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American or British English?

September 16, 2008
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I spent a considerable amount of time the other day trying to convince a friend that  cookie is the American word for biscuit. She was unconvinced, and felt that cookies contained a secret ingredient which made them rise above the ordinary biscuit.

Then there are those guys and gals at MacDonald’s. The conversation goes like this.

Me: Can I have regular chips please?
He/She: Chips? (frowns) You mean french fries?
Me (resigned):Uh okay, french fries.
He/She: Right away ma’am!

French fries are what Americans call fried potato sticks. By chips Americans mean crisps, although when we were kids we called them wafers. I’ve got used to it now…but the question of whether to use British or American English persists. Well, at least while writing for both audiences, such as on this blog.

Take the word homely. It used to have positive connotation for me – it meant simple. Another meaning, with a negative connotation, crept upon me so slyly that I didn’t even realise it – unattractive or plain. When I checked The Economist Style Guide (ninth edition) I realised that this is the American meaning. The book is a great reference book because not only does it have a chapter on British and American English, it is an excellent style guide. It’s a known classic on this subject. The chapter on American and British English is a new addition. Meanings of American and British words, as well as the differences in grammar, punctuation, and spellings are given.

Here are some American English words commonly used in India today. Many of these are considered more elegant, modern, and “right” – for example using the word french fries (not just at MacDonalds) is considered more “right” than the word “chips.” It’s almost as if the British have started using these American words too!

Elevator rather than lift
Antenna over aerial
Dumb instead of stupid
Apartment instead of flat

Here are some British English words commonly used in India although the American equivalents are understood quite well.

chemist instead of drugstore or pharmacy
pavement instead of sidewalk
torch instead of flashlight
cupboard or wardrobe instead of closet
Stock instead of inventory

At times we Indians use both American and the English variants:
Bank holiday (British) and public holiday (American)
Holiday (British) and Vacation (American)
Mobile phone (British) and cell phone (American)

Some words mean different things in the UK and in America:
Asian in the UK means from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka but in America it means originating from East Asia or continental Southeast Asia
The word school means a place of primary or secondary education in the UK but in America it means any educational institution

As to which English to use, The Economist style guide suggests that if you use words that are almost exclusively understood by one audience, it’s best to provide a translation. That is if you are writing for both audiences. The guide has a fairly comprehensive list of British and American words although there are plenty of sites on the net (including the wiki) which give this information.

There is the About.com site with a table which helps you convert British English to American English and vice versa.

And as for the Economist Style Guide, it’s worth a dekho…oops, that was Indian English! Here are some curious samples of Indian English which brought a smile to my face.

What a nonsense/silly you are! or Don’t be doing such nonsense any more.: occasional – idiomatic use of nonsense/silly as nouns

go for a toss is meant to go haywire or to flop, as in my plans went for a toss when it started raining heavily. A cricket analogy

on the anvil is used often in the Indian press to mean something is about to appear or happen. For example, a headline might read New roads on the anvil

(Photos by me)

Related Reading: Will English dominate India in another 50 years?
How to write a feature article

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140 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2008 1:46 am

    Amit, true the british love their Proper English or Queens English.
    have u heard a welsh person speak ?

    But if im not mistaken, the commoners English is a lot different and filled with slang , maybe shefaly can elucidate more on that…

  2. September 18, 2008 2:22 am

    @ Prax:

    Welsh people sound remarkably like Indians. A working hypothesis to explain this is that Indians learnt English from Welsh guards employed by the East India Company and thereafter but it is only a hypothesis :-)

    If you see my first, and very long comment on this thread, you will find that I do mention that accents and language across Britain vary hugely by region, by social class, and education. Some examples Nitin gives above are actually slang words that Aussies use; Brits too use slang but it too varies considerably across regions. With practice, you can learn to locate accents but slang is whole another kettle of fish (Why a kettle of fish? Well that is a very English expression! It is not slang but quite mainstream.)

  3. Ravi permalink
    September 18, 2008 5:01 am

    Nita
    Nice post after a long time I had fun reading comments usually they go the other way ;-)
    I had some funny hmm..actually weird experiences with my accent and choice of words…lol
    I was at our library on the other day to order an article since I couldn’t do that online. So I went all by myself to talk to the librarian. Here is the conversation….
    Me: “Mam! I need to buy an article which I couldn’t pull out through our Library loan”
    Librarian:”You need to purchase an article”
    I was like buy or purchase both mean the same but why did she preferred to use “purchase” over the word “buy”.
    In America, Asian means a person with slant eyes..no offense!
    A day’s holiday is called an OFF!
    When u do something mistakenly then they (Americans) say..”Oops! my bad” I think they say that in Ebonics. And this word “dude” is a rip off from American slang. They don’t use “may” but “can”. When I first went to McD the lady at the counter asked me “for here .. to go”. I was like “what?” my friend intervened and said “ for here” she had an authentic Ebonics’ accent though…lol

    @Soham – its true that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our accent but don’t you think its funny to see Indians pretend or at least try to speak in American accent? :-)

    I have a german friend, Kristina and she barely speaks English. Whenever we talk I made fun of her like million times because of her sentence formation. She pronounces Y as J and speaks in german accent…lol..that was freaking funny but cute though.

  4. September 18, 2008 11:00 am

    @Ravi
    funny but cute…. ohhhh….. :P

  5. September 18, 2008 11:04 am

    @Nita :D

    @Shefaly
    You can read-write-understand Marathi?

  6. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 18, 2008 12:24 pm

    @ Nitin

    //in the now infamous Budhwar Peth[the better side!]//

    I didn’t know there was any time in the last 300 years that Budhwar Peth was not infamous (though it must have had its more infamous and less infamous sides, of course). It was to Pune what Soho was to London. Remember Bavankhani, made famous in recent times through Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal?

    My own familiarity with it (no, not for reasons :-)that a one-track mind might think of!) carries a number of interesting memories from some 30 years ago. There is Daney Aali (“the” most infamous part) where apparently Bavankhani was (?is?) located. I went there two or three times, to buy for myself and for a theatre-crazy Indologist friend from Poland the Puneri jodey which had had a lease of life due to Ghasiram Kotwal. It also had fascinating shops selling the musical instruments associated with the mADis ["kothas" for the uninitiated]. Then there was the occasion when, after midnight, six of us colleagues (including the wife of one of them) went looking for a drink and a bite, and the only place we found open was close to Daney Aali. The presence of a respectable-looking woman caused a lot of raised eyebrows, and I remarked to her that this must be the first time in the history of the place that a kuleen stree had entered the place.

    Fast-forward to the present: a journalist friend of mine involved, together with a social scientist, in researching the conditions of women in the flesh trade, became the subject of considerable gossip among the rickshaw drivers who ferried her three times a week, for several weeks, from her home in Prabhat Road to Daney Aali. As her own add-on to the project, she documented the vocabulary used in the trade, which “respectable” lexicographers over the last 150 years have pointedly ignored. She is planning to bring it out as a booklet if she finds a willing publisher :-) !

  7. September 18, 2008 12:24 pm

    @ Suda

    Yes.

  8. September 18, 2008 12:36 pm

    @Shefaly
    Thanks for exact answer :D

  9. September 18, 2008 12:40 pm

    @Vivek
    //She is planning to bring it out as a booklet if she finds a willing publisher//
    I am not sure if I really want to read it :D , can spoil my language :P

  10. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 18, 2008 1:28 pm

    @ Suda:

    One doesn’t have to read everything that is published. But I am intrigued by your reason for not wanting to. When I was at school, the teachers were all against us kids reading comics, because they believed it would “spoil our language”. Many of us would therefore read comics right in class, concealed in the pages of our physics/chemistry/geography journals, placed on our laps below the desktop. Believe me, far from spoiling our language, they brought to it a whole new dimension that the mandated Shakespeare, Tennyson, Buchan and Orwell could never have done. [Maybe that comment should exclude Shakespeare. He's rich in forbidden fruit, but much of it is in Tudor period English, and our teachers could subtly censor, right under our noses, what they did not want us to understand!].

    Vivek, I think you don’t know Suda. He could probably bring out a booklet himself! :P :D – Nita.

  11. Nitin Mahajan permalink
    September 18, 2008 2:12 pm

    @Vivek,
    I am quite familiar with Daney Aali & Budhwar Peth area[No!Are you crazy?].Because they have a million stores of second hand books.I used to go there in my school days to get books on the cheap.

    My growing up did not happen there as my father had moved out of there to a far more upmarket neighborhood,before I was born.

    “I didn’t know there was any time in the last 300 years that Budhwar Peth was not infamous”
    Thats news to me. Ajoba made it seem like a recent thing.He probably wanted to give it some sort of respectability in my head.

    @Nita;Apologies for getting so awfully chatty and veering off topic.

  12. September 18, 2008 3:50 pm

    @Vivek
    My reason was just a reason. :D That means I will read that booklet for sure!!!!!
    And Nita is right, my colleagues who are not from rural areas are asking me to write a dictionary of interesting words I know (or use occasionally). :D

  13. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 18, 2008 4:13 pm

    Suda,

    What your colleagues are suggesting, probably just as a joke, in fact needs to be done at a level of serious scholarship. It is one of the big lacunae in the lexicography of most MILs.

    So do start with it in whatever way you can. Ultimately it will have to build up into a major project, for which finding the right people will not be as much of a problem as finding funding. But it is not impossible.

    All the best.

  14. Ravi permalink
    September 19, 2008 1:21 am

    @ suda

    Thank you – Ravi

  15. September 19, 2008 4:18 am

    boot instead of trunk

    mad instead of crazy

  16. September 19, 2008 6:37 am

    I’m not sure if this is the only word, but Enroll (American) is the only word I know of, that is longer than its British counterpart (enrol). If anyone knows any other, I would be most interested in finding out.

    Also, to the person about the “fake accents”. I don’t think fake accents are so cut and dry. There are a large amount of people, I am sure, that put on the accents to seem exotic, or whatever it is you despise, but from personal experience, I can tell you it is often an effort for Alien residents to be understood by their american counterparts (or whatever other nation), so much so that it pays to make the effort to imbibe the accent.

  17. September 21, 2008 6:28 am

    This is a great article, Nita. Thanks for the tip on the reference book.

    It’s fun to collect the different words and expressions for the same item, isn’t it? There is a lot of this going on in Spanish too, since there are 21 different Spanish-speaking countries.

    My blogging friend Jo says ‘shattered’ for very tired, whereas I say ‘wiped out.’ But I can figure out her meanings from the context, and also from all the reading of British literature I’ve done.

    Have you ever written about some of your favorite Indian writers who write in English? Do you like RK Narayan?

    • February 22, 2009 7:43 am

      I have read 7 novels novels by R K Narayan and I love him. His novels are simple and touching.

  18. September 21, 2008 10:23 pm

    Didn’t have time to read this enormous number of comments (wow, my compliments, Nita). Only one thing: pls you Indian people do not lose that wonderful Victorian flavour in your variety of English which makes it your much more elegant than American English!

  19. September 23, 2008 1:13 pm

    @ Christine

    Your reference to your friend Jo’s usage is an example of language evolving. Most people in the UK also say they are ‘knackered’ when they are tired. When their team loses a game they say they are ‘gutted’. None is used in the literal sense, of course, yet you will rarely see these in a book or mainstream media publication.

  20. Bombay wadapav eater permalink
    September 23, 2008 2:08 pm

    Bit too late to comment probably but completely agree with ManofRoma. I will stick and be loyal to Brit English. Americans sound as tho’ they are chewing gum while trying to speak English. We Indians learnt English straight from the British – Required BBC or Queen’s English. If you go to Britain, you will hear different accents or rather dialects, some really hard to understand. Brits never tried to force us to pick up their accent so Indians speak with a touch of their own individual accents. My father had mostly Brit professors when he studied at college and his teachers were highly educated. At times it makes it tough for foreigners to understand some of us. Americans however impose their accent and make the students into parrots. I must admit that when I worked in the bank I always put on a British accent to make it sound nicer and so that people understand me better. I acclaim to be native English speaker and my American boss did not accept that which is appalling since he and my other American collegeaus make spelling mistakes (e.g. happy on a card with just one “p”) and wrong grammar. India with human resource will be top if a bit more organised and with better politicians that we can rule the world with Indian English?! I do hope. Btw Vivek Mittal “vacation” is purely American for holiday. In England only school children or college students have a vaction whereas employees go on holiday even if it is a month and when too long probably a sabbatical.

  21. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 16, 2008 8:20 pm

    @Bombay wadapav eater:

    Being myself a votary of British English, I would like to agree with you, and do stick to that dialect :-) in speech (albeit with a touch of Indian/Marathi accent) and writing (except when my editorial work mandates American usage).

    However, it is futile to deny that if English today has international status it is because of the Americans. In publications in fields such as management and ICT, as well as in the reams of literature churned out by the UN and other international agencies, American rules.

  22. December 18, 2008 12:57 am

    @Vivek S. Khadpekar

    Yes, maybe American English rules, but as far as my experience goes – international conferences, cosmopolitan milieus, not to mention the entire Anglo-saxon world – British English is considered more stylish, a sort of upper-class-and-elegant type of thing. Of course America has power while to Great Britain only nobility is left. No little thing in any case. You Indian people somewhat have this ancient more noble flavour (not ‘flavor’ lol) in your DNA. Why should you throw it away? (unless you have resentment, which of course I can understand)

  23. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 18, 2008 9:20 am

    @ Man of Roma:

    I think you misunderstood me. I am not even vaguely suggesting that we “throw it away.” On the contrary, I think it is the British themselves who are aiding and abetting the erosion of their language. Consider the facts:

    The spell-check programme on my computer, even when set it to “English (U.K.),” does not question spellings such as “program.” It does not question the use of “practice” and “advice” as a verb or (horror of horrors!) “advise” as a noun.

    The recent editions of the Concise Oxford Dictionary not only no longer alert the user on “-ize” and “-yze” being American forms, they even give them pride of place as main entries, followed by an obsequious “also [-ise/-yse].”

    As for RP (I presume that’s what you mean by “British”) being considered more “stylish,” I don’t know. My own experience at “cosmopolitan” events suggests otherwise. What I do know is that the artificial stress on prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs affected by many English language news presenters on radio and TV — including on the venerable BBC — is decidedly not stylish; it’s boorish. And when it comes to the weather reports at the end, I cannot even figure out whether what I am hearing is English or Cantonese.

    BTW, it appears that some English-medium schools in Mumbai have made a policy decision to teach their students to speak English with an American accent (whatever that may mean). I have had the dubious pleasure of listening to some of the outcomes of this. They are, to put it mildly, nauseating.

  24. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 18, 2008 9:31 am

    Correction: In line 1 of para 2 above, it should read either as “… when I set it to …” or “… when set to …”

  25. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 18, 2008 9:57 am

    Incidentally, I don’t remember whether on this post or another, someone had made the point that the American forms of most words were shorter than the British forms, e.g. ‘color’ vs. ‘colour'; ‘program’ vs. ‘programme’.

    While this is generally true in matters of spelling (though there are exceptions), when it comes to choice of vocabulary I find Americans tend to favour longer words in everyday language, e.g. ‘transportation’ for ‘transport’, ‘suspenders’ for ‘braces’, ‘molasses’ for ‘treacle’, ‘apartment’ for ‘flat’…the list can go on.

  26. December 18, 2008 3:39 pm

    ManOfRoma:

    To an extent, at conferences at least, you probably encounter educated, hence cleaned-up, accents. I daresay some regional English accents, and we won’t even need to mention the Glaswegian accent, are distinctly, er, indistinct and awful on the ear. This may sound biased but it is no more or less biased than proclaiming that British English is somehow more elegant.

    There is no one British English anyway. By ear, I can now locate a person to the nearest county as well as assess how much education he/ she has had. Now _that_ sort of class-ification(hyphen intended) is very British as well as very Indian.

  27. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 18, 2008 4:40 pm

    @ Shefaly:

    You mean “classy-fication”, don’t you? Not “class-ification”! :-)

  28. December 18, 2008 7:15 pm

    You guys know more than me about many of these things (I use Americanisms too). You are English mother tongue (or mother tongue of your variety of English, internationally recognized), while I learned this language through toil and still have to toil with each sentence I write.

    I think there’s been mutual misunderstanding. I agree with all you both are saying. I’m just a great lover of literature, also British of course, and what I wanted to say is just that nowadays you Indian people, as far as I can tell, write a better and much more elegant English than the British themselves. I used the term Victorian which I think it is correct. This opinion I’ve also heard from other people in the West.

    Thus said, and renewing my hope that India will not forget the elegant Victorian flavour of her language (which provides a lot of literary pleasure to a man like me), a few random things. Received Pronunciation, yes, it seems the best accent, but I agree with Shefaly that many regional British accents are horrible. To them I prefer American English, which has its beauties too and has been the first love of my youth.

    I also agree that the British people seem to care less for their language, and accept Americanisms that were banned only a few decades ago. But this is globalization and we cannot stop it. One thing we can maybe add is that the British people, in the course of their history, didn’t show much that purism which is a persistent feature of the French which caused the French language to become like a dead fossil.

    The nice thing about Indian English is that it has an ancient flavour (don’t know for how long) but it is not a fossil at all; on the contrary it seem very alive and creative. Even from your blogs I can see you guys being capable of playing with this language a lot (which unfortunately I cannot do).

  29. December 18, 2008 7:32 pm

    PS

    @Vivek S. Khadpekar

    If you wanted to say that RP is not stylish anymore, I don’t know. But you had doubts too, I understood. Maybe the standard English of TV etc. is not stylish, since it seems clearly only a bad imitation.

    I think the language spoken at Cambridge and Oxford by cultivated people (or by the Queen herself) should still be stylish, but being 60 my comprehension of nowadays’ tastes may falter. If what I read on Wikipedia is true, it is besides spoken only by only 2% of the population in the UK. Very few people indeed.

  30. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 18, 2008 9:30 pm

    @ Man of Roma:

    //…the British people, in the course of their history, didn’t show much that purism…//

    That is the secret of the endurance and proliferation of the language. Burchfield famously referred to it as “the mongrel tongue”.

    //… that purism which is a persistent feature of the French which caused the French language to become like a dead fossil.//

    And then they end up adopting English participles as nouns: “le parking”, “le (or is it “la”?) shampooing”! “Le weekend” is somewhat better — it marginally enhances the raison d’être of a virtually dead letter in their alphabet!

    I do appreciate what you call “syle” in language, but to me it does not have to be associated with a “cultivated” social class. Used con brio, any language as spoken by the working classes is generally more lively and vibrant than that of the genteel classes. And as far as I have observed around India, the speech of the less educated and the illiterate has much more richness to it than that of the educated and the genteel. The oral tradition is still alive and kicking, though it is being gradually anaesthesised by the advance of literacy, and of live, active interaction between people giving way to the onslaught of passive audience-spectatorship.

    //You are English mother tongue (or mother tongue of your variety of English, internationally recognized)…//

    Speaking for myself (I’ll not presume to speak for Shefaly), that’s not true. English for me is strictly a second language, though I do tend to use it in a substantial part of my professional and academic life; however, I live a richly multidimensioned life, of which those two dimensions form only a small part. Although I was educated in English right from kindergarten, and have formally learnt only one of the three Indian languages in which I am fluent, I still emotionally relate more strongly to the latter three (despite my serious political opposition to one of them) than I do to English.

    The “stylish” is often effete and choreographed. Give me the spontaneous hurly-burly of the stalls any day.

  31. December 19, 2008 12:04 am

    @Vivek S. Khadpekar

    Style is a complex thing and, I agree, sometimes a bit too much related with the upper classes. Here the discussion would be vast. Style, gusto, taste (or brio, as you said) are tough concepts philosophers have discussed (and quarrelled about) for centuries.

    Generally I like any language that is not dead and that is vibrant, expressive, in short springing from life, not from libraries. It can be vulgar, noble, inspired, matter-of-fact; it can range from slang, classical prose, witty limericks up to sublime poetry. What counts is the pleasure, the spiritual nourishment and knowledge one derives from it, which can be subjective.

    It is a topic we can continue to talk about in the future. I would appreciate it very much.

  32. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 19, 2008 4:48 am

    @ Man of Roma:

    We seem to be on the same wavelength. Yes, it would be great to discuss it, but writing back and forth on a blog does not strike me as the best way of going about it.

  33. December 19, 2008 2:27 pm

    Well, I like dialectics, and blogs allow these dialogues internationally, which is thrilling, dialectics being one of the myths of western culture since Plato. This is in any case one of my emails:
    giorgiorossi2555@gmail.com

  34. January 30, 2010 1:41 pm

    thanks nita for ur work which is simply good and i am amazed on seeing ur matured audience…keep the good work going…regards…

  35. Praveen permalink
    February 12, 2010 7:47 am

    From the comments I see that people stopped commenting a long time ago…But anyways I’ll go forward with one…

    All of the above material was very fascinating and a lot of people said a lot of things that I wanted to say. But here’s something new. I have been in US for nearly 3 years now. However I am still uncomfortable with the usage of ‘Miles’ , ‘Pounds’, ‘Ounces’, ‘Gallons’, ‘Fahrenheit’ etc :)
    I always have to convert them to our standards to make proper sense of the situation. Boy, they had to use an alternative for every standard that we use in India :) . Even the switches here are reverse. They are ‘ON’ when they are up and ‘OFF’ when down, quite opposite to what we are used to.

    My first day at McD I asked the guy for a ‘Cover’ and he gave me a blank stare ! hehe..I then said ‘Polythene carry bag’ and got back the same response. I had to make hand signs to make him understand that I want something to carry my burger in. I learnt that you have to ask for just a ‘Bag’ and only then you will get what you expect. These people are so stickler for their own words, that they don’t understand even a small variation or probably don’t bother too. After the ‘cover’ fiasco I asked him for a ’tissue’ or ’tissue paper’ since he forgot to give me one and that lead me to the word ‘Napkin’. Then I asked for ‘Tomato Sauce’, which I myself changed to ask for ‘ketchup’ and got it. The first day was so funny :)

    And I never understand, even now, the words they use for different clothes. ‘Tank top’ and what not. In India we use ‘dress’ as a very common term to mean any kind of attire. But here only ladies wear a ‘dress’ ….. :)

  36. July 14, 2010 3:30 pm

    I’ve never been to India, so the image I have of the English spoken in your country is based on three things: what I know about your history, what I see on TV or in movies, and what my Indian acquaintances tell me. This post / blog adds to those.

  37. August 29, 2011 12:53 am

    Do you know? Today, Indians are the Largest English speaking community in the world though it is not their mother tongue.

  38. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    March 9, 2012 8:56 am

    Hi all!

    It’s nice to be able to contribute something new to a lovely post that has been dormant for more than six months. I do believe the following goes well with the several obiter dicta that have appeared above

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/books/dictionary-of-american-regional-english-reaches-last-volume.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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