As a Briton, with many friends from the United States, met through e2 and other sites, I frequently find myself falling into the gap between American usage and British. I'm not particularly talking about using different words for the same thing here. It's not really a problem if some people say 'faucet' and others 'tap', or some 'car' and others 'automobile'. These differences are mainly amusing and quirky. What I'm mainly talking about is where the same words are used in confusingly different contexts, or where superficially similar situations mask a mass of misleading distinctions. At one time I thought I should write an American - British dictionary of slang and colloquial usage for e2. I haven't done this partly because I haven't got sufficient knowledge and resources, partly because I have other noding projects clamouring for my attention, and partly because I have no idea how to organise such a thing in order to make it useful. So here's this instead - highly subjective discussion of implicit cultural and linguistic differences between the USA and the UK. If it seems to be mostly explaining the UK to outsiders, that's partly because I'm British, and get quite a lot of my information about the USA from the media. It's also because I feel the UK is sometimes misunderstood, and media information about the USA is more plentiful, if not always wholly accurate.
The United States and the United Kingdom both present the problem of how to refer to their residents or citizens unambiguously. 'American', used to mean 'from the United States', seems a trifle unfair to people from all the other nations of the Americas. And 'English' to refer to a person from the United Kingdom risks severely upsetting someone Scottish, Welsh, or Irish. The expression Great Britain means, more or less, the main island of the British Isles. Northern Ireland is not included in GB, so it's ambiguous whether referring to 'British' people includes or excludes Irish people. If it does, there's then the problem that not all of Ireland is in the UK. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are separate countries with their own governments, much like the state assemblies of the US. However, England's government is effectively the same thing as the 'federal' level, which is as confusing to the English as to everyone else.
The US federal government meets in Washington, DC, which is not in any state, least of all Washington, which is on the opposite coast. The UK's government meets in Westminster, which is a city adjoining the City of London, in the middle of 'Greater London'. 'The City' means the City of London, and has the same financial connotations as 'Wall Street'. In the USA, almost any settlement is at least called a town, and most are cities. In the UK, there are comparatively few cities - generally towns that have an Anglican cathedral, or have been granted a Royal Charter. The UK equivalent of a US county is the district, where several districts make up a (UK) county. 'Shire' is sometimes regarded as a synonym for 'county', but you will also hear 'shire county' used to mean either a county from the system in place before 1974, or a county whose name ends in 'shire'. The implication is that shire counties are old-fashioned and rural. Although there is a Duke of Devonshire, the county is called Devon. Apart from County Durham and equivalent forms in Ireland, there are no usages like 'Cook County'.
Region names are also often confusing. When Americans or Englishmen speak of 'the South', they usually mean the south-eastern regions of their respective nations. The English West Country is actually the extreme south-west, while in the USA, the 'south west' need not include California, the south-westernmost state. The home counties are England's capital region, the counties immediately around London. By contrast, the home countries means Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with their devolved governments. And I am always confused that the mid-west in fact begins in the north-east of the USA, right behind New England.
The USA is well-known for having a two-party system,
which entirely dominates the political scene, despite the efforts of groups like the Reform Party to the contrary. It is hard to deduce the policies of either party from their names or iconography (the donkey and the elephant, for example). The Republicans are known as the Grand Old Party or GOP. The New York Times and International Herald Tribune raised the question a while ago of whether this usage should be retained. The expression is virtually unknown to Europeans. The UK's political scene, although dominated by two parties, is not nearly so closed as the American. There is a prominent third party with a decent share of the vote, and many smaller parties for regional concerns. Moreover, in Britain, the Conservatives are conservative, and the Liberals liberal, as opposed to the Dutch or Australian illiberal 'Liberal' parties. If it comes to that, 'conservative' and 'liberal' are so politically charged in the US that it's much harder to do as one can in the UK and use the words with their literal, etymological meanings, as I've tried to here. (Webster 1913: Conservative (2); Liberal (7)). The Labour Party used to be on the side of the workers, but that's all changed now. As for 'Republican', in the UK it either means an anti-monarchist or anti-unionist agenda, and would certainly not be advocated by the closest political equivalent to the US Republicans. Unionist in this context refer to the Union of the parts of the UK, not to trades unions, which are another one-time Labour Party domain.
Also curious to British eyes is the idea that the entire administration changes when a new party takes power. In the UK, the civil service is a permanent entity right up to the highest level, which is then instructed by the relevant elected ministers. Speaking of election, the USA has a great advantage, despite the impenetrable complexity of things like primaries, in that both houses of the legislature, and the head of government, are all subject to popular election. In Britain, the House of Lords, the upper house, was until recently predominantly hereditary. The 1997 Labour government, under the pretext of reform, has replaced unelected hereditary peers with a large number of its own unelected direct appointees. Some of my American readers have pointed out that the selection systems for seats in Congress are complex and arguably unfair, but the current House of Lords really is like having the Supreme Court instead of the Senate. Very few UK cities (of which London is one) have directly elected mayors. In most places, the mayor is simply the head of the local council.
The United Kingdom's media is characterised by its diversity and by its
national character. Whereas there is only a single overtly nationwide daily paper in the US - USA Today, known to its friends as McNews, the UK boasts at least nine. (I'm aware that the New York Times is functionally a national newspaper, but it still prints a lot of NYC-specific material.) Similarly, regional television takes a firm back seat, except in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales. While the BBC and ITV do broadcast with regional variations, and ITV is in fact a family of regional franchises, there is a massive core of programmes that go out at the same time all over the country. There are regional newspapers, many of them highly successful and well-regarded, and radio stations, except for 5 BBC channels and a few commercial ones, are regional enterprises. There is no British equivalent of the four-letter identification of radio stations made familiar to us by Frasier Crane's job at KACL. Public-service broadcasting in the UK has a much better image than it seems to elsewhere, although the fact that a major broadcaster is funded by government but independent of it brings its own brand of trouble. The standard of workmanship in UK book publishing is generally noticeably lower than that of the US. And journalese is different on each side of the Atlantic. In the UK, the headline 'Minister sees tragic ferry disaster' means he witnessed it, whereas in the USA it could mean he was predicting it. (Perhaps not, but 'see' for 'foresee' is unknown in UK headlines.) The London Times is not the name of any British newspaper. If you need to distinguish the Times from the New York Times or the Times of India, it's best to say something like 'the Times of London'.
In England, there is an established church. The Queen is the nominal head of the Church of England, and its bishops sit in the House of Lords. The Church of Scotland is also established, but has no bishops, and the Queen is considered a normal member of it. The idea of an established church has been used in the past to supress other faiths, but this has not been the case for many years. Church of England attendance is very low, although the 2001 census revealed that the majority of Britons still consider themselves part of it. In fact, one of the merits of an established church is that it is open to anyone. Anyone in England, whether resident or visiting, is entitled to regard themselves as Church of England if they so choose. A couple may apply to marry in an Anglican church and not be refused without a very good reason. The Church of England is often called upon to supply religious support in times of national crisis, for which it receives no payment from the state. However, few people, if any, who are engaged in public life in the secular sphere refer to their faith (Christian or otherwise) when speaking officially. A question about the Prime Minister's faith was recently deflected by his press staff, who said 'We don't do religion'.
Contrast this with the USA, where there is a long-established principle of the
separation of church and state. As the recent Alabama Courthouse Ten Commandments case demonstrates, there are many in public life who explicitly relate their personal faith to the exercise of their official responsibilities. And there are many more who make the contradictory claim that the freedom of religion in the USA is due to its alleged foundation as a Christian nation. I am not sure how a Wiccan would feel protected by law dispensed in a courthouse with the First Commandment at the entrance. Despite the official separation between church and state, Presidents routinely end official broadcasts 'God bless the United States of America'. It is hard to see this other than as an official endorsement of monotheism, even though the state has no one overall religious leader.
Both nations like going down to the pub or bar after work. You wouldn't know from the selection in each nation's pubs that the other nation has a proud and distinctive brewing tradition. Microbrews and Real Ales don't tend to cross the pond. In Britain, there are pubs dating back to the Middle Ages, and the naming of pubs is the subject of many very obscure traditions. The Royal Oak refers to the escape of Charles II from the Roundheads, and the Marquis of Granby to an army commander who encouraged his men to buy pubs with their leaving pay. In the USA, where the majority of pubs and bars are recent establishments, it's common for them just to be named after a current or former owner. In the UK, the drinking age is 18, as against the USA's 21, and most Europeans think 21 much too old. In longer periods of spare time, we all seem to like visiting our national parks. But these mean different things, too. A US National Park is, so I'm told, a huge tract of managed wilderness. The UK doesn't have any extensive areas of wilderness, so this option is right out. However, it does posess some very beautiful regions where the landscape has been influenced by humans, and some of these are designated as National Parks. They remain the property of the individual landowners, but a National Park Authority will exercise certain restrictions to maintain the area's character.
Where the USA's favourite team sports are baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and American Football, the UK follows cricket, soccer, and Rugby. Non-team sports such as golf, tennis, athletics and horse racing are followed in both countries. Before soccer started catching on in the USA, the question of what sport was meant by 'football' was quite a sore one. I get the impression that the British are more prepared to call their version 'soccer' in contexts where it will clarify matters, now that the Americans pay some attention to both. Britons are no more likely to know what sport is played, or where, by the Cardinals, than folk from the US to know the same of Villa. Cricket really is as complicated as it looks. Bowling is what you do in cricket, where in baseball you pitch. The sport of bowling is usually referred to in the
UK as ten pin bowling, partly for this reason. Bowls is something different again.
The educational landscapes of the UK and the US are fairly similar. The founders of America's oldest seats of higher education consciously imitated the existing universities of the UK. In fact, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is named after one of England's first university towns. However, there are plenty of subtle and confusing distinctions. Importantly, British universities do not have the fraternity and sorority system common in the US. This system is, to put it mildly, opaque to British observers, whilst many Americans seem to think that everyone understands it. 'Public school' means a state school in the USA and a particular sort of private school in the UK. 'High school' in the UK is simply a name used by some schools for those aged 11 and up. A 'prep school' in the UK is a preparatory school, for 7-13 year olds heading for private schools, so the connotations of 'preppy' are confusing for Britons. If you are aged 18+, in the UK you would almost certainly not say 'I'm at school'. Institutions of education at this level are referred to as universities or colleges. The London School of Economics is a college. The UK and the USA both have school exams called SATs, but they're totally different. People from the UK will not understand discussions of US SAT scores. British pupils tend to learn no American history from 1780 to 1900. I don't know if US pupils learn any European history at all - I once encountered a lady from Georgia whose strident views on the troubles in Northern Ireland were based on her inability to tell William the Conqueror (William I, ruled 1066-1087) from William of Orange (William III, ruled 1689-1702). UK pupils do not graduate at age 16 or 18 - they just leave school. Graduation refers to completing a course of post-18 education, especially a degree. School proms, as such, are not a feature of British school life, although there may be a leavers' party which fulfils some of the same functions. Co-ed in the UK just means that a school takes boys and girls alike - as with preppy, the expression has none of its US connotations in the UK. The abbreviation 'M.D.' is not used by medical doctors in the UK. A general practitioner, surgeon, or other health professional will usually be styled as 'Dr Fred Smith', although he might put 'FRCS' (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons), or other abbreviations as appropriate, on his notepaper or his brass plaque. UK schoolteachers are never referred to as professors, although some public schools use the term don, which is also used of professors at Oxford.
Apart from the obvious differences in the teaching of history, there are quite a few pitfalls in differences of terminology between the US and UK. For a start, the Civil War means the conflict of 1860 to 1865, fought between the North and the South, in the USA, and the English and Scottish civil wars of 1642
to 1651, fought mainly between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, in the
UK. The war of 1775 to 1784 has traditionally been called the
Revolutionary War in America, and the War of American
Independence in the UK, although this distinction is less pronounced than it used to be. That said, Revolutionary Wars is a term sometimes used to describe the wars fought by the French between 1789 and 1802.
Indian in the UK almost invariably means someone from India, unless qualified as Red Indian. Awareness is now growing that America was visited by Europeans as early as 1000, and may have been visited on at least one occasion prior to 1492 by Chinese explorers. Europeans, especially the British and the Poles, tend to get upset by suggestions that the USA took the main part in winning either World War. In each World War, Europe experienced many horrors before the USA fired a shot. In 1940 Britain stood alone against the Nazis. And in neither war can there justly be said to have been a single deciding military factor in victory. It is probably fair to say that the brutal power of the Red Army played at least as great a role in the defeat of the Third Reich as the intervention of America. In the Pacific theatre, it often seems to be forgotten that Britain, New Zealand, and Australia also fought extensively against the Japanese Empire. On the other hand, Winston Churchill was half-American. Americans tend to know even less about British prime ministers than the British know about US presidents, which isn't very much at all.
Perhaps the most important historical difference of all is the timescale, though. We'll leave archaeology aside, as going back far enough in any part of the world plunges you into the twilight of prehistory. The United States have, generously speaking, just over 500 years of documented history. Europe and China, on the other hand, have rather more than five times that, and the Middle East nearly twice as much as that. When America was opened up by the expeditions of Columbus and Cabot, the Holy Roman Empire was already nearly 700 years old. Guns were changing a pattern of warfare which had existed for over a millennium. Orders of knighthood were transforming from warrior fraternities to tools of political privilege and influence. Nearly two centuries had elapsed since Dante described the far side of the earth as a vast ocean with a mountainous island in the centre. To most Europeans, almost all American history falls into the modern period. And Europe has been the scene of many wars. America has had a fair few, but whereas it's quite easy to find large areas of the USA that have never seen mass combat (and still more so in Australia), more or less every inch of Europe, except for a few bits of the frozen north, has been the scene of several wars. The First World War graveyards of northern France lie side-by-side with the locations of battles fought by Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XIV, Henry V and Julius Caesar. Each of those wars produced a death toll about as great as all the wars ever fought in North America.
Law and Order
Unlike the US, the UK does not have a written constitution to speak of. Rather, its constitutional law is a collection of documents dating back to Magna Carta and before. Accordingly, British people usually don't know anything about amendments - except the fifth, which more or less everyone has heard of. Some of Britain's former colonies have legal systems incorporating most of the UK's law down to their own time of independence. Acts such as Queensland's Imperial Acts Application Act (1984) modify this law for use in its new context. The death penalty has been abolished in the UK, and before that hanging was the standard method of execution. Britain has never employed the electric chair or the gas chamber. Armed police are, generally speaking, much rarer in the UK than the US, but the long-standing terrorist threat from the Provisional IRA, their rivals and their adversaries have created some notable exceptions. British court proceedings are not televised. The House of Lords is theoretically the equivalent of the US Supreme Court, but it is almost unheard of for a case to go beyond the next highest courts, the Royal Courts of Justice. There are (as far as I know) no regular dog-catcher patrols in the UK, although there is the legendary Battersea Dogs' Home in south London. The offence of jay-walking does not exist in UK law, and the expression is not used by many Britons. Property law is an area with some curious differences, too. If in some parts of the US you want to build a house on a vacant site, you buy it from the city. In the UK and other parts of the US, with land at such a premium and with a much more ancient system of land ownership, you buy it from whatever third party owns it already, and apply to the local council for permission to build. The UK also has features like common land, which local residents have the right to walk or graze animals on. On the other hand, the UK has no condominiums, and the word sounds vaguely suggestive.
A short section to finish, at present. As regards travel, there are virtually no SUVs in the UK, and virtually no long-distance passenger trains in the US. The two nations drive on opposite sides of the road. Australians may note that there are no road trains in the UK, unless you count trucks with a single matching trailer.