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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 01:45 GMT 02:45 UK
Bridging the language divide
Man in boxer shorts
Pants? Or not?

Did you know you can still walk into a hairdressers in the United States and ask for a "shag" with complete impunity?

Despite the creeping success of the Austin Powers films, the staff would assume that you wanted a layered haircut.

It was George Bernard Shaw who once said that the US and the UK were "two countries divided by a common language".

More recently, terms like "fag" and "fairycake" have caused all kinds of confusion during transatlantic conversations.

US: Jumper. UK: Pinafore
US: Sweater. UK: Jumper
US: Rubber. UK: Condom
US: Eraser. UK: Rubber
US: Chips. UK: Crisps
US: French Fries. UK: Chips

Other examples of words that are easily confused are jumper, boot, rubber, pants, chips and geezer.

The latter simply means a man in Britain - but in America it is used specifically to mean an old or lecherous man.

But help is at hand with a book new to the UK from the Oxford University Press - Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, by Orin Hargreaves.

The "speaking clock" is just a "pre-recorded time message" to us Americans
Orin Hargreaves, dictionary compiler

Mr Hargreaves is a US lexicographer who has spent several years working in the UK, where the differences in language caught his ear.

He says he has written the book from a neutral standpoint, as though from an island in the Atlantic Ocean exactly between the two countries.

Most British terms taken up in the US tended to come from journalism - especially from coverage of big international stories like the war in Iraq, he told BBC News Online.

One such term to make its way across the pond recently was "minder" for bodyguard - because of recent news reports about "Iraqi minders".

Another was the phrase "lead-up" as a noun - as in "in the lead-up to the election" - which Mr Hargreaves described as "a really useful little phrase which we just don't have in America".

'Kiss of life'

Mr Hargreaves said there remained many "great" British terms which were not known at all in the US.

The "kiss of life" was simply known as resuscitation, he said, and the "speaking clock" was just a "pre-recorded time message".

Britons, on the other hand, were faced with a deluge of American words from pop culture, cinema, technology, politics and business coming in at a "vast rate", he said.

"My hope is that I have been able to impose a measure of order for British speakers on the steady stream of American English that comes their way.

"My book should help decipher quite a lot of messages that seem to be encrypted but are in fact just ordinary Yank-speak."

The book is split into various different subject areas including money, work and business; government and law; "what you don't say" (swearing), and "the stuff of life" which explains cultural references such as television programmes.

Leave It To Beaver, for example, is described as: "US - sitcom from the 1960s, exemplifying family life."

Coronation Street, on the other hand, is described as: "UK - long-running and popular prime-time soap set in north-west England; thought to exemplify working-class life."

Have you had any confusing transatlantic conversations? Nominate your words for a US-UK dictionary using the form below.

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Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all emails will be published.

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