The World Leader in
International Education

The latest on travel, languages and culture by EF Education First
Menu

UK vs. US: language frenemies

We’re co-blogging this week, showcasing a bit of friendly rivalry between the U.S. and Britain. Meet your hosts – a hot Brit, Tom, and one lovable American, Martinique, who will take the big biscuits v. scones debate of 2014 one step further. It’s time for American word spelling vs. British word spelling. They mean the same thing, but they look totally different. Crazy, no? Let us explain.

Apartment vs. Flat

M: Apartment comes from the French word appartemente, which was derived from the Italian word appartamento, which Italians use to this day as a smaller residence that you live in. We basically honor two languages in one, and who ever really lives in a place that is flat?

T: Apartment may be a nice word but most apartments are set on one single floor of a building so they’re ‘flat’, as opposed to houses, which have multiple floors. It comes from the old Germanic word flet, meaning ‘floor’ or ‘dwelling.’ It’s nice to be reminded that you don’t have any stairs in your home.

Fall vs. Autumn

M: Fall is just common sense because leaves fall during this period. It’s the same with spring – flowers spring from the ground. So fall and spring complement each other; it’s poetic justice, if you ask me.

T: The word autumn comes straight from the Latin autumnus and later, the old French autompne… and everyone knows the French are classy. We like using their words. You can’t argue with the French.

Boots vs. Wellies

M: Boots comes from the Old French word bote. And let’s just remember Nancy Sinatra’s famous song, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” How ridiculous would it sound if she said “wellies” instead?

T: Wellies is a short version of Wellington Boots, named after the 1st Duke of Wellington who totally made them fashionable back in the early 1800s. Boots is fine, but in the U.K., we like to be a bit more specific about what kind of boot we’re actually wearing. Call us perfectionists.

Vacation vs. Holiday

M: Holidays for Americans are exactly what the word means – Holy Days; such as Christmas, Easter, etc. So it’s only natural that we give our vacation the respect it deserves by giving it its own term. Holidays are known for festive celebrations with the family, while vacation is the break you get from your family – including even more celebrations.

T: In the U.K., we say holiday because it’s derived from the old English word haligdaeg meaning “holy day.” Presumably, holidays are holy because there’s nothing more spiritual than sipping an ice-cold beverage on a sunny Mediterranean beach. Or maybe because the only time people got off work was for religious holidays. My bet’s on the first one.

Elevator vs. Lift

M: When people are asked what superpower they’d like to have, most of them tend to say: flying. That’s because people want to go above the clouds and soar, or should I say… elevate? Hence, that is exactly what an elevator does: it elevates you, which has a stronger meaning than being lifted. Only magic can elevate you, not an actual person.

T: A lift lifts you up to another floor. It’s not rocket science. Plus, we describe the same object/action as elevator but only use half the letters. So economical!

Mum vs. Mom

M: Mum sounds short for mummy which, unless you despise your mother, you shouldn’t be calling her a nickname for 1,000+ year old dead Egyptian royalty. Even if it’s royalty, it’s just not cool. Plus, it makes sense: mother has an “o.”

T: This one’s not worth debating: it’s just the same word spelled phonetically in respect of the regional accent. Mum is a lovely word for a lovely person, and that’s my final word on the matter. Nobody insults my mum.

Trousers vs. Pants

M: Pan, in Greek, means all – so we basically say what it does: it covers all your bottom part. But I tend to have a love-hate relationship with pants in general, so I rather not give this word more details than it should. #notopants

T: This one is just hilarious, really, because we Brits love hearing Americans tell us about their pants without knowing what it actually means (pants means “underwear” in the U.K.). My question is, how do Americans then distinguish between their underwear and their trousers? See! Makes no sense.

Do you want to learn American or British English? Discover more

Share this article

Latest articles from Language learning