John Larrysson Column: British Synonyms

An English teacher from the UK once complained that teaching Hong Kong children that British people say brolly and Americans say umbrella was a cartoon-version of England and the English language. This week I will cover British synonyms. These are words that are not the most common word used in the UK, but are also accepted. My first example is that a brolly, is UK slang for umbrella, but the word umbrella is more common in the UK. The word brolly is a clipped and shortened form of the word umbrella. The word umbrella has been used in England since about 1600 and brolly has been used since 1866. American English only uses the word umbrella.

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A Biro is a brand name for a type of (ballpoint) pen common in the UK. It is not British English for pen. England has been using the word pen for about 700 years, originally referring to a quill (feather) pen. The word Biro for a ball-point pen is from the Hungarian inventor Laszlo Biro. It has been in use since 1947. Both countries use the word pen, but only the UK commonly accepts Biro.

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It used to be that the British spelling was sulphur and the American spelling was sulfur. However the American spelling is now widely used in the UK, especially for technical uses. The word came from the Norman French sulfere in the 14th century. The PH spelling is misleading because it suggests that the word was borrowed from Greek. The original English word for the same chemical was brimstone. The spelling sulfur is correct in both the UK and the US. However unlike the Americans, the British also accept the spelling sulphur for casual use.

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I have been told that the word amongst is the British word for among. Checking the British National Corpus, the ratio for among/amongst was 1:0.2 The US ratio is 1:0.02 (COCA Corpus). Both words are synonyms and both countries usually use the same word. However British English uses the more uncommon word occasionally and it is quite rare in American English.

Is a pack of cards British English and a deck of cards American English? Both sides of the Atlantic use both phrases. The UK uses a deck of cards less often at a ratio of 1:1.2 and in the US it is 1:2.7. Both countries used both words and both use pack more often. Both phrases have a history in England going back to 1590.

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Dictionaries often list some words or spellings as being specifically British. That means that they are used in the UK, but it does not mean that they are the only form used. The English language has many synonyms. Americans and British people might prefer one synonym or the other, but usually both words are legitimate in both language varieties. A student should not lose marks for using a supposedly American word, that is also commonly used in the UK.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.

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