UK versus US English – translation tips and hints

May 16, 2018
UK versus US English – translation tips and hints

The wedding of the UK’s Prince Harry and the US’s Meghan Markle has been keeping the press on both sides of the Atlantic plenty busy over the last few weeks. Meghan’s move to the UK has highlighted a number of differences between the two countries, including the different approaches to the English language. For those providing professional translation services, it’s a familiar and engaging discussion. 


Slang is one of the most entertaining areas of difference between UK and US English. Each country has an outstanding range of idioms and expressions, which can leave non-native speakers baffled. For example, someone who ‘kicked the bucket’ in the UK is in much the same unfortunate position as someone who ‘bought the farm’ in the US. Meanwhile, something that is ‘for the birds’ in the UK is likely to be something that appeals to women, while in the US it refers to something substandard. 

Slang words pervade both cultures. The UK is famous for its Cockney rhyming slang, born of the culture and particular accent of East London’s Cockney population. While some of the phrases have fallen out of use, many of the following still pepper British conversations – both within London and beyond:

Adam and Eve – believe
Boat race – face
Apples and pears – stairs 
Hank Marvin – starving 
Mince pies – eyes
Rosy Lee – tea (the drink)
Ruby Murray – curry (often just referred to as ‘a Ruby’ nowadays) 
Whistle and flute – suit (of clothes)

While the last is perhaps most appropriate in Meghan Markle’s case, it’s not just she who will have to learn a range of new expressions – Prince Harry will have his work cut out too. Some great examples of slang used only in the US include:

John Hancock – signature 
Monday morning quarterback – criticism after the fact 
A New York minute – very fast 
Carpetbagger – someone who profits from the misfortunes of others 

The north/south divide

Of course, linguistic differences also exist within both the UK and the US, as well as between them. The North/South divide is one that can relate to language, as well as to economic and political factors. This is something that professional translators need to bear in mind when working on contemporary texts that may incorporate slang in order to localize the language appropriately. 

For example, those living in the North of England use a range of words and expressions that would confound those in the South:

Antwacky – old-fashioned 
Bins – sunglasses
It’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s – it looks like it might rain
Chobble – chew loudly
Deaf it – don’t bother
Doylem – idiot
Gadgie – man 
Jarg – fake 

Meanwhile, those in South England may well confuse their northern counterparts with the following:

Allow it – stop it
Chief – idiot
Crepes – trainers/shoes
Garms – clothes
Gyaldem – girls
Peng – good-looking
Rents – parents 

The same is true across the Atlantic, where northern and southern expressions differ greatly. In the northern United States, for example, it would not be unusual to hear the following:

Hella – really good, great 
Bubbler – water fountain 
Whoopensocker – amazing, incredible 
Bufflehead – idiot
Pank – compress
Bless your heart – you’re so kind/sweet

Meanwhile, those in southern states may well use these delightful expressions:

Fixin’ to – ready to, about to
Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise – with good luck and no issues
Catty-corner – diagonal 
Madder than a wet hen – furious 
Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs – jumpy 
That dog won’t hunt – it’s a bad idea 
Bless your heart – you’re an idiot 

Translation tips

For translation professionals, such linguistic quirks are a fascinating glimpse into life in the territories concerned. However, those who need to use slang expressions need to ensure that they are used correctly. As such, a good, online idioms dictionary is an essential part of a modern translator’s armoury. 

Television is also a great way of keeping up to date with modern slang and idioms – gritty urban dramas are a great way to keep abreast of the latest linguistic twists and turns. 

Finally, if in doubt – ask! Before you use a word or expression that you’re not entirely sure of, double check with those online that you’re using it correctly. Localizing translations can be a tricky business, so it’s always worth double checking that you’ve hit the nail on the head. 

Final thoughts

What is your favourite idiom or slang word and where is it from? Leave a comment to let us know. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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