You say “Tomato.”

We’ve just returned from the US for an extended “holiday” as they would call it in England, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the minor and major differences in vocabulary between the two. And you thought there wasn’t a language barrier? Think again.

Order “chips” in a restaurant and you will get fries; if you want chips you need to say “crisps.” I‘ve searched for one of my favorites things, to no avail – biscuits – as in biscuits and gravy. A “biscuit“ in England is a cookie not a biscuit, as in Southern, KFC, etc. “To go” is not really used here. Most food is consumed on premises and many restaurants simply don’t have anything for you in which to take away your food. By the way, it’s called “take away” when you want it “to go” and often a “take away” restaurant is a walk-in store front with maybe 1-2 tables, but primarily focusing on take away food only.
“Loo” is the bathroom, “hob” equals stove, and “boot” refers to the trunk or hatchback of your vehicle. We change “nappies” not diapers, and children “go for a sleep” in the p.m., not a “nap” as that could be short for nappy, as I discovered during an awkward conversation on the street with another “mum,“ as we pushed our children in our “buggies,” “prams” or “pushchairs,” not strollers.

I’ve found it’s an especially good idea to try to educate myself when it comes to some of the differences in terminology that involve my daughter, as she‘s learning new words every day. I read her nursery school diary and it said “we talked about Father Christmas and she wasn’t sure who that was.“ They probably think I’m some kind of scrooge.

And my three year old is beginning to pick up on subtle differences. The other day in the kitchen she told me, “Mama, in Michigan we say ‘ay-pri-cot’ and in London we say ‘ah-pri-cot.’” Walking by a football field, she told me it was a “London football” and was black and white, not brown like in America.

When they get a bit of snow here (as we did the other day), Londoners lay down “grit” not salt.

I first heard the word “bespoke” here, mostly in advertisements, meaning a luxury item and high degree of customization. I can honestly say I’ve never heard that word before.

Common words are also sometimes used differently. “Scheme” is a positive thing, such as a “housing scheme” meaning a housing deal or program; whereas in the U.S., scheme carries a negative connotation, such as a scam of some type.

One day as I was feeling a bit out of place with my American accent, a Pakistani cab driver assured me I’m much easier to understand than a Brit, making me feel a little bit better.

And yes, “tomato” is pronounced “tomahto.” Really.


About expatmama

Karla Oselka Walsworth is a freelance writer/blogger, born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She has lived abroad twice, most recently in London, and keeps a blog on Expat living and traveling with children, Living in the last five years in four different cities, her writings tend to focus on challenges of moving/living with children while exposing them to all this planet has to offer. Karla, who has her MBA from the University of Illinois, and is also a certified 200 hour yoga instructor, has settled (for this moment) in the Midwest. As a recovering accountant and budding writer, she is actively raising two children with her husband Eric, hoping to give them as global a perspective as one can, at ages 7 and 4.
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3 Responses to You say “Tomato.”

  1. Pam Oselka says:

    Love it!

  2. Clay Stroup says:


    I need a translator when I travel to other “English” speaking countries. The phrase below would probably get me thrown into jail.

    “Mum’s the word on Lou’s crispy biscuits. I wasn’t sure what to take away from the whole scheme. I tried to give his buggie the boot, but he showed lot’s of grit. I need a nap!”

  3. Kathie says:

    Thanks for sharing, very interesting. I think it is really funny that Ella is already picking up on it. It’s almost harder than being in a country with a totally different language. At least then you are not under the assumption that you are understanding each other.

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