by Iola Goulton
In my last post, I introduced some of the differences between American (specifically, USA English) and British English. Today, I’m discussing vocabulary.
Getting the vocabulary right is important for two main reasons:
- Vocabulary is a great shortcut to characterization. It’s an easy way to establish where a character is from, and what kind of education they’ve had. As such, authors should make sure non-American characters speak or think in an authentic voice, using the right vocabulary and slang. Anything else risks pulling the reader out of the story, especially if that reader is familiar with the character’s background from their own personal experience.
- Using the wrong vocabulary can change the meaning and confuse the reader. For example, an American friend on Facebook was having friends over and wondering what to serve. Should she offer cider instead of wine for those friends who didn’t drink alcohol? Colour (color?) me confused: in my world, cider and wine have the same alcohol content. I was amused to find her “cider” is what I call apple juice, and my cider is her “hard cider.”
So what common words and phrases get mixed up?
US English – British English
bathroom – toilet, loo
college – university
high school – secondary school, high school, college
college – university
counter – bench (in kitchen)
fall – autumn
fanny – something you only talk about with your gynecologist
fanny pack – bum bag
federal holiday – bank holiday (England), public holiday, statutory holiday
football – American football
French fries – fries or chips
gas – petrol
grade school – primary school
half-bath – toilet
hard liquor – spirits
highway – motorway
hood – bonnet
lucked out – something bad happened
main street – high street
middle school – intermediate school
Ob/GYN – obstetrician or gynecologist (may not be the same person)
potato chips – chips or crisps
private school – public school (England)
public school – state school
purse – handbag
sidewalk – footpath
soccer – football
26 December – Boxing Day (which is a public holiday in many countries)
trunk – boot
vacation – holiday
wallet – purse
yard – garden (even if it’s just grass)
The specific terms you use will depend on the setting in terms of time and place, and where the characters are from. Most of us have grown up watching Hollywood movies and American TV shows, so we have learned what words mean in context. But the reverse doesn’t necessarily hold true. If your author is using authentic British English vocabulary, you may need to ensure the meaning is clear to American readers.
If you’re not sure about vocabulary, then work with a beta reader, critique partner, or editor who is familiar with your novel’s culture and setting.
My next post will discuss more straightforward topics: spelling and punctuation.
Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based book reviewer and editor specializing in adult and young adult Christian fiction. She won the 2016 ACFW Genesis Award (Novella), and copyedited Then There Was You by Kara Isaac, which won a RITA Award from Romance Writers of America. Iola holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in marketing, and has a background in human resource consulting. When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband and cat.