You Don’t Say!

Same language? (Photo:

Same language?

Most of you know that Rom and I had a transatlantic romance (Canada/UK) and settled in Nova Scotia. We talk endlessly about the small differences in our cultures, customs and language. Both of us were very familiar with each other’s vocabulary from extensive reading and TV watching. However, it’s one thing to understand someone else’s slang, and another to use it! Holly’s recent post reminded me of our early struggles.

For the first year we knew each other, Rom and I talked endlessly about the differences between our education systems, health care systems, and tax systems. (You would think we’d actually, like, want to get to know each other!) And we talked ourselves through the immigration process. We were always asking each other if certain songs or TV shows that we remembered had been popular in the other country. It turns out we were both fans of NWOBHM, and yes, I knew Angel Witch and Jaguar and Tank!

The thing we talked about most was language itself. For a while, it was obsessive. Rom would say something like, “In the UK, we have this expression ‘raining cats and dogs.’ Do you say that here?” And the answer would always be yes.

Early on, I was caught unawares by certain phrases. On my first trip to the UK, I was shocked when I saw a sign in a pub pointing to the “toilets.” In North America, we pretend we don’t use them, and instead go to the “restroom” or “washroom” (“bathroom” in someone’s house). We don’t say “bog” or “loo,” either!

The "puddings" include cheesecake, creme brulee and brownies! (Photo:, Roundhay Fox, Leeds)

The “puddings” include cheesecake, creme brulee and brownies! (Photo:, Roundhay Fox, Leeds)

I was also confused when Rom asked, “What do you want for pudding?,” having no idea it meant any kind of dessert. You can have pie or cake for “pudding”! Even now, Rom will ask, “What are we having for tea?,” when the word tea refers only to the drink here. The answer, of course, is “Check the meal plan and see what you’re making!” 🙂 And I’m sure you know there are all kinds of different food words, such as aubergine, courgette and rocket for eggplant, zucchini and arugula.

The only expressions that truly confounded me were Cockney rhyming slang. Other than “pork pies” for “lies,” I didn’t know any, and had never heard them used in real life.

Here are a few random words and phrases that trip us up.

This dress is a jumper! (Photo:

This dress is a jumper! (Photo:

Rom still giggles whenever I use the word pants, which in the UK is used for “underpants” and not trousers. Likewise, I laugh whenever he says he’s putting on a jumper, which in North America used to be a dress worn with a top underneath – otherwise we say “sweater” (pullover sweater).

Every time we’re out in public and Rom leaves a store or a restaurant, he says (to local ears), “Chee-ahs!” (Cheers) which is often met with a complete lack of understanding. We don’t have an equivalent, all-purpose expression for these situations, other than “Have a nice day!”

I often heard the word “foreigners” when I was in the UK. Usually it was not said with any malice; it just referred to non-locals, or as we would say “come-from-aways.” Perhaps when you come from a small island empire, you have an historical sense of Us and Them? I have carefully coached Rom to use the word “international” wherever possible, and to refer to someone’s country of origin, if necessary, without pointing out that it’s “foreign” or “other.” I suppose that foreigner is meaningless when everyone in North America except the the First Nations comes from somewhere else.

This is called "going out for a smoke." (Photo:

This is called “going out for a smoke.” (Photo:

The one thing you could say in Canada that would make everyone’s jaw drop would be, “I’m going out for a fag.” Totally cringe-worthy!

But if you really want to annoy a Canadian, all you have to do is talk about ice hockey. They will tell you it’s redundant: it’s just hockey. The “ice” part is a given! If you were talking about field hockey or street hockey, you would specify.

What a nightmare! (Photo:

What a nightmare! (Photo:

My favourite UK language folly is the reversal of nuisances and catastrophes. If your bus is ten minutes late and you have to stand in the rain, it’s a “bloody nightmare!” If you have to evacuate your home and live in a football stadium for a week, it’s a “spot of bother.”

C’est la vie in the UK!

What regional words or expressions have amused or confused you the most although supposedly part of your own language?

Further reading:

List of British Words Not Widely Used in the United States

List of American Words Not Widely Used in the United Kingdom






  1. Hilarious! I think Aussies are used to Americans being a little clueless at our slang and expressions, so we tend to know what needs explaining. As a child, in the US, I thought the word ‘diapers’ was funny – they’re nappies. And i think tissues are tissues – not Klennex. And the boot of the car, not the trunk. We open the bonnet of the car, not the hood. It’s rubbish, not trash. Oh and we always write TO someone, not “I wrote Kate”, that’s an Americianism that really rankles me! That’s all – for now!

  2. When I was about 15/16, I realised that a phrase I had thought was common throughout the UK was actually very, very local to Suffolk. Said phrase was ‘I’m on the drag’, which has nothing to do with dressing in drag, but means ‘I’m running a bit late’! It’s only because we had a new girl in our class from another part of the country that I realised this- she looked at me with utter confusion when I said it!

    Tea, dinner etc used for meals varies even in the UK, depending where you are from or how posh you are… I find all the little differences fascinating!

    • EcoCatLady

      Ha! Don’t say that one here! People would think you were saying that you were “on the rag” which means that you’re in a bad mood because you’re having your period!

    • We have a lot of regional sayings, but tend to be aware of them around “come-from-aways.” For example, it used to be common to say “some good” and “right some good” instead of “very good” and “very very good”!

  3. Love language and how it changes!

    Australian English has many slang therms, idiomatic phases and words only used here but I think we are closer in many respects to British-English than North American English. I though Canadian English would be closer to British English than American, despite the close geography, because of shared political and historical connections.

    We have less regional variation here. Have you seen the video doing the rounds of Facebook in which an accent coach does the different accents of the UK and Ireland?

    We say “fag”, cheers (for thanks, bye and a friendly ending to emails) and jumper in the UK meaning. We say toilet too. (Why would I want a washroom?) And we reverse the catastrophes, except we don’t say “spot of bother”. Too English! We’d probably throw in the word bugger, as in “it is a bit of a bugger” when one’s house burns down. Some people say tea for dinner – largely depending on age, socio-economic class and ethnic background, But we don’t use pudding except for pudding.

    As to using “foreigners”, we do, and without racist connotations. A term I found strange used by an Amercian cousin was “oriental”. Asians in Australia would see that as racist. It’s one of those “you can’t say that” terms here. And the term “Asians” in Australia generally means Chinese or those from south-east Asian countries, and not what it means in the UK. Isn’t it funny how we attach different social values to words, and how the same word can have different levels of taboo usage?

    On that, I think Australians swear more than any other English speaking peoples too!

    • EcoCatLady

      But when you say “pudding” you mean cake, right? “Pudding” in the US is a custard-like dessert made with milk and served chilled.

      • Yes, a cake-like dessert with runny sauce. Preferably served warm with cream or ice-cream. I love the mix of ice-cold ice-cream with hot chocolate pudding, and sticky date pudding is always a fav but only when there is lots of sauce, otherwise it is just cake.

    • When I was a kid, we always said bugger, and took it to mean someone who bugs or bothers you, with no other connotation. Your older cousin would call you a little bugger when you were being a pest.

      OK, you are an island nation, too! Isn’t it funny to have a word that describes “us” versus “the rest of the world.” The word oriental is racist – anyone using it is being politically incorrect, offensive or clueless.

  4. Had to add, one word as used in American English that cracks me up (no pun intended) is fanny. And fanny pack. I nearly died the first time I heard it used on an American TV show. You just couldn’t use THAT word on TV back then (before swearing became acceptable on TV).

    Remember Richard Simmons who did exercise shows? He used to say “Shake your fanny”. My friends and I would die laughing.

    • Fiona

      It is funny how that term is so hilarious to Australians. It’s not a smile or mental note: I laugh involuntarily when I hear “shake your fanny”!

    • Yep, fanny only ever means bum here! And to be explicit, I just about keeled over in shock when someone told me they used the term “front bum”!

  5. Fiona

    I’m laughing. Dar, you left a comment once on a wardrobe list asking if my ‘pants’ were ‘trousers.’ I was mystified because we use those words interchangeably – I had no idea it could mean ‘underpants’!

    I say ‘tea’, ‘toilet’, ‘pants’ and ‘jumper’. Exactly as Lucinda says, we do swap catastrophes here: the house burning down is definitely a spot of bother. Similarly with weather: a cylone would be ‘a touch of wind’, 46C is ‘warm’, a flood is ‘a spot of damp.’ But don’t ask us about any temperature below 16C. You’ll get every possible exaggeration about this “bloody freezing weather!”

    We had a Canadian teacher at our school who used to make the boys collapse with laughter when he was “rooting for the team.”

  6. EcoCatLady

    Wait… so “tea” is an actual meal? I thought it was just, you know, a beverage made by steeping leaves of the tea plant in hot water!

    And the whole pudding thing has me totally confused. Here in the US, “pudding” is a creamy custard-like dessert, but apparently in Australia it means what we would call “cake”. A friend of mine from college now lives near Melbourne, and one time she sent me her favorite “chocolate pudding” recipe. I tried it several times but it kept coming out like cake! I was sure I had the metric conversions wrong so I wrote her again to try to figure out what I was doing wrong… turned out it was just 2 people being separated by a common language again!

    But one that cracks me up is the British use of the word “bonking” to mean sex. In my world, “bonking” is what happens to you when you’re on a long bike ride and exceed the available calories in your system for needed energy!

    • Mr Sans and I have been know to bonk but we would never use to word mentioned by Fiona. Rooting is too crass, even in the privacy of consenting adults. Lol!

    • I think perhaps the original use of ‘pudding’ was to describe a cake like thing that is cooked by steaming (such as Christmas pudding)…and then eaten with some sort of sauce. Might be wrong, though!

    • And ‘bonking’ is used less now- I think useage peaked in the 1990s with Hugh Grant and Four Weddings and a Funeral!

    • Yes, tea is the meal you have in late afternoon/early evening. When Rom was growing up, his dad would come home for dinner in the middle of the day and the kids would have a full meal at school. Then in the early evening they would have something light, like bread and jam for tea. Interestingly, my Mennonite relatives would call that “faspa.” Since arriving in Nova Scotia, Rom has adopted one of our traditions. We usually have a bowl of cereal before bedtime (as if we need to fortify ourselves to live through the night) and we call it bed lunch! Maybe there is a secret history of needing additional calories for bonking! Speaking of which, I’ve always found UK terms like shagging and snogging to be funny, but now they remind me of Austin Powers movies!

  7. EcoCatLady

    OK… thought of another one. In high school my orchestra went on concert tour in New Zealand, and they warned us all not to say “I’m stuffed” – which to us means “I’m full and can’t eat another bite” – because apparently in NZ it would be like saying “I’m knocked up!”

  8. Fiona

    I’m laughing at EcoCat’s “exceeding the available calories.” I know what you mean, but here ‘bonking’ refers to only one way of shedding calories. And yes, the only people who use the word mentioned earlier are teenage boys…lol. Or my husband, trying to incite outrage.

    ‘Pudding’ in Melbourne is…pudding. It’s…plum pudding? Christmas pudding? Or my favourite…sticky-date pudding.

    As a public service I’ll test “pudding” in London in June and compare it to the Australian version.

    PS sorry to lower the tone in comments, Dar!

  9. I’ve never read far enough back to know you had a transatlantic relationship – how romantic! How did you meet?

  10. Good grief – I get engrossed in RocKwiz, come back to comment and find that that lot from behind the shelter shed have taken over. Never mind I can’t add much more to the aussie experience because I’m a transplant and had to take a crash course when we arrived 40 years ago!

    Anyway my Mum always said puddings were hot, sweets were cold, you ordered dessert when you ate out and had afters at home. What a mishmash of words for the food we eat at the end of our meal lol

    The first time we visited Nova Scotia I did discover I shouldn’t have called someone homely as it didn’t mean someone who was welcoming and I felt comfortable with – and I also shouldn’t have told someone (even jokingly) I’d come round and knock them up the next day (pop round and knock on their door to wake them up) Both things meant something entirely different. 🙂

    And here’s another take on the public convenience issue – I was shopping with The Golfer’s aunt and asked her where the ‘ladies’ was – she replied she wasn’t intending to meet anyone – I was asking her where the ladies toilets were lol

    Fun post Dar J
    Take care

  11. Oh and you (people in Nova Scotia) use the term Supper for their dinner/tea – evening meal. For me supper is your late evening snack – as in your cereal before bed.
    Of course the dinner/tea thing is regional – south versus north of England. For me Lunch is for the middle of the day and Dinner is for the evening lol

  12. Great theme. We took a tour in Ireland on a “coach” which in the US we would call a bus. In the southern US, we use the term “ya’ll” short for you all, where in the Northeast US it is “you guys.” There is a term we use often before we trash someone – “Bless his (or her) heart.” I have some Pennsylvania friends who would say “God, love em,” for the same purpose. For my Aussie friends, I keep wanting to know what is in a Veg-o-mite sandwich? My Aussie friend Judy said, whatever it is, you don’t want one. G’Day mate, cheers, toodles, later gator, adios, adieu, BTG

    • I wish we said y’all. It is such a good all-purpose term. I have heard people being blessed before they’re trash-talked, too! As in “She just doesn’t seem to notice that her house is such a mess, bless her little heart.” I haven’t had a Vegemite sandwich but I have tried the UK version, Marmite (a bitter, salty yeast extract spread). I didn’t like it, but if you like intense flavours such as olives, you could get used to it. I have used it in cooking to deepen the flavour of spaghetti sauce, in the same way you might add a tablespoon of miso paste.

  13. Lane

    Here in New England we have “soda”, whereas in much of the rest of the states, people drink “pop”. I drink neither. The old Mainers speak of the rest of America as “away”; “he’s from away” can mean that 2 generations ago, his ancestors moved here from Massachusetts.

    I love these differences! I would love someone to offer me “pud”.

    • We say the similar “come-from-away” to mean someone who moved to Nova Scotia only about 20 years ago. Some of our food words are pop, submarine sandwich or sub (known elsewhere as grinder or hero sandwich), donair (known as gyro or doner kebab elsewhere), and beaver tails (fried dough sometimes sold as “elephant ears.”)

  14. Angela

    Love all these posts and words vary so much around the Uk too for food items -especially bread and bread rolls, cakes etc. Can be confusing if you expect a savoury bun and are given a sweet version because the name has a different meaning where you are visiting. Re puds, desserts etc – custard can be served hot or cold on these for example apple pie and custard would probably mean hot custard whereas if you had trifle the custard would be set cold and then usually topped with cream. Yum. If you are visiting the UK get out to the provinces if poss and try a good pub or cafe serving homemade food and try a proper pudding! }

    • Hi Angela, We don’t really “do” custard in Canada but I have bought a tin of Bird’s custard mix. Sometimes it’s just right, and vanilla pudding isn’t the same. I love trifle! Fortunately, Rom is from East Sussex and we go to the local pubs whenever we visit. So I get to have lots of real food! And am slowly making my way through all the puddings. Had Eton Mess last time – never heard of it before!

  15. Smiling at this post.
    My husband (from the North of the UK) uses tea and I (from the South), use dinner. He always uses pants too – which used to make me laugh as I’d only ever heard it used for underwear. He also says ‘side the table’ for clearing the table after said tea/dinner. The first time he used it I had to ask what on earth he meant!

    • I think regional differences are just as great as national ones. It’s amazing we understand each other as well as we do! At least we can all grumble about politics and rising prices and the weather 🙂

  16. Very interesting post (and comments!). I learned a lot! 🙂 I love little differences in the language like this. Mr. G and I are from the same place, so you would think we’d understand everything the other said – nope. I remember being confused when we first met and he asked me for “the box” (meaning the TV remote control). And when he said we could “hit Target on the way,” just meaning stop there. Or he’ll point to the next thing on his to-do list and say he’s going to “hit that next.”

  17. I have an Australian friend that is constantly asking me for a translation on my emails. Of course it goes both ways, but apparently our Canadian slang and colloquialisms can be just as confusing.

  18. Lisa

    These language differences, even though still English, are fun to learn, even the hard way, when traveling or speaking with someone ‘from away’. When I was in Australia, I asked for a ‘pop’ which was met with a confused stare – they use the word ‘soda’. I was once said ‘roger’ to an older British man to indicate I agreed/understood what he was saying. He, at first looked shocked and then started to laugh when he understood I clearly didn’t mean anything sexual by using it! I had no idea it could mean anything sexual, but apparently to his generation it did!

    I do find it interesting, and a bit sad(?), that some English foreign books in the US are changed to fit into the American lexicon. For example, the Harry Potter series was changed because the publishers thought children wouldn’t understand some of the expressions or language.

    • Hi Lisa, Hope all is well with you! Yeah, sometimes learning the hard way is more fun 🙂

      I agree with you about the changed book editions. It seems that more people (of all ages) than at any time in history have books in their homes, and read often. We are familiar with terms that have entered the English language from all over the world, via TV and Internet. Yet publishers still think (or must know through their market research) that books with regional differences don’t sell as well in other markets. Sad!

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