24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Glossary of Briticisms

Every community and every nation likes to believe that its specialised vocabulary is more specialised than it really is. That’s perhaps why people delight in compiling lists which spell out that an aeroplane is an airplane (who would have guessed?), accommodations may be called accommodation, and a million other points which all travellers can work out perfectly well for themselves.

We hope our list has at least partially avoided this temptation and given some information which may be genuinely useful, at least to those requiring minor medical assistance or suffering potato snack deprivation. We have listed US equivalents where these are likely to be widely understood worldwide.

bed and breakfast, B&B or guesthouse. Category of nightly accommodation without the full services of a hotel. Typically lacks an alcohol licence and evening meals, and staff availability may be restricted to particular times of day. At the smallest scale, a B&B may simply consist of a room in the owner’s home. Usually thought of as a cheaper and more basic alternative to hotels, but some ‘luxury’ B&Bs offer excellent facilities, particularly in tourist areas. Very cheap B&Bs (around £30 per night) can be shockingly unpleasant: don’t book these without a positive recommendation.

(the) bill. Itemised listing of the money to be paid following a meal or various other kinds of purchase – so equivalent to one of the US meanings of check.

biscuit. Well known, but worth spelling out: spans the US categories of cookie and cracker. The sense is (usually) resolved by context: tea and biscuits features sweet hard biscuits; cheese and biscuits, savoury ones. The conventional US usage of biscuit describes a thing unknown in the UK: its closest local cousin is the scone.

black pudding. Lightly spiced blood sausage with onions and oatmeal, strongly associated with the industrial North West: the town of Bury, a little to the north of Manchester, produces a particularly famous example. Often found in a full English breakfast.

booking. Reservation (eg, for hotel accommodation).

chemist, chemist’s. Drugstore or pharmacy. A ‘dispensing chemist’ has an on-site pharmacy which can make up prescriptions from a medical practitioner. Chemists in general sell a range of basic medical treatments and hair, teeth and beauty products, etc.

city centre. Downtown.

chips. Slices of fried potato, usually much thicker than French fries (hence fish and chips, etc). What are internationally ‘potato chips’ are in the UK called crisps.

cider. Potentially dangerous false friend: in the UK, all cider, by definition, is alcoholic (US hard cider). For a non-alcoholic apple drink, ask for apple juice.

cheque. US check, in the sense of ‘signed document to draw money as a substitute for cash.’ Increasingly unpopular following the rise of credit and debit cards: even if you have a UK bank account, you may find it difficult to pay for casual purchases such as meals by cheque.

coach. Special category of bus, used in either of two roles: long-distance travel, and special journeys for private events. The passenger is higher off the ground than in an ordinary city bus, and usually has a more comfortable seat.

crisps. US potato chips. Widely eaten in pubs alongside beer, as often the only bar snack available.

Faculty. In British academia, likely to refer to the highest-level institutional structure within a university (‘Faculty of Humanities’), not to the academics who work there. But when academics are described as ‘faculty’ or ‘faculty members’, this identifies them as holding permanent contracts (that is, those who would be tenure-tracked or tenured, if the UK had tenure), usually with a combined research-teaching role.

flat. US apartment. An apartment building is a block of flats.

floor numbering in multi-storey buildings follows the European convention. The floor at street level is the ground floor, often marked ‘G’ on lift button panels. The first floor is the floor above street level (equivalent to the North American second floor), and so on. Below the ground floor, you will occasionally see a ‘lower ground floor’ (‘LG’), which is a basement by any other name.

grill. Can include most kinds of dry-heat cooking, and is often used for the heat-from-above methods which would be called broiling in North America.

left luggage. US baggage check.

minicab. Another name for private hire.

mobile phone or mobile. US cellphone.

motorway. Highest grade of British road, comparable to a freeway or Autobahn, developed for inter-city travel and long-distance freight. Usually. Central Manchester’s most conspicuous motorway, the Mancunian Way or A57(M), is thoroughly untypical, being a 3-kilometre elevated link road with traffic signals.

nappy. US diaper.

newsagent. Small shop selling newspapers and (usually) tobacco, snacks, and a basic range of stationery and greetings cards.

off-licence. Shop licensed to sell alcoholic drinks (‘for consumption off the premises’). Generally this will always include beers, wines and spirits. Also likely to sell tobacco, newspapers, snacks, and perhaps some basic groceries.

note. Of money, a paper bill.

pants. Underpants, not trousers.

paracetamol. The only name by which most British people know the painkiller acetaminophen, sold internationally under brand names such as Tylenol. Casual requests for ‘acetaminophen’ will result in blank looks and a worsening headache.

pavement. Confusingly equivalent to US sidewalk: hence pavement café, etc. In British English, the roadway for vehicles is not ‘paved’ but ‘metalled’, and so is categorically not the pavement: it’s simply the road.

pelican crossing. Road crossing for pedestrians, with the usual turn-taking indicated by red and green signal lights. (The name, part of a series of animal- and bird-themed names chosen on ever more tenuous pretexts, supposedly derives from ‘PEdestrian LIght CONtrol.’)

pepper. Often left ambiguous, as an initiative test for the menu-reader. If ‘ground black pepper’ would not make sense in context, probably equals US bell pepper.

petrol. US gasoline.

porridge. Oatmeal, sometimes eaten for breakfast.

post. Often equates to US mail: post box, postman, post room etc. But: Royal Mail is the name of the postal service.

postcode. Standard postal location code for UK addresses, comparable to the ZIP and PIN codes used elsewhere. Officially required for reliable delivery of the mail. Format varies slightly, but always contains letters and numbers and consists of two parts separated by a space: for instance, ‘M13 9PL’.

postgraduate. Grad student.

power socket, (electric) plug socket. US (power) outlet.

private hire. Car and driver for hire, similar to a taxi, but subject to different regulations. The key difference is that private hires must be ordered in advance, by phone or at a bookings office.

purse. Refers only to a coin purse. A purse in the modern US sense would always be called a handbag.

queue. Line (of people waiting for something).

reception. Front desk area of an organised premises such as an office block or hotel.

research associate, RA. Academic researcher on a fixed-term contract. Almost always a postdoctoral role, but, whereas the term ‘postdoc’ tends to imply juniority, some RAs have experience comparable to faculty members, and may be working largely independently on projects developed around their own expertise.

till. Cash register.

school. In British English, generally restricted to educational facilities for children of ages 4-16, and sometimes 16-18, but excluding higher education, where the terms ‘university’ and ‘college’ are preferred. ‘School’ is, however, used in some HE institutions to refer to an institutional group within a faculty (‘School of Computer Science’).

spirits. Intoxicating liquor (whisky, vodka, etc: not beer or wine).

subway. Not a transportation system (there is no underground system in Manchester). Simply refers to a short underpass, usually designed to get pedestrians from one side of a road to another.

sweets. US candy.

take-away. Meal prepared ‘to take away’ (US to go). If the restaurant specialises in take-away food, it too is ‘a take-away’: hence Chinese take-away, etc.

timetable. Schedule (of events).

toilet(s). Commonest and universally accepted British euphemism for the bodily-waste-disposal and hand-washing facilities. Formal signage may also refer to the lavatory/lavatories or the WC (for ‘water closet’), while a casual speaker may direct you to the loo(s). Also widespread in both signage and speech are Gentlemen or Gents for the men’s room, and Ladies for the women’s. Avoid other cultures’ preferred euphemisms such as bathroom, rest room, washroom and cloakroom. These are not always understood, and may even be misinterpreted as referring to actual bathtub facilities, coat storage, etc.

tram. In the UK in general, ‘tram’ is usually reserved for an urban public transport vehicle which runs along grooves in the street (what might elsewhere be thought of as a streetcar or trolley). In Manchester, however, ‘tram’ tends to be used indiscriminately for Metrolink vehicles and services, whether they’re in on-street or light-rail mode.

vest. Only refers to a sleeveless undergarment (variously undershirt or singlet in other forms of English), typically of the kind worn for thermal protection in the winter months in a time or a place without central heating. Not the middle part of a three-piece suit (that would be a waistcoat) or any kind of outerwear.

zebra crossing. Road crossing for pedestrians, marked by black-and-white stripes across the road, with an orange flashing lamp at each end. There is no turn-taking: pedestrians always have right of way, and can normally expect drivers to stop for them (but should exercise reasonable care!)