Words With Different Meanings (US vs UK)

(Depending on where you live in the world and which version of English you speak).

I went to an Asian pre-wedding party on Saturday night. The person getting married is the best friend of my brother. But hold it there for a moment. When I used the word “Asian” what did you assume I meant? Which part of the world did you presume the ancestry of most of the attendees was?

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“Asian” is one of those words that can have different meanings depending on where you are in the world. If you are an American reader, you might assume that the attendees were of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and so on descent. Yet to us Brits, we immediately think of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. And that is what I meant. The party was for a family of Indian descent – my brother’s friend is a Sikh. In the UK, we tend to use the word “oriental” (I understand Americans now feel this is offensive, but I have had Chinese friends in the past who used it to describe themselves).

Another interesting quirk of the difference between American and British English, and my personal favourite, is moot. In American English, a moot point is one that is pointless discussion often because it is self-evident or represents a situation that can now never be because the time has passed. In British English, it has the opposite meaning – something that is up for discussion, something debatable or for something that requires further discussion. I’m not sure of the origin of the word “moot” from its American usage, but I do know that the British English adheres to its original meeting. A Moot was, in the early medieval era, effectively a debate between a council or an assembly of important people to discuss an important issue of administration or governance. Fans of Lord of the Rings may remember the Ent Moot – the meeting at which the Ents discuss several things regarding the arrival of the hobbit.

Pants is the obvious one. In the UK, we mean underpants but in the US they are what we call trousers. The reason for this is simple. The American version is taken from the French pantaloons. In the UK, it is merely a contracting of the word underpants.

The most confusing is over the terms used to describe the administration of schools and schooling. In the UK, schools funded by the government and using a national syllabus is a state school. In the US, that is a public school. In the UK, a public school uses the national curriculum and largely adheres to national standards, but it takes fees from the parents of its attendees. I understand that this is a private school in the US. In the UK, a private school has a selection process often based on religious affiliation – it’s more than about an ability to pay. As confusing as it sounds, the UK system makes sense.

  • State schools are funded by the state – anybody can attend (and are expected to)
  • Public schools – anybody can attend so long as they can afford the fees
  • Private schools – choose pupils based on other criteria

Sticking with education, college has two different meanings. In the UK, college means sixth form college where we take our A-levels (aged 16-18) that can get us into university to do a degree or equivalent. Anywhere that you can study for a degree is a university which is made up of colleges and schools. We know that the umbrella term for this in the US is college. I understand that a university in the US is one that offers post-graduate courses. This is not an issue in the UK as I do not know of any colleges or universities that offer only undergraduate courses.

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