then (mostly when I’m drunk haha)
    Really enjoyed this thanks for sharing with #myexpatfamily

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    1. I think my husband has picked up a few words here and there, the funniest thing for me is that because I am so used to him, I don’t really hear him as American, but when I hear others speak I realize that he does!

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  8. I have the opposite – but can feel your pain. We are Americans living in Denmark with children attending a British International school. Needless to say – we have lots of Brits in our expat circle here. Many rounds of confusion between common words and phrases between us. “Fancy dress?” Not a costume in American English. “Trunk” vs “Boot.” “Eraser” versus “Rubber.” And my daughter trying to learn homonyms was comical – because in American English soar does not equal saw, nor court equal caught. Good luck holding out! I recently asked the kids if they wanted crisps with their lunch. AAAH.

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    1. Sometimes my brain goes on a walk and I can’t think of the Amercian or the British English word – I just umm and err my way through the conversation! Haha!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. So funny! Sod and sod off are new ones for me that I learned while watching Happy Valley (great show by the way). Is sod off just like get lost or more strong? I’d sound ridiculous saying it as an American but just trying to judge how to use it.

    I can see how bollard and bollocks can get confusing. I didn’t know what a bollard was until you told me!

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    1. I used bollard a few days ago – too funny and still so confusing for all involved, hahaha!!

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  10. Very late to this conversation. My father is a naturalized US citizen originally from England. When my brother and I were little he’d call us “little buggers.” It wasn’t until well into my 20s that I learned what a bugger was. And explain what smoking a fag is all about.

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  11. This post made me chuckle. I’ll never forget my first trip to the US where we went to Orlando, Florida. We were in Universal Studios and I was crazing some CHIPS, as in BRITISH CHIPS. I will never forget my disappointment when the vendor produced a bag of plain Lays! The differences in British and American English is peculiar and funny at the same time 🙂

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