Idioms – Differences and Usage in American English and British English

23Jan07

This is a short paper I wrote for an Introduction to American English course at the University of Tampere in 1999. My prof asked my permission to publish it online and after a few years I noticed that my paper had started live a life of its own. It was cited around the web and I found it in most unusual places. Since then the univeristy cleaned their web pages and my paper was lost. A quick search on the web revealed that the full article is found on some Russian site, for whatever reason I do not know. And for some reason, they seem to have lost the references to its original author, me. So here it is again (I’ll add the original emphasis later):

If you look up the word idiom in Webster, you will be given the following definition: Idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent element as kick the bucket, hang one’s head etc., or from the general grammatical rules of language, as the table round for the round table, and which is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics. This definition seems a bit dry and doesn’t really tell anything about the function of idioms in English language.

English is a language particularly rich in idioms – those modes of expression peculiar to a language (or dialect) which frequently defy logical and grammatical rules. Without idioms English would lose much of its variety and humor both in speech an writing.

The background and etymological origins of most idioms is at best obscure. This is the reason why a study of differences between the idioms of American and British English is somewhat difficult. But it also makes the cases, where background, etymology and history are known, even more interesting. Some idioms of the “worldwide English” have first been seen in the works of writers like Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll or even in the paperbacks of contemporary novelists. An example of Shakespearian quotation can be found in the following sentence:”As a social worker, you certainly see the seamy side of life.” Biblical references are also the source of many idioms. Sports terms, technical terms, legal terms, military slang and even nautical expressions have found their way to the everyday use of English language. Following are some examples of these, some used in either American or British English and some used in both:

  • “Having won the first two Tests, Australia is now almost certain to retain the Ashes.” (Ashes is a British English idiom that is nowadays a well-established cricket term.)
  • “In his case the exception proves the rule.” (A legal maxim — in full:”the exception proves the rule in cases not excepted”. Widely used in both AmE and BrE.)
  • “To have the edge on/over someone.” (This is originally American English idiom, now established in almost every other form of English, including BrE.)
  • “A happy hunting ground.” (Place where one often goes to obtain something or to make money. Originally American English idiom from the Red Indians’ Paradise.)

In the old days English idioms rarely originated from any other form of English than British English. (French was also a popular source of idioms.) Nowadays American English is in this position. It is hard to find an AmE idiom that has not established itself in “worldwide English” (usually BrE). This is not the case with British English idioms which are not as widespread. It has to be remembered that it is hard to say which idioms are actively used in English and which are dying out or have already died. Idioms are constantly dying and new-ones are born.

Some idioms may have gone through radical changes in meaning. The phrase – There is no love lost between them – nowadays means that some people dislike one another. Originally, when there was only the British English form, it meant exactly the opposite. The shift in meaning is yet unexplained. All dialects of English have different sets of idioms and situations where a given idiom can be used. American English and British English may not, in this respect, be the best possible pair to compare because they both have been developing into the same direction, at least where written language is concerned, since the Second World War. The reason that there is so much American influence in British English is the result of the following:

  • Magnitude of publishing industry in the U.S.
  • Magnitude of mass media influence on a worldwide scale
  • Appeal of American popular culture on language and habits worldwide
  • International political and economic position of the U.S.

All these facts lead to the conclusion that new idioms usually originate in the U.S. and then become popular in so-called “worldwide English”. This new situation is completely different from the birth of American English as a “variant” of British English. When America was still under the rule of the Crown, most idioms originated from British English sources. Of course there were American English expressions and idioms too, before American English could be defined as dialect of English. Some examples of these early American English idioms follow:

  • “To bark up the wrong tree.” (Originally from raccoon-hunting in which dogs were used to locate raccoons up in trees.)
  • “Paddle one’s own canoe.” (This is an American English idiom of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century.)

Some of these early American idioms and expressions were derived from the speech of the American natives like the phrase that “someone speaks with a forked tongue” and the “happy hunting ground” above. These idioms have filtered to British English through centuries through books, newspapers and most recently through powerful mediums like radio, TV and movies.

Where was the turning point? When did American culture take the leading role and start shaping the English language and especially idiomatic expressions? There is a lot of argument on this subject. Most claim that the real turning point was the Second World War. This could be the case. During the War English-speaking nations were united against a common enemy and the U.S. took the leading role. In these few years and a decade after the War American popular culture first established itself in British English. Again new idioms were created and old ones faded away. The Second World War was the turning point in many areas in life. This may also be the case in the development of the English language.

In the old days the written language (novels, poems, plays and the Bible) was the source from which idioms were extracted. This was the case up until WWII. After the war new mediums had established themselves in English-speaking society, there was a channel for the American way of life and the popular culture of the U.S. TV, movies and nowadays the interactive medium have changed the English language more to the American English direction. Some people in the Europe speak the Mid-Atlantic English, halfway from the British English to American English.

The influence of American English can even be seen in other European languages. In Finland, we are adopting and translating AmE proverbs, idioms and expressions. It can be said that the spoken language has taken the leading role over the written and the only reason for this is TV and radio. Most proverbs and idioms that have been adopted to British English from American English are of spoken origin. This is a definite shift from the days before WWII. What will this development do to the English language? Will it decrease its value? This could be argued, but the answer would still be no. Languages develop and change. So is the case with English language and idioms.

How then does American English differ from British English in the use of idioms? There are no radical differences in actual use. The main differences are in the situations where idiomatic expressions are used. There have been many studies recently on this subject. American English adopts and creates new idioms at a much faster rate compared to British English. Also the idioms of AmE origin tend to spread faster and further. After it has first been established in the U.S., an American idiom may soon be found in other “variants” and dialects of English. Nowadays new British idioms tend to stay on the British Isles and are rarely encountered in the U.S. British idioms are actually more familiar to other Europeans or to the people of the British Commonwealth than to Americans, even though the language is same. The reason for all these facts is that Britain is not the world power it used to be and it must be said that the U.S. has taken the role of the leading nation in the development of language, media and popular culture. Britain just doesn’t have the magnitude of media influence that the United States controls.

The future of idiomatic expressions in the English language seems certain. They are more and more based on American English. This development will continue through new mediums like the Internet and interactive mediums. It is hard to say what this will do to idioms and what kind of new idioms are created. This will be an interesting development to follow, and by no means does it lessen the humor, variety and color of English language.

References:

The Wordworth Dictionary of Idioms. Denmark: Wordsworth Editions, 1995
Proverbs. Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham PLC.

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28 Responses to “Idioms – Differences and Usage in American English and British English”

  1. Just a wee correction to your remarks about the Ashes: this is the generally accepted term for a series of Test cricket matches played between England and Australia. The trophy for the series is a small urn believed to contain the cremated remains of a piece of cricketing kit – possibly a bail.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I know the term and perhaps I did not explain it well enough. I think my original point was that the idiom “bringing back the ashes” basically means “to win (that specific series of matches)”.

  3. 3 Nicole

    This is a very interesting article. I’m American and going to London for the summer, so I’ve been trying to educate myself about the differences between the two versions of English.

    One slight correction though. You cited “happy hunting ground” as a “place where one often goes to obtain something or to make money,” but I’ve always heard it used as another way to say that someone passed away. For example, “He’s gone to the happy hunting ground” (although not used very much anymore) would virtually always be taken to mean that someone has died.

    Just a thought. Thanks for the article!

  4. Thanks for your comment Nicole. I see your point, and I will change the article to reflect that. Actually, now that I read the article several years after it was originally written, I cannot remember where I got this definition. I’ll definetly have to look into this, because it could also be that the meaning of idiom has changed. I don’t mean that it has changed in the last 10 years, but it may have changed some time during the previous century.

  5. Thank you for your precious post. I am in love with idioms, that’s very helpful indeed. Thank you a million ):D( =^0^=

  6. Thanks for your comments!

  7. I’m delighted to read all your article,I just wanted to drop you a quit line to say thanks and hopefully you could provide some more idioms either BrE or AmE long with its meaning and the way it use.

    Regards,

    Memet

  8. Thanks for your encouragement memet. It’s always nice to get comments. I will consider writing a followup to this post.

  9. 9 Ashish Lahoti

    It was great to read the article. Actually I am an Indian but currently doing my research in Tokyo. I am trying to write a short essay in Japanese Language on ‘Why British English is better suited for Japanese Culture…’ This is in light of ‘Culture and Mannerism’ that is so very integrated to British English as a part and parcel of history as well as daily life style, which also happens to be the same in Japanese way of life. Though the ground reality is that British English is hardly heard of in Japan. Your article gives me some hints and points to think on…

    Thanks once again.

  10. This was very interesting to hear, because I am also interested in Japanese culture. It would be interesting to read your essay. Maybe you could post it here.

  11. your article is probing.It’s a painstaking effort put by you. however I’m surprised about Mr.Nicole’s contention about happy hunting ground. I’m an Indian and so can tell you that this part of the globe is used to see the meaning as what you say in the article.We never come across the meaning suggested by Mr. Nicole.Oxford advanced dictionary also subscribes to this view.

    Regards,
    sutanu

  12. Thank you for your comments. Language does have a life of its own, so it is not always possible to give a perfect definition for words, let alone idiomatic expressions. I have actually encountered both expressions before. It is likely that the idiom is used differently depending on the area or language variant where it is used. There is a calque of this same idiom in my native language Finnish, which means that someone has died. Interestingly that is the same definition that Nicole suggested.

    It would be very interesting to track expressions like these accross different cultures, locations, and languages. If the movements and changes would be followed over time, it would probably produce a very interesting animation with isoglosses moving accross continents as the meanings shift and change.

  13. Thanks for your reply.As you are working on the differences between American and British English idioms, let me take the opportunity to digress just a bit to use of words [verbs]like “will” and “shall”. What’s the essential use of these words in both the languages and how are they different from each other[if there’s any].
    I yet to get any substantive response from any who matters. If you please elaborate on this I ‘ll feel indebted.

    Regards,
    sutanu

  14. 14 Payal

    This was an interesting article to read. I learnt that many idioms that I thought were British in origin have actually come from American English.

    However, I disagree with Mr Sutanu Mitra. I too am Indian and have always used ‘happy hunting ground’ to mean that a person has passed away. It irks me no end to see the phrase used in the context of ‘a place where one often goes to obtain something or to make money’. It may be more common or acceptable now but I doubt it was the original meaning.

  15. 15 Lore

    Merikari,

    Thanks for your article. I really enjoyed reading it, particularly because I am working on differences between British and American idiomatic expressions. I would appreciate it if you could just mention some linguists who have worked in this area. I have not been able to find out much about any book or articles which focus on the subject. I would be very grateful if you, or anyone else, could help me with that.

    Thanks,

    Lore

  16. Thanks, this is the best thing that Google sent me to on the subject.

    On the point under debate, I am British and I’ve only ever heard the dying meaning of “Happy hunting ground”

  17. 17 Betty Dickerson

    Still reading your paper, as part of my research–10/23/11!

  18. 19 Joey

    Interesting article. However, I disagree with your conclusion. American English likely has a much larger influence in the world today, as you say. However, I think this is tied in with the US becoming a world leader economically after WWII.

    If you look at Creol languages, where there are 3 or more languages that mix, there is almost always a single dominant language that has more influence than the others–it tends to be the linguistic group of the culture in power

    The influence of Hollywood on idioms might have less to do with economics. Nevertheless, I just wanted to throw in some doubt. If the US continues to do bad economically, as it is now, then English idioms are likely to start coming from powerful countries which influence the US–whether English speaking or from a different language (as French influenced Britian a long time ago)

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  20. 21 alexcase

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  21. Reading Your blog I came across these four sentences “How then does American English differ from British English in the use of idioms? There are no radical differences in actual use. The main differences are in the situations where idiomatic expressions are used. There have been many studies recently on this subject.” How can I understand the real difference between American and British English Idioms. Because in one sentence You would write that there is no difference at all and then in next following ones then there is a difference. How on earth a human can understand these four sentences, where in each of it explains totally different statement?
    Thank You

  22. in a Pakistani accent, was wondering in the post mentioned in Nature Girls Comment are you arguing with your self.
    Thank you.

  23. Your grammar is bloody awful, and most of the contents of your work are based on your own presumptions. Your syntax is pathetic. If you wish to learn English, then go and live in England for ten years. This is the funniest paper I have ever read on idiomatic phrases. If you were a female I would like to come over to Finland and knock you up at six o’clock in the morning.

  24. Hi Stephen. I am glad you found a paper I wrote 15 years ago funny. I wish I had had someone with your unparalleled skill at giving constructive criticism back then.

    I am sure you would be popular with the ladies here based on your FB profile photo.

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