“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” – George Bernard Shaw, 1942

(We’re going to imagine George was lumping Canada into “America” as a continent and the rest of the UK into “England” – probably just an oversight.)

We were just off the plane landing in London when a kind airport worker offered directions to the loo.

Of course, our boys were unsure what that meant, but once they realized it meant toilet, they also realized there would be many differences in vocabulary during our visit. They began their mission to find the differences between British and American English (or Canadian English since we’re Canadian).

Although Canadian English is a much closer to American English in terms of vocabulary, our spelling differences match British English words.

We like to add an extra ‘u’ in colour and favourite and humour to match the British English spellings, and it was noticeable for us to see signs and advertisements with British English words.

Since my dad was a first-generation immigrant from Scotland, it wasn’t unusual for me to hear visiting relatives talk about the ‘loo’, for instance, or hiring a car. Other terms came to mind from watching Paul Daniels on Friday nights with my grandparents. Still, some surprised me as I dusted off rarely-recalled childhood memories.

It was a strongly-held belief by our boys that what they knew was the proper way, and what they heard in England was an adaptation, but I had to remind them that the English have been speaking the language much longer than Canada. It was an interesting perspective shift.

Like almost anywhere else, the specifics vary from one area to another and depend on context, so don’t use this as a definitive guide to English in the UK.

We decided to start our time housesitting in Europe by going to the UK because we wanted to start where English was the native language.

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. If you choose to make a purchase based on our recommendation, then we may receive a commission at no cost to you. We’ve gotta pay for the kid’s plane luggage somehow.

Here are a few of our favourite (see that ‘u’?) British and American English phrase comparisons (and a couple of anecdotal stories along the way)

Queue = Lineup

… and do the Brits ever enjoy a good lineup. It seems like a pass time for many to stand in a single-file line simply to see what may be at the end. Don’t dare stand in a crowd and wait for the bus (or the plane or the train) to arrive.

You’d better figure out who’s first in that queue and find your way to the end of that line, or you might hear a friendly Edinburgh accent saying, “Excuse me, Darling. We’ve been queued much before you arrived.”


Loo = Toilet

While this is a very British term, it comes from a French phrase: “Guardez l’eau” which means “Watch out for the water.” We visited a few castles where it was clear that those on the ‘ground level’ might have shouted this occasionally as the upper-level residents enjoyed the convenience of a hole in the floor of their bed chamber.

The boys loved to see a lineup at the bathroom, if not for any other reason than to say, “There’s a queue for the loo!”

In Scotland, you might be offered the shunkie if you need to use the loo – a slang term primarily reserved for throwing off visitors by cheeky great uncles.


Loo Roll = Toilet Paper

Loo, I knew, but the first time our housesitting host in England told us where to find the “loo roll” it took me a minute to put two and two together. It makes sense with a moment of thought, but the look on my face must have given us away because our host quickly chuckled and explained.


Kitchen Roll = Paper Towel

If loo roll is toilet paper, it makes sense that Kitchen Roll would be paper towel, but again, you need to follow closely to see the connection as one thing leads to another. This one we didn’t learn until it was time to replace the paper towel we had used after a few days at our first petsit.

Once I explained to the grocery store worker that we were visiting from Canada as I asked about paper towel, she told me my accent was charming. (We’ll go with that.)


Hoover = Vacuum

In the same way that we use vacuum as both a noun and a verb, the brand “Hoover” took over that portion of the British dictionary.

When our petsitting host told Celine that they usually hoover the carpet once a week, the expression on Celine’s face was priceless. I stepped in to let her know that meant vacuum, although in hindsight, observing the clarifying questions after that would have been highly entertaining.

Visiting London and taking a picture in a telephone booth

Exploring London when we first arrived to petsit in England

Food: British and American English

Fish and chips won’t be a surprise to you, but when french fries are chips and chips are crisps, you can see where the antics come into play.

Gummies are called softies, chewy mint candies are chewy draggies (since you drag out eating them), cotton candy is candy floss, and bacon strips are streaky bacon.

Just when you imagine that at least ice cream is a safe bet, if you’re after soft serve, you might need to ask for whippy, and if you can’t finish your cone, you’re not going to put it in the freezer or the trash can, but the chill or the rubbish bin.

Picture in front of Big Ben, London, England

Our boys were so excited to get to see (actually hear) Big Ben

Telling The Time of Day

We might say that it’s half-past 7 if it’s 7:30, but in the UK “Half Seven” means the same thing.

Lunch = Dinner. Supper time = Tea.

Dinner happens in the middle of the day (usually the biggest meal). Tea is in the late afternoon (a smaller meal to hold over until bedtime).

High tea seems to be a fancier version of tea and is usually in the middle of the afternoon, with little samples of things that there’s barely enough to taste and a bill that makes you not want to spend money on food for the rest of the day.


Getting Around: British English vs. American English

Hiring A Car = Renting A Car

This one came with a few giggles as the boys imagined the car would be our employee if we hired him. We rented twice to get between housesits and explore the areas we were visiting.

When I took the first car hire back, the boys asked where it was. I told them I had fired the car we hired. It took them a while to control the giggling while the image of that idea circled their minds.


Boot = Trunk of the car

Our first housesit in England hosts picked us up at the train station just a few minutes’ drive from their house. It would have been a reasonable walk, but since it was raining, they offered to pick us up.

“I hope the luggage will all fit in the boot,” was a great way to help our boys know on day two of our trip that the language differences would be all around us.


Bonnet = Hood of the car

Somehow this got switched from a bonnet to a hood partway across the Atlantic Ocean.


Car Park = Parking Lot

If you’re looking to leave your car to wander the footpath, you’ll need to find a car park. Of course, Zac (10) asked if there’s a playground for the cars at the car park.


Alighting The Train = Get Off The Train

“Mind the gap between the train and the platform” goes hand in hand with any memory of the trains in the UK. I would say to the boys, “Alright, let’s alight,” I’m not sure I was using it correctly since there were a few giggles from fellow travelers occasionally.


Petrol = Gasoline

I wouldn’t recommend asking where you can get gas in town, so instead, ask for petrol or recommendations for a petrol station.


Footpath = Sidewalk

If you run out of petrol, you may need to use the footpath to get where you’re going.


Lift = Elevator

We were heading towards the exit on arrival at the airport when we were told we needed to take the lift. It took a few minutes to identify the elevator and make the connection.

Visiting Windsor castle in England

Visiting Windsor Castle in England

American and British English: Sports Vocabulary

Football = Soccer

Ian (our youngest) doesn’t care what you call it; He just wants to kick the ball and go after it, but when asked to play football with friends he met at the park, he had a different idea of which sport was being played.


Cricket = Cricket

Ok, these words are the same, but while we’re on the topic of sports, Ian gained the nickname “Laserbeam” while learning to play cricket with family, and the assorted vocabulary he picked up that comes along with cricket is probably a topic for another time.


The Same Words With Completely Different Meanings

As an example, you might use the word “pants” to refer to the clothing on your lower half, but in British English, “pants” means underwear, so if you need to get out of your shorts, you wouldn’t want to say “I have to go put pants on” but that you’re going to put “trousers” on.

At that point in time, you may not even realize you’ve crossed vocabulary lines until the giggles start.

petsitting while visiting England

Exploring England while petsitting

While in England, we visited Stonehenge. It’s great for a few hours, but if you’re heading that direction, here are some historical things to do near Stonehenge to fill your day.


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