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The British English Glossary
 

Going to the UK soon? Although both countries speak some flavor of English, you'll find that the Brits have a very different vocabulary than the average American. Not to worry though - this handy glossary should help you out. Oh, and be sure to check out the little section about units of measurement, British currency and British place names at the end of this article!

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Glossary - Units of Measurement - British Currency - British Place Names
 

British English Glossary

Anorak - The British term for a windbreaker or parka.

Answerphone - This is the general British term for "voicemail" or "answering machine", as in "I called you, but it went to answerphone".

Anti-clockwise - The British equivalent of "counter-clockwise".

Asian - In the UK, "Asian" refers only to people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, or their descendants. If you need to refer to a group of Chinese or Japanese people, you should probably use the term "Orientals", as it's not considered offensive in the UK. Just know that if a British person says something about "an Asian man", they're talking about a person from the Indian subcontinent (i.e. Indian or Pakistani).

Aubergine - The British word for eggplant. Aubergine is a French word, which came into French from the Catalan albergina, which itself came from the Arabic al-bethinjan. So why do Americans and Australians call it an "eggplant"? It's a bit of a mystery - a surprisingly deep mystery, in fact - but the word "eggplant" dates from around 1767 and might be connected to the first version of the fruit to arrive in Britain (which was white, and therefore did look like something like an egg). Whether "eggplant" came first and was displaced by the more poncey aubergine at some point after the American Revolution is up for debate.

Bacon - English bacon is more or less the same as Canadian bacon. If you want American-style bacon, ask for "crispy bacon". Most sandwiches that come with bacon come with "crispy bacon". Also, an individual piece of bacon is called a rasher, so if you'd like some more bacon, ask for "another rasher" instead of "another piece".

Bap - Slang for a soft roll, or a sandwich made from said soft roll. Be careful in using this, as "baps" (note the plural) is also slang for breasts. So if you see a woman holding two delicious-looking sandwiches, it's best not to say "nice baps!" to her unless you want to get slapped.

Barmcake - Also slang for a sandwich, although I've never actually heard this one before.

Bed and Breakfast - In the US, a "bed and breakfast" is a quaint and cozy hotel, typically rather upscale, and almost always located in an older (historic) house. American couples go there for romantic weekend getaways. In the UK, a "bed and breakfast" is simply a small (usually family-run) hotel that offers rooms and breakfasts. They are almost always of the "budget traveler" variety and come with varying degrees of "quaint" and "cozy". There are certainly many wonderful "bed and breakfasts" in the UK, however there are just as many nasty ones too. In general, American "bed and breakfast" hotels are of a much higher caliber than British ones, so keep that in mind whilst making lodging arrangements.

Biro - A ballpoint pen. The ballpoint pen was invented by a Hungarian named László Bíró, and outside the United States it's (supposedly) a fairly common term. Although pretty much every British English glossary (including this one) mentions this word, I've only heard it used once or twice in my British travels. "Pen" works just fine, so there's no need to use this word yourself.

Biscuits - Biscuit is the traditional English word for "cookie", although you will probably find that most cookies of an American origin (like chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies) are sold as "cookies" or "American-style cookies" and not biscuits.

Bollocks - Bollocks originally referred to testicles, however in the past century the word has become a popular slang term for anything unpleasant ("That movie was bollocks!") or as an exclamation of anger, defiance or disbelief ("Bollocks to this!"). However, if something is referred to as the bullocks (or "the dog's bollocks"), it means something good, as in "I just won the lottery! Isn't that the dog's bollocks!". Why dog testicles came to represent something good is a mystery to me. UPDATE: jimcofer.com reader Duncan sent me an email offering a possible origin of the phrase "the dog's bollocks": because dogs seem to always be licking their private parts, they must be good

Bomb - When used to measure the popularity of a movie, play, book, album, etc., this word has completely different meanings on either side of the Atlantic. In America, a movie that "bombs" is a complete failure; in Britain a movie "bombing" is a good thing, as this means that it's exploding in popularity.

Bonnet - The hood of a car.

Boob tube - (slang) An amusing example of differences between American and British English, a "boob tube" is a low-cut halter top in the UK but a slang term for a television in the US.

(to) book - Most any situation that would call for a "reservation" in the US would call for a "booking" in the UK. For instance, you'll need to book a hotel room for your stay in the UK and you might also want to get a booking for a nice restaurant.

Boot - The trunk of a car.

Braces - In the UK, it's the word for two straps of fabric worn over the shoulders that keep your pants from falling down. In the US, the generic term is suspenders. However, to be completely accurate, in America suspenders are the type of suspender that have "teeth hooks" and can connect to any pair of pants, while braces are suspenders with button holes on the ends that require buttons on the inside of the pants. Note that the word suspenders means "garter belt" in the UK; although the term applies to both male and female varieties of garter, the fact that men hardly wear them these days means that for the most part, "suspenders" means "female garter belt" in the UK... so you might get odd looks asking for suspenders in the men's section of a department store. Lastly, note that in both countries, the word braces can also refer to orthodontic devices used to straighten teeth.

"brown sauce"- A ubiquitous British condiment found on the tables of nearly every pub, diner and chip shop. It's used on chips (fries), sandwiches and just about anywhere else an American would use ketchup. Brown sauce is very similar to America's A1 steak sauce; in fact, without having the two side-by-side they're almost indistinguishable. You won't find this on the tables of nicer restaurants, just as you won't find ketchup on the table at nice restaurants in the US. 

Busker - A busker is a street performer of some kind, usually a musician. Busking is the act of performing on the street or a Tube station. Look for "No Busking" signs at Tube stations or near tourist attractions.

Candy Floss - The British term for "cotton candy".

Caravan - A recreational vehicle that is towed by a car. It's commonly called a trailer in the US, or an RV (for "recreational vehicle") if it's big enough to come with its own steering wheel. You might remember the many caravan scenes from Guy Ritchie's film Snatch.

Car Park - A parking lot or deck.

Cashpoint - Also "cash point". The most common term for an ATM (automated teller machine). You might also hear ATMs referred to as "cash machines".

Cheers - In addition to being a toast, "cheers" is also the generic term for "goodbye" or "thanks", especially when dealing with strangers in informal situations. When you complete a transaction at a shop or let a stranger borrow your lighter, they'll probably thank you with a "cheers!" Do not use this word if you deeply mean your thanks - it's a very informal word.

Chemist - British English for a pharmacist, although it can (and does) apply to the drug store where the pharmacist works, too. So if you're walking down the street and suddenly develop stomach pains, you might want to find a chemist's (drug store) to ask the chemist (pharmacist) what you should take for it. This word also has the same meaning as the American term of "a person who has a degree in chemistry".

Chippie - A restaurant that sells fish and chips (and perhaps curries, burgers and pizza as well). These are almost always "takeaway" (take out) places.

Chippings - Gravel.

Chips - French fries. I think every living English speaker knows this one, though.

Chuffed - Happy, as in "I'm chuffed to be off that $@(! airplane!"

Cinema\Theatre - Strictly speaking, cinemas have movies while theatres have plays in the UK. The terms are not interchangeable as they are in the US.

Clerk - A generic British term for someone who works in an administrative position. It's always pronounced "clark" in the UK. The people in shops that help you with things are called assistants (or shop assistants) in the UK (as opposed to clerks, which they are sometimes called in the US).

Cloakroom - A polite euphemism for "toilet" in the UK.

Coach - For some reason, a bus is called a bus when it's an intracity bus, but a coach when it's an intercity one. So you'd take a bus from one part of London to another, but a coach from London to Manchester. I don't know why this is exactly; perhaps it's because coaches have toilets? Maybe it's a holdover from the old days of horse-drawn coaches? At any rate, even if Brits will know what you mean if you ask for "the bus from London to Liverpool", you'll avoid some unnecessary confusion by using these terms correctly.

Concession - In the UK, a concession is a discount given to certain demographic groups, usually for admission to movie theatres, museums, etc. It's analogous to the American "senior citizen discount" or "student discount", although concession is a blanket term that covers all groups. Interestingly, the American use of concession comes from another meaning of the word, this one being "granting a business a license to operate within the property of another business". In America, the only concession businesses that most people ever patronized were hot dog stands at baseball games or food vendors at train stations. Over time the American idea of "concession = food" became so commonplace that even food sold at movie theatres is sold at "concession stands", even though the theatre itself owns the stand.

Corn - In the UK, corn the word used for almost every type of grain. The specific North American plant Americans call "corn" is called maize in Britain.

Courgette - The British term for zucchini. Like aubergine, courgette is a French word, coming from courge (gourd), which in turn came from the Old French cohourde, which itself came from the Latin cucurbita. Zucchini is known by its Italian name in America, as it was popularized here by Italian immigrants.

Crisps - Potato chips. Almost as many people know this one as do "chips".

Engaged - A phone line that's "busy" in the US would be engaged in the UK. All other uses of the word "engaged" Americans will be used to - such as busy ("I can't do lunch - I'm engaged") or two people in a commitment to get married ("John and Jane got engaged!") - also apply in the UK as well.

Ensuite - A hotel room with a bathroom included. Most any large hotel will have "ensuite rooms" by default, but many of the smaller touristy hotels have shared bathrooms. If your hotel looks as if it might have been a private home at one point in its life, you might want to make sure that your reservation is for "an ensuite". Note that this word refers to a room with a bathroom attached only, not to the bathroom itself. NEVER say something like "I need to go to the ensuite".

Estate - In the UK, this refers to any defined area of property, such as a council estate (housing project) or trading estate (industrial park). It also has the same legal meaning of "someone's stuff" as in the US (as in "disposing of your grandfather's estate").

Fanny - (slang) In British English, fanny is an extremely vulgar term for a female body part. You should never, ever use this term in polite company, so keep that in mind if you need to refer to your "fanny pack" - a bag with a built-in belt designed to rest on the lower back - in public.

Filet\Fillet - There is almost no end to the confusion surrounding these words, so let me try to break it down for you: fillet (pronounced fee-lay) is a French word whose usage in English means "a strip of meat" (usually beef or fish). On the other hand, filet (pronounced fill-it) is an English word that originally meant "a net or lace with a simple pattern of squares" and "a strip of fabric used as a headband". In time filet came to include many other "strip like" things - including a strip of beef. Yes, both words have the same root - the Latin word filum, which means "thread" - but the French term is only used in America. So if you go to a British restaurant and the waiter mentions a "filet" they're running as a special... he's not butchering French, he's using an English word that (while similar to the French word) simply has a different pronunciation in English. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, the British pronunciation of anchovy (ANK-ohvee, kind of like the first syllable of "anchor" with an "ohvee" at the end), is a complete bastardization of the Spanish word.

Fizzy drink - A carbonated beverage, typically a soda like Coca-Cola. Beware that in Britain "lemonade" refers to citrus-based carbonated beverages like Sprite or 7-Up. If you want American-style lemonade, ask for "flat lemonade".

Flannel - An old-school British term for "washcloth"; since washcloths are somewhat rare in budget hotels, you might need to ask the front desk for a "flannel".

Fortnight - A period of time consisting of two weeks. It comes from the phrase "fourteen nights". Amazingly, most Americans are unfamiliar with this word these days, even though it used to be much more common in American English.

Fry-up - A traditional English breakfast, usually consisting of fried eggs, English bacon, sausages, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, baked beans and toast. It's also sometimes called a "full English".

Fruit machine - This is called a "slot machine" or a "one-armed bandit" in the United States. I don't know how often this will come up in your travels, but I added it for the sake of completeness.

Full Stop - The type of punctuation mark that is commonly called a period in the United States. British people often use "full stop" in a sentence to emphasize that they really mean something... just as Americans would use "period", as in "You are not dating that guy... full stop!".

Gaol - This is the "old school" way of spelling "jail" in the UK. It's pronounced exactly like "jail", just spelled a bit differently. Gaol is rapidly falling out of fashion in Britain in favor of the Americanized "jail", but gaol is the only official way to spell it in Australia and New Zealand.

Garden - The space in the front and\or back of your home where green stuff grows is called a garden in the UK. In American English the term is yard, with garden being reserved for patches of plants grown for a specific reason (like a vegetable garden) or for a highly-organized area of plantings (like a flower garden). The Brits only use "yard" in the industrial sense of a "large place where work is done", like a scrap yard or ship yard. Note that even a tiny patch of concrete with one potted plant in it - typical for a lot of townhomes in London - is called a garden in the UK. It's referring to a place, not to a specific botanical thing.

Gas - As you might know, gasoline is called petrol in the UK. What you might not know is that gas refers to natural gas exclusively in the UK.

Geezer - In the UK, this is a general term for "a man" and is usually used when referring to someone that the speaker has no relationship with, as in "I got directions from this geezer on the street corner". In the US, the term refers exclusively to elderly men and is considered mildly offensive. The British meaning is not considered to be offensive (but it *is* informal) and its usage implies nothing regarding the age of the target person. If the person that gave you directions to a restaurant is 17 years-old, he's still a geezer in the UK.

Ginger - People don't have "red" hair in the UK, they have "ginger" hair. Of course, ginger is also a popular spice in the UK, too.

Ground floor - In the UK, this refers to the first floor of a building. For a typical 3-storey building in the USA, the floors would be labeled "first floor, second floor, third floor" while in the UK they would be labeled "ground floor, first floor, second floor".

Half-six - When giving time, a British person might say that it's "half six", which means 6:30. The phrase was originally "half past six", but over time it was shortened to just "half-six". Note that in German (and perhaps other languages) "half-six" means 5:30, as in German the phrase originally meant "halfway to six o'clock".

High Street - "High street" is analogous to the American "main street" in that it refers to both the main thoroughfare of a town as well as the nation as a whole (as in "crack cocaine has finally hit the high street"). However in the UK it also refers to the nation's retailers, as in "the high street had dismal sales this holiday season". Of course, this usage is hardly unknown in the US, but in America most business references to "main street" imply smaller businesses, such as "Wal Mart is forcing main street out of business". In the UK, "high street" applies to retailers as a whole, regardless of their size.

(to) hire - To rent something for a short while. For a tourist, this usually means "hiring" a car or bicycle.

Homely - In America, homely means "lacking in physical beauty or proportion" and "plain and unpretentious". Thus, a "homely house" is plain and without decoration, perhaps a long-abandoned home that has recently been purchased and is awaiting refurbishment. In the US, the word usually refers to a female - "a homely girl". In this case, she is specifically a girl that is not only unattractive, but dresses plainly or old-fashioned as well. One would rarely call an unattractive but smartly dressed girl "homely", and an attractive woman that's plainly dressed would be called "frumpy". In Britain, "homely" has the same meaning as "homey" in the US. Thus, a warm, comfortable and cozy house would be called "homely" in the UK.

Hospital - Hospitals are pretty much the same in the US and UK. However, Brits almost always drop the definite article "the" before the word. So a friend might be "in hospital" instead of "in the hospital" as they would be in the US.

Interval - An intermission period, most commonly used at theatres. If you go to a play, it will probably have an interval.

Jacket potatoes - baked potatoes, specifically baked potatoes with the skin ("jacket") still on.  Jacket potatoes are a popular item on British menus, and often come with a variety of toppings, including cheese, bacon, and\or onions... I've even jacket potatoes with tuna salad on them!

Jam\Jelly - Boy, is this one confusing! In the US, jam and jelly are basically the same thing: a type of fruit preserve (the difference between the two is that a jam has bits of fruit in it (like strawberry jam) while a jelly does not (like grape jelly)). In the UK, either type of preserve is called a jam, whilst jelly is reserved for a gelatin-based dessert that Americans most often refer to by the brand name Jell-O.

Jumper - A jumper is what they call a sweater in the UK. In the US, the word most often refers to one-piece outfits for babies or toddlers.

Jumper Leads - Also called jump leads, this is the British term for "jumper cables".

Kebab - A type of sandwich which is very similar to what Americans would call a gyro. It's interesting to note that the words for the two very similar sandwiches come from different countries: doner kebab is Turkish in origin, whilst gyro is (of course) Greek. Presumably, doner kebabs became popular in the UK due to either Turkish immigrants to England or Turkish immigrants to Germany (from where the sandwich migrated to the UK).  In the US, large numbers of Greek immigrants seem to have cornered the market on the sandwich. If you are in the UK and want meat served on a skewer, just ask for it by its full name of shish kebab, as a generic kebab is like a gyro.

Kerb - The edge of a sidewalk, spelled "curb" in the US. In British English, "curb" has the same meaning as the American sense of "restraining or limiting something", as in "to curb your desires".

Kit - In the US, a "kit" is a collection of items gathered for a specific purpose, such as a first-aid kit or shaving kit. In the UK, kit is used on a much broader basis. Although it usually refers to some electronic gizmo (i.e. "His new mobile phone is a cool piece of kit!"), it can be used to refer to just about anything in the UK, including sports uniforms ("Do you like Manchester United's new kit?").

Lamp\lantern - In the US, a lamp is a type of light that plugs into an electrical outlet and uses incandescent, halogen or fluorescent bulbs to produce light. A lantern is a lighting device used for a temporary purpose that uses batteries and an incandescent bulb or burns oil to produce light. Well, guess what? In the UK, these are totally flipped: you'd have lanterns on your nightstand but use a lamp to check on the cows out in the barn. Note that the Brits use the word torch to refer to a battery-powered flashlight; thus a lamp is a portable light powered by oil only.

(to) let - To rent something for a longer time than "hiring". It's usually used in reference to apartments or office space. You'll see signs that say "Office Space To Let", for example.

Lift - An elevator.

Loo - A toilet (see Toilet). There is a lot of argument over the origin of this word, the most popular being that it was ripped from the French gardez l'eau - "watch out for the water!" - from back in the good ol' days when people flung the contents of chamber pots out of their windows and into the street. This is one of those terms only Brits and Australians should use - it just sounds silly when Americans or Canadians talk about "going to the loo".

Lorry - A truck. Pickup trucks don't appear to be too common in the UK, so "lorry" usually refers to what Americans would call a "panel truck".

Mains - The main courses served at a restaurant or pub. Where an American menu would say "entrées", a British one would say "mains". For example, it's common for British pubs to have signs in their windows advertising "2 mains for £7.50" or something similar. "Mains" also refers to the main household electrical system, as in "the reason you're sitting in the dark is 'cos there's a problem with the mains".

Mackintosh - The British word for raincoat, named after Scottish inventor Charles Macintosh, who first sold his raincoats in 1824. Interestingly, although most British people know that Macintosh invented the Mackintosh, no one can tell me why they're spelt differently.

Marrow - Although "marrow" has the same meaning as the American "soft tissue found in the hollow interior of bones", it more typically means "squash" (as in zucchini, butternut, acorn, spaghetti and pumpkin) in the UK. Imagine my confusion when I went to open a can of imported Bachelor's Mushy Peas, only to see that they "contained marrow" but were "suitable for vegetarians"!

Mince - The British term for "ground beef". Interestingly, mince pie is made from mincemeat, which is a combination of currants, raisins, apples and spices and contains no beef.

Minger - (slang) An unpleasant person.

Mobile phone - In the UK, cellular telephones are called mobile phones, usually shortened to just mobile. It's not uncommon for an American to call his phone a mobile phone, but most Americans use the term cellular phone to differentiate today's small portable phones from the bulky mobile phones that were somewhat popular in the 1970s. Back then, a mobile phone was a real telephone - just like the ones that sat on your desk - that was bolted to the floor of your car and used radio to connect to a central office. You couldn't dial out from or dial in to a 1970s mobile phone directly; one had to dial a central number and go through an operator. Since these phones were still being used when the new portable phones came out, Americans used the term "cellular" to avoid confusion between the two types of phones.

Nappy - A diaper. Although I'm not completely sure of this, I believe that nappy only refers to "baby diapers", as opposed to the "adult diapers" used for incontinence.

Newsagent - A store that sells newspapers, magazines, sweets and canned or bottled drinks. Equivalent to the American news stand.

Notes - Individual bits of paper money are called notes in the UK, never "bills". Thus, the leather accessories that carry notes are called wallets and not "billfolds".

Off-license - A shop that sells alcoholic beverages for consumption off the shop's premises, like a convenience store.

Oi! - This is the British version of "hey!" as in "hey you, get back here!". When most British folk say it, my American ears hear a cross between boy without the "b" and aye. This word is almost always used in a bad way, especially if used in a loud voice. It's the kind of thing an angry bouncer would say to an unruly patron or a shopkeeper would yell at a shoplifter. So if you hear it, trouble might be coming your way. If you think you might have done something to cause the "Oi", be prepared to apologize... or duck!

Paki (slang) - It rhymes with "Jackie" and is quite possibly the most offensive word in British English. It's a derogatory term for an Asian (in the British sense, i.e. an Indian or Pakistani), and is as offensive (if not more so) than "nigger" for blacks. Unless you want to end up in the hospital, don't use this word.

Paracetamol - The British term for acetaminophen.

Pavement - This UK term refers to the part of the road on which pedestrians walk, which is commonly called a sidewalk in the US. This begs the question - if the sidewalk is "pavement" in the UK, what do they top the streets with over there? The answer is tarmac, a word that's only used to describe airport runways in the United States.

Pie - There was mass confusion in America recently due to a commercial for the GEICO auto insurance company. In the commercial, the company's British-accented "spokes-lizard" (he's a gecko... get it? Gecko? GEICO?) wonders why people "wouldn't want free pie and chips". Most Americans know that "chips" are fries, and as soon as someone with a British accent talks about "chips", most automatically assume the speaker is talking about French fries. But millions wondered why people would want to eat apple pie with French fries! The confusion came about because the default type of "pie" in Britain is the savory variety, such as pork pie, steak and kidney pie, steak and mushroom pie or Cornish pasties. Of course, they also have sweet pies in the UK like apple and blackberry pie, it's just that if you stopped 100 Britons on the street and asked them to name a type of pie, 99 of them would answer "steak" instead of "apple". By the way, British savory pies are quite similar to American "pot pies", but they have a nice, flaky puff pastry instead of the flat crust American pies usually have. They're quite delicious.

Pissed - In Britain, pissed generally means "drunk", whilst in America, it usually means "angry". People in both countries sometimes use the other nation's meaning, although Brits tend to say "pissed off" (as opposed to just "pissed") when talking about an angry person. They might also use "pissed" to mean angry when its meaning would be unambiguous, as it might be during an argument ("what are you pissed at me for?). By the same token, most Americans qualify the use of "pissed" when talking about an intoxicated person by using such phrases as "piss-ass drunk". The only Americans that tend to use the word "pissed" (meaning drunk) on a regular basis are people with immediate British connections (spouse, parent)... or pretentious wannabe Anglophiles.

Pitta - A type of bread, exactly the same in every way as "pita bread" here in the US. Note that in the UK the word is pronounced "pitt-a" not "pee-ta" and that it's usually just called "pitta" and not "pitta bread".

Poncey - Although the dictionary definition of this word is "effeminate, snobby and\or ostentatious", it has become almost a catch-all put down for the well-to-do in the UK, in the same way "rich boy" might be used in the US. If you would like to refer to something upper-class or expensive in a positive way, use the term "posh", as in "this is one posh hotel!"

Post - What mail is called in the UK. Instead of asking "what's in today's mail?" a Briton would ask "what's in today's post?". Note that just about every word that Americans associate with "mail" is switched to "post" in the UK as well, such as postman (mailman) and post box (mail box). Most of the public post boxes one sees on the street in the UK are cylindrical in shape and are painted bright red; these may be called either post boxes or pillar boxes.

Prawn - According to Alton Brown of Good Eats, Europeans use the word prawn to refer to only the largest shrimp. Presumably, Europeans call smaller shrimp "shrimp", just as we do here in the US. However, I must admit that I've never seen the word "shrimp" on any product in the UK. Walker's potato crisps come in "prawn cocktail" flavor, Marks and Spencer sandwiches include a "prawn salad" flavor, and most any restaurant offers at least one dish made of prawns. So I guess it's just "prawn" in the UK. Interestingly, in the US crustaceans harvested from salt water are called "shrimp" while crustaceans harvested from fresh water are called "prawns".

Presenter - This is the customary British term for the people on TV that host shows. For example, Jay Leno would be the Tonight Show's presenter in the UK, not the host. Note that the term newsreader is common for TV news people, and that "anchor" is slowly slipping into usage in the UK.

Punter - This word has many meanings, but typically refers to the "customers of a particular business". If a shop were to go out of business, it might be because "not enough punters came in the place". A punter originally meant someone that gambled on sports and was also used as a slang term for the customers of a prostitute. Although these meanings are still valid today, 99% of the time you hear the word it's simply referring to "customers" in an inoffensive way.

Purse - In Britain, a purse is a small pouch for carrying change. Men might or might not carry a purse, or they might have a wallet with a built-in purse. The larger bag that women carry their wallet, makeup, cell phone and other things in is called a pocketbook in the UK. The terms "purse" and "pocketbook" are not interchangeable in Britain.

Queue - The British term for a line of people, as in "there was a huge queue at the post office".

Range - In the UK, the total amount of products a company offers, as in "our company carries the entire range of Microsoft products". This is typically called a product line in the US. 

Redundant - This is the British term for "laid-off from work", as in "he thought he was going to get a promotion, but was made redundant instead". In the US, "redundant" simply means superfluous, an amount of something in excess, or (especially) something that was needed at one point but is now no longer needed, as in "I got you a fancy ashtray for your birthday, but now that you've quit smoking it's redundant".

Return (return ticket) - A return (also known as a "return ticket") is British English for "round-trip ticket". When you buy a train ticket, you will be asked whether you want a "single" or "return". Choose return if you want a round-trip ticket.

Roads - There are many differences between American English and British English when it comes to roads, so I'll just condense them all into one no-nonsense entry if I may. A motorway is the British word for freeway or expressway. One can get on to or off of a motorway by using a slip road, something we'd call a ramp in the US (or, more specifically, an on-ramp or off-ramp or entrance ramp or exit ramp).  A dual carriageway is the British term for a divided highway. The area between lanes of a dual carriageway where the grass grows is called a central reservation in the UK and a median in the US. And lastly, intersections are called junctions in the UK. 

Rocket - What the Brits call arugula. The word comes from Middle English rokette, which itself comes from the Old French roquette, which came from the Italian rochetta, which is a variant of ruchetta - the diminutive form of ruca, a type of cabbage. Once again, the American term comes from the Italian; however, in this instance the word comes into American English from a particular dialect of Italian - the northern Lombardy region.

Row - It rhymes with cow, and it's a very common British word for "argument", "disagreement" or "commotion", as in "the new tax hikes are going to kick off one hell of a row". Of course, this word is fairly common in American English too, but it's much more common in British English. In fact, it's almost an "everyday word", especially where the tabloid newspapers are concerned. As you pass newsagents, see how often "ROW ABOUT..." is used as a headline!

Salad - British people enjoy salads that are quite similar to American salads. However, the term "salad" is also used to describe the mixture of lettuces and onions included on a sandwich. For example, at a takeaway stand you might be asked if you want salad on your kebab.

Saloon - In the UK, it's a type of car that usually has four doors and a separate trunk, which is usually called a sedan in the United States.

Sarny (Sarnie) - Yet another slang term for a sandwich.

Scheme - I don't know why I felt that I needed to include this, but in the UK the word scheme is often used to describe some new government plan, like "Labour's new 'Free School Lunches' scheme". In fact, you can tune to CSPAN2 on Sundays at midnight and watch "Prime Minister's Questions" where the Prime Minster and his opposition will argue about which "scheme" is best for the country... which is hilarious to Americans, as "scheme" almost always has a negative connotation in the USA thanks to Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes. In fact, the only non-technical phrase I can think of where "scheme" would not be seen in a negative light is "color scheme". In short - in America, your political party has a plan, the opposition has a scheme.

Sellotape - Cellophane tape, usually referred to as "Scotch tape" in the USA due to the popularity of the Scotch brand name.

Serviette - a table napkin (sometimes made of paper) in the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Don't worry about using this word yourself - Brits know full well that Americans call it a "napkin", and will know what you want if you ask for "extra napkins". You might, however, see the word in print on a menu or something and not know what it means otherwise.

Shop (Store) - In the UK, places where you buy stuff are called "shops". As far as I know, "store" is only used as a noun in the sense of "an amount of something", as in "the Spanish ships had a huge store of gunpowder".

Single (single ticket) - A single (also known as a "single ticket") is British English for "one-way ticket". When you buy a train ticket, you will be asked whether you want a "single" or "return". Choose single if you only want a one-way ticket.

Skive - (slang) To get out of work, usually by calling in sick. You can "skive off" of work to watch a football (soccer) match, and you'll be "skiving" whilst doing so. This word rhymes with "jive".

Sleeping policeman - A bump in the road placed there on purpose to reduce the speed of cars traveling on the road; it's usually called a "speed bump" in the United States, although there are newer (wider, flatter) bumps that are much larger that are sometimes called "speed humps".

Snogging - Although it sounds really dirty, a "snog" is just a French kiss, whilst "snogging" is "making out".

Spinster - In the US, a spinster is an elderly woman that has never married; in Britain she's any woman that's never married, although I'm not quite sure when a woman stops being just plain "single" and becomes a "spinster". Hopefully this problem will go away, as there's a movement afoot in the UK to stop using this word in all official documents. In any case, the crucial thing here is that the woman has never married - someone whose husband died but chose not to remarry is a "widow", not a spinster.

Subway - A pedestrian walkway, usually referring to tunnels under larger streets. You might have to walk through a subway to get to an Underground station, for example.

Sultanas - This word specifically refers to yellow or white seedless grapes. Originally, this word referred to a specific type of yellow grape that was grown only in Turkey, but in time the word has come to mean any grape that looks like a sultana. Confusingly, the British seem to call any other type of grape a currant, even though that word originally referred to a dried Zante grape. Perhaps it's a case where it's called a "grape" on a vine but a "currant" when it's at the supermarket? I'm not sure, and I hope and jimcofer.com visitor can clear up the confusion. All I know is that I've never seen grape-flavored anything in the UK, always currant.

Suspenders - See braces

Sweets - In the UK, "sweets" are candy only, while in the US the term can include anything sweet, like pastries or ice cream.

(to) Table - This one probably won't come up unless you visit the UK for business or political reasons, but it *did* create a lot of confusion during WWII. In Britain, to table something (like a business plan or government bill) means to take action on it (as in, "to bring something to the table"). In the US, to table something is to stop discussing the plan or bill and cease action on it (as in, "to take it off the table"). As you might guess, this created a lot of confusion during the war between British and American military and political leaders that had never worked together before.

Takeaway - Food purchased for consumption off the premises. It has the same meaning as the American "take out".

Tariff - In the UK, a hotel's room rates have traditionally been called its tariff. You will find that the American term "rates" is slowly but surely creeping in, especially at larger hotels and chains.

"The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street" - (slang) Sometimes shortened to just "The Old Lady", this is a slang term for the Bank of England, which is located on Threadneedle Street in the City of London.

Tick - A checkmark. Where a form might say "please check the appropriate box" in the United States, a similar British one would say "please tick the appropriate box".

Toilet - A small room with a toilet, sink, and perhaps a mirror. Although most any British person will know what you're asking for if you ask for a "restroom" or "bathroom", I think it's more polite and direct to just ask for a toilet instead. Historically speaking, British "bathrooms" were just that - rooms with a bathtub or shower in them, and usually (but not always) a toilet as well. Since facilities in restaurants and pubs rarely (if ever) include a bathtub, it's technically wrong to ask for a bathroom.

(Ticket) Touts - A ticket scalper. Avoid these people at all costs.

Trainers - In the UK, tennis shoes or sneakers are called "trainers", although the popularity of certain brand names has led many British youth to call their shoes "Nikes" or "Chucks", just like kids here in the US.

(Shopping) Trolley - This is the British term for the shopping carts one uses at a grocery store. Amusingly, the carts used to hand out beverages on airplanes are called "drinks trolleys"; this led to the wonderful (if sexist) British slang term "trolley dolley" being used for flight attendants.

Trousers (Pants) - The British call pants trousers and underwear pants. Like so many other phrases, a Brit will probably know what you mean if you say that you "spilled something on your pants", but you can avoid confusion (possibly embarrassing confusion in this case) by using these terms correctly.

Vest - Here's another confusing one. A vest is a sleeveless undershirt worn by men in the UK. Americans would call it an undershirt (or t-shirt, or maybe even the slang term wife beater, after the people on the show Cops that are constantly arrested whilst wearing them). The thing you wear with a suit (which Americans would call a vest) is called a waistcoat in the UK. Note that like so many technological terms that are exported from the US, a British policeman might wear a bulletproof vest (rather than a "bulletproof waistcoat", which would be technically accurate but just sounds silly).

Wanker - (slang) An unpleasant person, usually male. Since "wanking" is a British term for male masturbation, a "wanker" is the British equivalent of a "jerk off".

Way Out - It's not something old hippies say, it means "exit" in the UK. Look for signs directing you to the "Way Out" in Tube Stations and other public places.

Wheel clamp - A device used to restrain a vehicle, usually to prevent the owner of an illegally parked car from leaving without paying a fine. It's typically called a boot in the US, or (rarely) a Denver boot, after the first US city to deploy the obnoxious things.

Windscreen - The main piece of glass in a car, usually called a "windshield" in the US.

Z - In American English, the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced "zee". This pronunciation "derives from an English late 17th-century dialectal form, now obsolete in England", according to Wikipedia. Interestingly, America stuck with that pronunciation after the War of Independence, while the "mother country" (and the rest of the English-speaking world) transitioned over to "zed" - after the Greek "zeta".

Zebra Crossing - A pedestrian street crossing (marked with white stripes on a black background, somewhat resembling a zebra's stripes). In the USA it's called a "cross walk". Note that in the UK it's pronounced "zeb-ra" (rhymes with "Debra") and not "zee-bra".

 

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Units of Measurement

The United Kingdom and the United States were once on the same system of measurement. In the 1770s, a pint of beer was the same in London as it was in Philadelphia. However, after the American Revolution the Brits overhauled many aspects of their measurement system while America continued to use the "traditional" measures, so that a British ounce was (and still is) larger than an American one. Thus, a British pint is 20 ounces whilst an American one is 16 ounces.

Speaking of pints, that's just about the only official Imperial unit of measure still used in the UK, aside from miles. Almost everything sold in a shop is sold in metric units of grams, kilograms, milliliters or liters. Thankfully, most of the food packaging is roughly the same size as their American counterparts, so what you'd think of as an 8 ounce box of pasta is 225 grams (which is exactly the same size). Drinks come in 355ml cans, which is the same 12 ounce can that you're used to. Shopping at the store is not that confusing.

Overall though, the Brits seem highly confused by the whole "metrification" process. It's not uncommon to hear people on TV describe something as "six inches wide and twenty meters long". Signs in empty shops advertise "5000 square feet/464 square meters for rent". Restaurants often have "310 gram (11 ounce) sirloin steaks" on their menus. You'll also notice a pronounced "age gap" regarding Imperial vs. metric, where older folks will use Imperial units almost exclusively, whilst the young folks are more inclined towards metric.

Perhaps the only metric unit used universally is the centigrade (Celsius) scale. You'll almost never hear a temperature in Fahrenheit, except for maybe a "gee wow!" moment on the news ("And last night, Glasgow got down to an amazing -20 degrees, the coldest recorded temperature ever recorded in that city... why, that's -5 Fahrenheit!").

Lastly, the Brits still use "stone" as a unit of personal weight. One stone is 14 pounds, so a 140 pound woman would be said to weigh "10 stone". Note that stones are never used in any fraction (except for perhaps a "half stone"), nor is stone used to measure anything else other than the weight of people. You'd never say that a car weighed 350 stone, for example. Also, note that "professional" types (doctors, nurses) will use the metric grams and kilograms when discussing a person's weight internally, but will most often convert this to stone when talking to parents or loved ones. I think it's amazing that they can convert kilograms to stone on the fly - that is, they can convert kilograms to ounces and divide that by 14 all in their head!

NOTE: A longtime jimcofer.com reader wrote in to say that "stones are sometimes used in weighing vegetables from the farm. For example, 5-stone bags of potatoes were common presents to my Grandmother from my farming uncles". While I don't doubt him when it comes to most things, I think that he's a bit off on this one. I've spent a decent amount of time in British shops and farmer's markets and I've *never* seen produce sold in Imperial units of any kind, be it stones or pounds. In fact, doing so would be illegal in the UK - just ask the relatives of Steve Thoburn, a green grocer from Sunderland who became known as the "Metric Martyr" after he was convicted of selling produce by the pound in 2001. The trial took such a toll on Steve that his family thinks it might be the main cause of his death from heart failure at age 39.

Although British food makers are allowed to put Imperial measurements alongside the "official" metric measures on most food products (especially anything that comes in a box, bag, can or bottle), all produce in the UK must by law be sold in metric units. Some research I did for my London Travelogue seems to back this up as well. I visited several vendors' websites for the section about Borough Market and all of their online stores sell meat and produce in kilograms, even for large quantities.

I don't doubt for a second that many people might use stones to weigh produce informally - especially older folks sharing the harvest of a family farm. It's also possible that farmers in the UK are still using their "5 stone" bags but officially call them "33 kilogram" bags. In this case, it's the same thing they've always used, so they're free to call them "5 stone" even if they're officially "33 kilograms" - much like how a 355ml can of Coke is still 12 ounces.

 

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British Currency

The base unit of British money is the pound, which is further divided into 100 pence (a single pence is called a penny). The pound symbol is £ and the pence symbol is a lowercase p. There are 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, and £2 coins (a £5 coin exists, although it's only seen in mint sets, like Kennedy half-dollars). Paper money comes in £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes. It's common British English to say that something that costs £4.13 costs "four pounds thirteen"; I've never heard anyone call it "four pounds and thirteen pence", and it's rare to hear someone say "four thirteen". Also, it's standard to just say "pee" instead of "pence" when talking about something that costs less than a pound, so a newspaper might cost "twenty pee".

Now, having said all that, although the United Kingdom is one country, there are many different types of currency. The specific currency types mentioned above apply to "English pounds", which are either printed by the Bank of England or minted by the Royal Mint. Several private banks in Scotland are allowed to print their own money (known as "Scottish pounds") as are several banks in Northern Ireland, which are called "Northern pounds". Additionally, most of the islands surrounding the UK (such as the Isle of Man and the Bailiwick of Jersey) are not actually part of the United Kingdom but are crown dependencies - self-governing areas with their own parliaments and (yes) currency. Although these different currency types are supposed to be completely interchangeable, you will find that this is not often the case in practice. While English shopkeepers on the England\Scotland border will happily accept Scottish pounds, their counterparts in London might refuse them outright, or only accept them with a lot of begging on your part. Also, some unscrupulous currency exchanges on the continent might charge different rates for different types of pounds, either by refusing to exchange Scottish or Northern pounds at all, or by giving you a significantly worse exchange rate for those currency types. Don't fall into that trap - take your money elsewhere! And having said that, if you do get some Scottish or Northern pounds as change, it's best to get rid of them before leaving Scotland or Northern Ireland if you can.

There are literally dozens of slang terms for money in the UK, many of which are too obscure or localized to mention here. Perhaps the most common slang term for a pound is quid, which is used something like "buck" is in America. Bob is also somewhat popular, although it originally referred to shillings, not pounds. £5 and £10 notes are frequently referred to as fivers and tenners respectively. Dosh is also used as a slangy term for money in general, as in "I'd love to buy an iPod, but I don't have the dosh for it right now."

Although the following information is useless to modern travelers, I nevertheless find it thoroughly fascinating and wanted to share it with you:

In everyday use, British currency is called a "pound". However its full name is the "pound sterling", because the original value of the pound was fixed at one pound (by weight) of sterling silver. Even more interesting is the fact that British currency was on a duodecimal (base-12) system until February 15, 1971, which is now known to history as "Decimalisation Day". Prior to that date, £1 was worth 20 shillings and 1 shilling was worth 12 pence (or, thinking about it another way, £1 was equal to 240 pence). Because this is not a decimal system, keeping books for a business meant dealing with three columns (pounds, shillings, pence) instead of the two (dollars, cents) that we're used to over here. Amusingly, the headers of those columns were normally labeled L, S, D (which stood for Libri, Solidi, Denari), Although this might make hippies laugh, the "L" stood for libra, the Latin word for pound (which is also where the abbreviation "lbs." comes from); Solidi and Denari were old Roman coins that had roughly the same value (proportionately) as the shilling and pence. And the pound symbol (£) is actually based on an Old German "L", which was also used as an abbreviation for pound. Although the pound symbol has been used for ages, it was common to abbreviate shillings and pence using the Latin terms, so the price label on a product might say "£5 2s 4d".

A few more interesting tidbits:

A long time ago, coins smaller than a penny were made. One penny could be subdivided into 2 halfpennies and (before that even) 4 farthings. Inflation made the coins pointless long ago, and neither halfpennies nor farthings were around on Decimalisation Day. 

To give you an idea of what labor must have cost in the British Empire, many British colonies also had half-farthing, third-farthing, and quarter-farthing coins in the late 1800s. These coins were not circulated in the United Kingdom itself. For those of you not good at math off the top of your head, there would have been 3,840 quarter-farthings in a pound.

There was once a gold coin minted in England called a guinea. It was worth £1 1s (or 21s). Even though the pound replaced it as the major unit of currency in the Great Recoinage of 1816, it has held its cachet to this day: racehorses are still traded based on their value in guineas, and many horse races are still named in historical guinea figures ("The Bristol 4000 Guinea Race") even though the owner is paid in modern pounds. High-end auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's also quoted all of their prices in guineas until very recently.

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter. It is so-named from the Latin mandatum novum do vobis ("a new commandment I give unto you"), which was "love one another as I have loved you" - words spoken to the Apostles by Jesus after washing their feet in preparation for The Last Supper. Traditionally, English monarchs went to a special church service on this day where they would wash the feet of the poor as a sign of humility. Elizabeth I put a stop to this as she feared the plague, and instead started a tradition of giving money to the poor. Since then, monarchs have given x number of men and x number of women x number of pence at the service each year, where x is the age of the monarch. So this year Elizabeth II (who is 80) gave 80 men and 80 women 80 pence each. Two things in particular make "Maundy Money" interesting: 1) In 1947, silver was removed from all circulating British coins in favor of cupronickel, but it was felt to be inappropriate to strike Maundy Money in such a common metal, so Maundy Money continues to be struck at 0.925 sterling silver to this day. 2) All Maundy coins remain legal tender in the UK, even the pre-decimal ones. In a unique twist, the British government decided to revalue all the Maundy coins dating back to 1822 at the "new pence" rate (even though post-decimal Maundy coins bear the pre-decimal design and weights). This had the effect of increasing all Maundy coins' value by a factor of 2.4 overnight.

 

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British Place Names

Before I begin this section, let me explain the difference between "England", "Great Britain" and the "United Kingdom". For some unexplained reason, many Americans have great difficulty with this. I'm going to explain this, and explain this once, so pay attention, OK?

"Great Britain" is an island just off the coast of France. The island was historically divided into two countries: England and Scotland (Wales has traditionally been a principality of England, even though it has its own distinct language and culture). When Elizabeth I died without an heir in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. However, although both countries had a single monarch, they still had separate parliaments and governments. In 1707, the Act of Union was passed and "England" and "Scotland" ceased to exist as separate countries. Instead, a single nation called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain" was created, with a single monarch and parliament. In 1801, the union was expanded to include Ireland, and thus became known as "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". In 1921, 26 counties of Ireland became an independent country that would eventually become known as "The Republic of Ireland", with 6 majority Protestant counties in the northeast portion of the island remaining in the Union - thus, the nation became known as "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". As if this weren't confusing enough, the geographic term "British Isles" refer to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, even though they are two different countries.

What does this all mean for the tourist? It means that you have to be careful what you call people! Most English people have no problem being called "British", however many Scots and Welsh have strong attachments to their local cultures and might prefer being called "Scottish" or "Welsh" ("Scotch" is a drink, not a person, by the way). Many Scots or Welsh (and especially Irish) people will take great offense to being called "English", so if you're not sure it's best to call them "British" (or "Irish") instead. This advice especially applies during certain sporting events. In the Olympics, there is a single "British team", but during many others - soccer and rugby in particular - each "nation" fields it's own team. Emotions can run high as English and Scottish flags and colors are waved by enthusiastic fans. During this year's World Cup, many Scottish fans actively cheered for whoever England was playing! So take care to use the proper terms as needed.

One last beef: the flag of the United Kingdom is properly called the "Union Flag". Although it's often called the "Union Jack", this is inaccurate, as jacks are flags that fly on ships only. However, so many people have called it the Union Jack through the years that the British government defined the two as being synonymous, even though they are not. Here's a good picture of the flags that make up the Union flag:

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Great Britain has some of the craziest pronunciations for place names on the planet! It's especially maddening for Americans, Canadians and other English speakers... since we supposedly speak the same language and all. But remember: England is the country where "Featherstonehaugh" is pronounced Fanshaw, and even though the city of Cirencester has existed since at least 70AD, it wasn't until the 1980s that British people agreed on a single pronunciation.

The list below is not exhaustive. Although place names from all over England and parts of Scotland are included, I decided to emphasize on places in the London area, as that's where first-time tourists are likely to go. Keep in mind that the English language is fluid and that pronunciations may change over time. Remember that not everyone might pronounce the same place the same way; although most Americans pronounce the 50th state as "Huh-why-yee", many older Americans call it "High-why-ya" instead. And remember that there are as many pronunciations of "Lafayette" as there are cities with that name in America.

Since Welsh place names are next to impossible for anyone but the Welsh to figure out, I've left them off the list. 

 
Place Pronunciation Notes
Belgravia Bel-grave-ee-ya  
Berkeley (Square) Bark-lee  
Barugh Bark  
Bethnal Green Beth-null  
Bicester Bister  
Birmingham Buhr-ming-um Some Londoners say "Bir-min-um"; this is neither official nor common.
Bloomsbury Blooms-bree  
Brixton Bricks-ton  
Bury Boory Subtle difference: the ending is pronounced -oorey and not the American -erry
Charing Cross (Road) see notes Rhymes with sharing; the -ch sound at the beginning is soft, as in church
Chippenham see notes Chipnam (locally) or Chipenum
Chiswick Chizzik  
Cholmondley Chum-lee  
Cirencester Syren-sester May also be pronounced as Sis-etter or Sis-sester, especially by locals.
Clerkenwell Clark-en-well  
Coulsdon Cools-don Some locals apparently pronounce it Coals-den
Derby Dar-by  
Ealing Eee-ling  
Edinburgh Edin-burrah  
Euston Ewston Like Houston (Texas) without the "h".
Finsbury Fins-bree  
Gloucester Glos-ter Same as the city in Massachusetts. The city is in Gloucestershire (Gloster-sheer)
Greenwich Gren-itch  
Grosvenor (Square) Grove-na  
Hampstead Ham-stead  
Happisburgh Hayes-bruh Unlike Edinburgh, the second half of the word is pronounced bruh, not burrah
Holborn Ho-bun  
Horsmonden Horms-dun  
Islington Iz-ling-ton  
Keswick Kez-ick  
Keynsham Kane-shum  
Launceston Lawns-ton  
Leicester Les-ter Applies to the city (Leicester) as well as London's Leicester Square
Leominster Lems-ter  
Marylebone Marley-bun May also be pronounced as Marrybun or Marleybone
Mousehole Mowze-ul  
Norwich Norr-idge  
Plaistow Plars-toe  
Putney see notes The first syllable is similar to putt (as in golf); it's not "pootney"
Reading Red-ding  
Ruislip Rye-slip  
Salisbury Sawls-bree  
Shoreditch see notes OK for tourists to pronounce it as spelled; it almost sounds like shortage when spoken by a Londoner
Shrewsbury see notes Either Shrowsbree or Shrewsbree is correct.
Slough see notes Rhymes with cow.
Southwark Suth-uk Pronounced as if it were one syllable: suthuk, not suth-uk
St. Paul's (Cathedral) San Paul's Correct to pronounce it as it's spelled; Londoners slur it slightly so that the first word is San
Thame (City) Tame  
Thames (River) Temz  
Torquay Tor-key  
Tottenham Tot-nam  
Uxbridge Ucks-bridge  
Vauxhall Vocks-hall Originally "Falkes' Hall", which might be why it sounds like two words instead of "Vocks-ul".
Wapping Whopping NOT pronounced like "wrapping" without the "r".
Wemyss Weems  
Willesden Wills-den  
Woolwich Wool-itch  
Worcester Woo-ster Just like the town in Massachusetts; rhymes with rooster
Wrotham Root-um  
Wymondham Wind-um Like the American hotel chain
Yiewsley Youz-lee  
 
 
Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007 01:30