Adventures in British English


Crisps, courgettes and chips: Susan is learning to speak English all over again.

When I first decided that I wanted to do my undergraduate studies abroad, I had no option but to limit my choice of universities to those in English-speaking countries, since English is the only language I’m fluent in. That’s essentially why I ended up in the United Kingdom. While it’s common knowledge that British English is, of course, slightly different from English spoken on our side of the pond, it didn’t quite occur to me just how different it can be.

When I left for England, I did keep in mind things such as that the Brits call fries “chips” and chips “crisps” and that what they think is “football” isn’t exactly the same as our concept of “football” and so forth. That unfortunately did not stop me from, on my second day in lovely England, accidentally commenting “nice pants” on a newfound acquaintance's nice trousers. Her confused and embarrassed expression was met with an equally embarrassed expression on my part!

Despite that little mishap, I was thoroughly enjoying my time in England. Thus, it was understandable why I was so confused when I was constantly asked “are you okay” or “are you alright.” I was worried—did I not look happy? After lots of confused and awkward answers to these questions, I found out that in the UK, these were simply other expressions for "how are you." What a relief to find out that the world did not think I was chronically depressed!

As student life goes, nothing quite screams “poor university student” such as having copious amounts of pasta for far too many dinners. Making spaghetti for the first time in the UK turned out to be an adventure in itself when I went the supermarket to buy ingredients. I looked all over the store but could not find any zucchini. I asked one of the employees if they sold any and received a confused reply of no. How could a supermarket not sell zucchini? However, I kept finding myself in front of the display of courgettes, vegetables that looked suspiciously similar, if not identical, to zucchini. I was put out of my misery by a British couple who overheard by phone call to my friend, telling him to Google “courgette” for me—yes, the Brits do call zucchini “courgette.” (While we are on the topic of food, a word of advice for any budding chefs out there—the Brits also call eggplants “aubergines.”)

Another essential part of student life in the UK: the diary. Yes, everyone here keeps a diary, and don’t get alarmed when your 50-year-old French supervisor tells you he needs to consult his diary. The British word “diary” doesn’t have any of the North American connotations of an eight-year-old doodling away about her new crush; it’s the equivalent of what we would call an agenda or planner.

You don’t really need to study in a non-English speaking country if you want a different linguistic experience. Sometimes, I’m not convinced that we all speak the same language on both sides of the pond. After all, I’ve tried looking for rooms on the wrong floor of a building far too many times since I’ve been here (for the record, what the Brits call the “first floor” is actually the second floor).

Anyone else have any quirky Britishisms to share?

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Susan Chan

Susan Chan is doing what many recent high school graduates do—pursuing post-secondary education. However, in doing so, she moved “across the pond” from Canada to England. She hopes to satisfy her self-proclaimed “infinite wanderlust” as she does her undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge.


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