Would you know what to do if someone insisted that you need to top up? Do you know the difference between a zebra and pelican crossing? (Hint: neither one is found at the zoo.) Do you know the proper term when asking for a public bathroom? Though I anchor a family of anglophiles, it wasn’t until my daughter moved to Scotland last year that I truly grasped the language barrier of Brit-speak. There’s a lot more to it than swapping ‘s for ‘z’s (realize → realise) and adding the occasional “u” (favorite → favourite). Along with the novel phrases and innocuous spelling differences, some parts of the UK lifestyle came with important native terminology that was key to setting up a life there, and offer lessons to tourists and long-term visitors alike.
The world of mobiles (cell phones)
Brits are mad about their mobiles (MOW-b-eye-ls), which seem to have supplanted land line phones even more than in the states, which is how they often refer to the U.S. Everyone in the city seems to be talking on a mobile phone while walking, riding on buses or trains, in pubs, in their offices and flats, etc.
In the UK, pay-as-you-go phones are a popular option, at least as prevalent as monthly phone plans are here. Each big service provider such as O2, Orange, and Virgin Mobile has a series of tariffs (service plans/packages) to choose from, either as a billable monthly plan or a pay-as-you-go plan (often termed “Pay and Go”). Each tariff usually includes some kind of incentive to personalize your phone experience, based on your needs.
For instance, each network offers tariffs which allow you to choose from a range of bonuses such as unlimited texts, unlimited calls to mobiles on the same network, free international calls, or free calls from a certain post code. In pay-as-you-go plans, you can add money to your balance (an action called “topping up”) through many means– by calling the network and providing credit/debit card details, using the network’s website, or through newsagents, ATMs, and other shops which advertise “top ups.”
To get started, you need to buy the phone itself (referred to as a “handset”) and a SIM card (which programs your phone’s individual number and stores your contact data), along with selecting a tariff. These purchases can be made in the shops of each network provider, or through their websites, or at many large grocery and department stores (e.g. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA). Alternatively, you can use your own existing handset with a new network’s SIM card, as long as your phone is “unlocked” (able to change networks).
The lay of the land
A fundamental terminology difference is the notion of a city’s downtown area-this is called the “city centre” in the UK. While you may find each US city has a “main street,” the equivalent street in the UK would be called the city’s “high street.”
When you see a UK mailing address, the most important part is the post code, which is much more specific than a US zip code. This post code signifies a location down to the specific block. An example: The University of Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall has the post code EH8 9AG. The “EH” signifies the city of Edinburgh, the “8” signifies a certain broad area of Edinburgh, and the “9AG” narrows the target down to an individual block. A flat’s street address is often formatted like this: “23/3F1 High Street”, which means house number 23, flat number 3F1 (3rd floor, flat #1). Sometimes, you may see the same address formatted 23 (3F1). The mail (“post”) is generally delivered to the door of each flat rather than a communal mailbox for the whole building, as you commonly see in the US apartment buildings.
A few cities in the UK have Underground or subway systems (e.g. London, Glasgow); these are similar to navigate as most subway systems in the US. The buses also operate similarly. Each bus will advertise its end destination, route number, and sometimes display via points. Generally, you can pay for buses on board, but most buses require exact change, as the bus drivers do not make change. Prices and route maps can be found in tourist information centers, city tourism websites, and in travel shops.
The UK is generally much more pedestrian-friendly than the US. In urban areas, sidewalks (referred to as the “pavement”) are wide and omnipresent. Most train stations in the UK are very centrally located, in both small towns and large cities, with pedestrian routes clearly signed to walk to the city centre or other points of interest.
There are a variety of styles of crosswalks which aid pedestrian traffic. Zebra crossings are those where the pedestrian has right-of-way over vehicular traffic, marked by black and white stripes and often light poles with glowing yellow bulbs (“Belisha beacons” named for the 1934 Minister of Transport who introduced them). Pedestrian crossings at traffic signals are called pelican crossings, a name derived from “pedestrian light controlled” crossings. Cars are generally smaller than most US models (SUVs and minivans are rare), and parking lots (“car parks”) are hard to come by in dense urban areas.
The most popular form of housing in urban Britain is flats, which are similar to what Americans usually call apartments. In urban areas, flats are commonly found in tenement-style buildings with street level access to a central stair which leads to two flats per floor. It is not common to find a large apartment building with a central entrance, elevators, and interior corridors, as is popular in the US. This is because nearly all flats are “double-aspect” which mean that they have exterior walls on both the front and the back of the building, allowing for more windows and natural daylight.
If you want to find a flat for either short or long term accommodation, there are several useful UK-specific websites to consult. The UK-based gumtree.com is roughly the equivalent of the US-based craigslist.com, websites which provide free classified advertising, a good place to start for flat-share and short or long term self-catering accommodation. Websites such as easyroommate.com and spareroom.com are useful for people looking for flat-shares for at least 3 months, such as study abroad students. When advertisements say the flat provides “all the usual mod-cons,” the advertiser is referring to ‘modern conveniences’ such as microwave, refrigerator, washer, TV, phone, and internet.
Within flats and houses, there is certain British terminology that is useful to know. In the kitchen, several universal terms carry over: refrigerators, microwaves, ovens, freezers, toasters. However, certain cooking appliances are nowhere near as simple to translate; in the US, what might be called a stove, range, or set of burners would be referred to in the UK as the “hob” or the “cooker.” Ovens are often “fan-assisted,” a feature which speeds up cooking and allows for diminished baking temperatures. Oven temperatures are marked in degrees Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, and often temperature increments are shown as “gas marks,” a common measure in cooking instructions for UK food products.
While most Americans know the UK slang term “loo” to mean bathroom, the even more common term for ‘bathroom’ is actually, “the toilet.” Even in public places such as theaters or cinemas, the lavatories are frequently marked as “toilets” rather than “restrooms.” As for those flushing appliances themselves, they are traditionally known as water closets or “WC” for short. The British value well-kept public restrooms (toilets), which can be found at many parks, city centre areas, historic sites, and elsewhere.
This introduction to British lifestyle and terminology is designed to help Americans going on longish visits to England, Scotland, Wales, or Ireland or setting up housekeeping there for a study abroad experience. We hope you find it helpful as you prepare for your sojourn in the United Kingdom.
Diana Miller (my daughter)