4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

On a recent trip to the UK, I noticed differences between British English and American English that I hadn't noticed before.

Mignon Fogarty,
September 14, 2017

Most of us know about the big differences, such as Americans spelling “color” without a U and the British spelling “colour” with a U, but these were differences I didn’t know about before I visited the UK.

1. ’RV Park’ Versus ‘Caravan’

First, I noticed that what I’d call an “RV park” was called a “caravan park” in England. “Caravan” sounds much more romantic to me than “RV,” which stands for “recreational vehicle.” A caravan sounds like something merchants would use to deliver spices or nobles would use to travel the countryside, whereas “recreational vehicle” sounds like a term a government office would have made up to classify the kind of license plate you need. “Caravan” is the much older word. Dictionaries disagree, but “recreational vehicle” came into use sometime between the 1940s and the 1970s. I may also feel more affection for the word “caravan” because I used to play a game called Civilization a lot, and you use a unit called a caravan to establish a trade route, and the unit is represented by people on camels that are carrying bags. I always liked establishing trade routes.

difference between British and American English

2. Pronouncing 'Route': 'Root’ Versus ‘Rowt’

As an aside, I pronounced that word like “root,”—“trade root”— but some other Americans would pronounce it “rowt”—“trade rowt.” It turns out that “root” is currently the only British pronunciation, but both “root” and “rowt” are acceptable in American English. The British used to pronounce it both ways too, but eventually, they seem to have settled on “root,” while Americans remained indecisive.

The Harvard Dialect Survey made a map of where people in the US pronounce the word different ways, and it doesn’t look especially regional to me. You can find people all over who say “root,” say “rowt,” or even say they use the two pronunciations interchangeably. [Note that in this section, I am trying to illustrate how the words are pronounced. These are not the actual spellings.]

3. ’Detour’ Versus ‘Diversion’

Here’s a difference I saw where the American word made more sense to me, or at least I thought the British version was funny. When we have a road blocked for construction, we call the new route you take a “detour,” but in London we came across a blocked sidewalk and the sign called it a “pedestrian diversion.” This stuck me as hilarious because in my mind, a diversion is something you create to distract people, like in caper when the criminals do something loud or wacky that causes all the guards to run away from door of the safe that contains millions of dollars. That’s a diversion.

My phone battery was dead, but if it wasn’t I would have made a video of myself being silly trying to create a diversion for the other pedestrians. It’s not that we don’t use “diversion” to mean rerouting something. (And how weird it that? I said “rerouting” instead of “rerooting,” even though I say “root” when the word is alone.)

Anyway, I know we also might talk about diverting a river or stream for a construction project, and that’s actually quite similar to diverting a stream of pedestrians, but as far as I know, I’ve never heard “diversion” used in the US to refer to cars or pedestrians. When we reroute them, we call it a detour. And I still giggle every time I think of a pedestrian diversion. I think of attaching fishing line to a dollar bill and pulling it away as someone tries to pick it up off the sidewalk.

4. ’Alight’ Versus ‘Get Off’

A couple of other differences are that what we’d call a “parking lot” or  a “garage,” the British seem to call a “car park,” but what we’d call a “subway car,” the British seem to call a “carriage.” Again, “carriage” sounds more lovely than “car” to me. And I’ll leave you with the last one, in which the British version also sounds much nicer.

The British “alight” from a train, whereas Americans “get off” a train.

Whereas we’d say something like “Please watch your step when you get off the train,” the announcement in Britain is something like “Please mind the gap when alighting from the train.” To me, “alighting” sounds like something a butterfly or a ballet dancer would do—it sounds graceful—whereas “getting off the train” sounds more like grumpy stomping.

Well done, Britain.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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