Two Nations Separated by a Common Language

A colleague here in London confused me for a minute by telling me with excitement that some legislation we favor had been “tabled” (she meant it had been brought forward for consideration). I hadn’t been aware of this near-perfect reversal of meaning between the British and U.S. usage of that word.

Although many words have different meanings in the two countries, table is only the second one I have encountered for which the meanings are antonyms. The other is “punt”, which in American football and daily life means to decline a gamble or risky venture. In contrast, over here a punter is someone who takes a chance.

RBCers: Know of any others?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

30 thoughts on “Two Nations Separated by a Common Language”

  1. “Quite good”
    In America it means very good. In Britain it means, mediocre. Not exactly opposite, but different enough to cause fights in mixed relationships.

  2. If you widen the universe of discourse to include related languages, the number of false friends increases exponentially. Sanction connotes approval in English, punishment in French.

  3. Pavement? In UK, this means what I have always thought of as ‘sidewalk’, and for me, ‘pavement’ means the middle of the street.

  4. At the risk of lowering the level of discourse, the word “fanny” is reversed in a very material sense.

  5. “estate” in the US means an expanse of manicured grounds surrounding a grand house. In the UK it appears to mean a run-down, crime-ridden urban housing development.

    The difference in meaning is less extreme, but in the US “garden” means a patch of cultivated land for the growing of flowers or vegetables; as best I can tell from usage, in the UK it means what we in the US call a “yard”.

    “Driving on the right side of the road” in the UK means driving on the left side of the road? (OK, that’s more of a cheap crack than an example).

  6. Let’s not forget that in UK (as through out europe) liberals are conservatives or at least what in the USA we think of as conservatives.

  7. Cleave is a good one. Moot is another. In fact, i think ‘moot’ and ‘table’ are synonyms on both sides of their schizophrenic, auto-contradicting selves.

  8. Beer, U.K., a nutritious, rich, alcoholic drink that is to be sipped slowly in a 200-year old pub with friends and village members.

    Beer, U.S., Over-carbonated alcohol-water that is guzzled. And you throw the bottles/cans out the car window when you are done.

  9. Going Rogue, U.K., British idiom for unprotected anal sex.
    Going Rogue, U.S., Sarah Palin’s political philosophy of magical realism.

  10. “sanction” means both approval and punishment.

    Yes – it’s possible for the UN Security Council to sanction (i.e. authorise) the imposition of sanctions (i.e. punishment), and to be said to have sanctioned (i.e. punished) the target.

  11. If I was to shout PANTS at you all, you shouldn’t take it personally.

    (in UK, pants are always underwear rather than trousers, we also use the word as a slang equivalent of “rubbish” – as in “what rubbish”)

  12. After I got my PhD in the US, I went to Britain for a postdoc. My PhD supervisor warned me that “interesting” has different meanings in the US and Britain. In the US, when someone says your ideas are “interesting”, that’s usually a complement. But in Britain, when someone says your ideas are “interesting”, it generally means “not interesting” or even “complete bollocks”. I told this to my British postdoctoral supervisor, who laughed and said it was true. He promised that he’d make sure to tell me if my ideas were “interesting in the American sense” or “interesting in the British sense.” And he did: some time later, when I proposed a new research project to him, he said “I’m sorry, but that’s interesting in the British sense.”

  13. “Pavement” (pronounced “payment”) also means “sidewalk” in Baltimorean. I never knew that usage had British authority behind it.

  14. Not exactly what you are asking for, but my understanding is that “accommodations” (i.e., plural), used in the States, sounds funny to folks in the U.K.

  15. “In Park Street” and “on Park Street” represent such a case when taken as a pair: the Commonwealth “in” means the American “on” and vice-versa. A Commonwealth house located “in the street” is where a house would normally be, i.e. set back from the boundary of said street. A house located “on the street” would be in the middle of the street where it could get run over. The Muffin Man lives “in Drury lane” in London, “on Drury Lane” in Los Angeles (and there is one, by the way).

    The Madness song that goes “Our House, in the middle of our street” refers to what Americans would call a house “on our street” (in the middle of the block).

  16. Let’s not forget that in UK (as through out europe) liberals are conservatives or at least what in the USA we think of as conservatives

    That statement is, in one sense, only partly and weakly true; in another sense, not true at all.

    In the first sense, European liberalism is a very broad church. There are right-wing liberal parties, such as the FDP here in Germany, who are (roughly translated into American) like the smarter sort of Republican (doesn’t care about Jesus or guns or who you sleep with, but cares a very great deal about minimizing regulation of business and lowering tax rates for high earners). The UK Lib Dems have whored themselves out to the Tories, but they are still to the left of the FDP and, in the days of High Blairism, were arguably to the left of Labour. The Radicali in Italy are what the name implies, though their leftism is of the anarchist- rather than Marxist-tinged sort. All fit comfortably under the label “liberal”. (The Radicali, in fact, fit there much more comfortably than do the FDP. The German liberals have basically abandoned classical European liberalism’s secularism and anticlericalism. And they have all but abandoned the vigilant defense of the rule of law against the demands of law-and-order, the-innocent-have-nothing-to-fear authoritarians that is a hallmark of European liberalism, in the past nowhere more emphatically than in Germany.)

    In the second sense, nobody in Europe is what Americans think of as conservative.

  17. “Cleave” means separate and bind together in both American and English. “Vulnerate” means to wound and to heal. When a newspaper “covers”, say, secret CIA operations, they reveal (uncover) something. These reversals do not relate to differences between Americanese and English English. Here’s one that does: “public” school. Brits would call Punahou, President Obama’s plush private school, a “public” school (in the sense that Holiday Inn is “public accommodation”).

  18. Why did British exclusive schools come to be known as public schools? Was it because they were in contrast to an even more elite education by private tutors?

  19. In the UK, “Keep your pecker up,” means maintain hope and don’t get discouraged. ‘Not even going to get into what it means in the US:-O

  20. Don’t forget “pavement”, which is entirely wrong way round.

    In Britain you walk *on* the pavement – in the US you walk across it, looking every which way for on-rushing vehicles.
    British parents can always be heard yelling at their kids to “stay on the pavement”. That really doesn’t travel well.

  21. Supposedly the U.N. has a book of translations between British and American for confused diplomats. The example I really liked was “I see what you’re saying.”
    American: I’m empathetic, please go on.
    Briton: You’ve made that point and I don’t want to discuss it further.
    It’s easy to imagine the two tones of voice.

  22. The temporary warning sign by the road says “offside ramps”. It’s dark and foggy; which way do you steer, and to avoid what?
    Vest UK = US undershirt; Waistcoat UK = US vest.

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