British Cultural Assumption

The idea that the British way of doing something is the way that the rest of the English-speaking world does it, excepting the Americans, of course.

...and the way that the rest of the world would do it, if only they weren't so uncivilized.

Pretty well (<g>) the definitive comparison of US/UK linguistic and cultural differences can be found in Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English by OrinHargraves?, a professional lexicographer who has described both the linguistic differences and the underlying cultural systems that they reflect (for example electoral systems, legal systems, supermarket brand names and household eponyms, etc etc).

If someone in the UK says they are a Republican, they are likely to believe in liberal and anti-establishment ideas like "all men are born equal". They deny the "divine right" of Monarchs and Lords to rule without election, and want Britain to be a republic. In the US, a Republican is likely to be right wing and conservative.

But not originally. Abraham Lincoln (freer of slaves, etc.) was a Republican. Around 1900, the 'publican [:-)] and Democratic parties somehow managed to dance around each other to take each other's positions - a phenomenon noticed at the time, even. Sometimes I wonder if the same thing is happening again now.

Come to London some time, and hear people talking about The Monument, it's in the City, near the Bank, which is next to the Stock Exchange, and opposite the Mansion House. This annoys even British people from elsewhere in the UK.

Er, no. It's "Monument", "Bank" and "Mansion House" (no "The"). Always has been, as far as I can remember. Maybe my punctuation mislead, I've taken the capital 'T's off. What point were you making? I was trying to report everyday speech that I hear around and highlight the assumptions that seem to lie behind it. I'm especially not referring to the tube stations, which don't have the definite article.

"The City" is short for "The City Of London", distinguishing it from all the other cities which make up Greater London (read TheCity to see that New Yorkers do this also).

That's true enough, but I doubt that many people think that way when they talk about the City. People in London are well aware that "London" is much, much bigger than "The City", whether their conscious or not of the original reason. They would be unlikely to say "The City" unless they distinctly meant this little piece, the CityOfLondon. Indeed, Greater London (LondonTown) is still referred to simply as "Town", within which is "The City" (and note, one always goes "up to Town", but simply "to the City")

I'm sure people would look at you strangely if you asked "could you give me directions to Stock Exchange", it being a building, not an area.

I'm sure they would, too. The point of my comment above is that there are many other stock exchanges, but I've never heard anyone in London refer to the London Stock Exchange as anything other than the stock exchange. Someone would probably look at you strangely if you asked for directions to the London Stock Exchange, too. And likewise with the Mansion House, of which there are many.

And finally, I'm sure people from other parts of Britain couldn't give a damn. Are you? I am a person from another part of Britain and it annoys me, and I've heard others express displeasure about this too.

There are many mansion houses in London (Kenwood House, for example), but only one Mansion House.

These complaints always make me crack up. People seem to think that it is natural that a place where people buy and sell shares in companies be called a "Stock Exchange", or that a newspaper be called a "Times". It isn't. Bourses which have "Stock Exchange" in their names do so because they are named after "The Stock Exchange". Newspapers which have "Times" in their names do so because they are named after "The Times". Now people are saying that these institutions should change their names to avoid confusion with other institutions that have copied their names.

As for "The City", since it refers strictly to the tiny part of London that was inhabited in Roman times, (i.e. not Parliament, or Trafalgar Square, or Buckingham Palace, or the Albert Hall, etc. etc.), I suspect the expression is almost as old as the English language, and dates from a time when London was the only city that any English speaker was ever likely to see.

Also, "The City" is an informal name for the financial quarter of the city of London - but it's not really a quarter at all... work that one out. -- SusannahWilliams?

I can't believe how often I've heard non-British people tell me that they've "seen" Britain when they've not ventured beyond London.

Similarly, those who claim the midlands is in the "north"; or even is The North.

I believe this issue is more complex than a misappropriation of The North. The Midlands has complex identity issues, which I'd like to discuss in IdentityOfEnglishMidlands -- DanSheppard

If you were in London looking for Londons central post office would you ask for London's Central Post Office or the Central Post Office? If you are in London there was until recently only one Stock Exchange. You might ask for LIFFE or the Baltic Exchange or the Corn Exchange for exchanges trading other stuff.

Bank and Monument are referred to without the definite article, just like Moorgate, Temple and Mansion House (they are all underground stations).

Which part of "I'm especially not referring to the tube stations, which don't have the definite article." didn't you understand? People refer to the big column with the gold thing on top as the Monument, don't they? How many monuments to this that and the other are there in London?

There is a difference between "the monument" with no capitalization (e.g. referring to some previously mentioned monument) and "the Monument" with a capital M, which refers the the monument, at Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London. When spoken, the meaning is usually clear from the context of the conversation. E.g. "Excuse me, how do I get to The Monument" c.f. "Excuse me I'm trying to find the Wellington Monument, where is the monument?

"Come to London some time, and hear people talking about The Monument, it's in the City, near the Bank, which is next to the Stock Exchange, and opposite the Mansion House."

Go to any city in the UK or elsewhere, and you'll hear people saying the river, the center, the high street, etc. It's natural to assume that they are referring to the nearest river, high street etc. Similarly, in NY or SF people refer to "Chinatown", not "Chinatown in NY" or "Chinatown in SF", unless they are referring to Chinatown in another city.

The difference inside and outside London is more pronounced with road names: Londoners often say "The King's Road", "The Fulham Road"; other leave out "the"

This only applies to certain roads, not all of them. You'd never hear someone say "The Oxford Street", whilst "The Piccadilly Circus" is a common mistake for American visitors to make.

>People tend to include the definite article when referring to roads (i.e. not streets, which are usually the urban part with shops and so on) as if referring back to the idea that "The Oxford Road" is the road you take from this place to Oxford.

Something else that happens in London is that areas tend to become known by the names of their local tube stations. People would say that they work at "Monument" or "Mansion House", because the tube becomes a reference point for the region of the city (I apologize for using "the").

You said "I am a person from another part of Britain and it annoys me". Hmmm. I recommend you take up a hobby.

It's interesting that this says 'British' at the top of the page, when we're all talking about Londoners. Being also from 'another part of Britain', I don't have a problem with these speech patterns. There are a lot of things in London with names like this, and most of the ones under discussion are names of places - which may once have been descriptive but are now mainly names. Interestingly, no-one's complained about (the) Arsenal, possibly because so few cities now have vast hoards of weapons and gunpowder stashed in the middle of them, we've all forgotten that that is also a description like Bank or Monument.

I guess that would be a LondonCulturalAssumption then (which is a very tempting thing to make if you've lived there all your life.)

Foreign media, reporting stories in The Times, always refer to it as The London Times, which is not actually its name. I'm not sure whether being irritated by this is a BritishCulturalAssumption or not, in view of the many US papers locally referred to as The Times when their real names are The New York Times or whatever. If you're going to explicitly refer to it with its location, the correct full form of its name is The Times of London.

My favorite BritishCulturalAssumption story is the one about the non-Brit who was doing some work with the BBC (BritishBroadcastingCorporation), brought a bit of non-standard grammar to their attention, and received the reply, "Actually, however the BBC does it is the standard."

This is secret agent Weismuller calling from Wales, in England.

For an accurate and unintentionally funny (to a Brit) US view of the UK, try:

I looked at this and couldn't see the "funny" parts at first, but then I came across the bit where the author reckons that "most" roads in Britain were made by Romans or in Medieval times, and then the bit about Brits being more racist than Americans made me laugh out loud

moved here from AmericanCulturalAssumptionDiscussion

Some interesting BritishCulturalAssumptions:

This makes learning Unix even more interesting (!)

Thus the wonderful sequence:

-- PaulTevis

This happened (a long time ago!) to a friend of mine - he was using a Dos machine at home, but was more familiar with unix. So he put all his executables in a directory called '/bin'. Of course, when his housemate needed to delete some files to free up space, what do you think he deleted?

-- KornySietsma

This is related to the reason the Australian interpretation of "root access" is mentioned in the JargonFile, albeit inaccurately (cf. On a vaguely related note, one of the funniest side-effects of the AmericanCulturalAssumption is the look you get when you explain to a Yank what "fanny" means in the rest of the world.

The "root access" bit probably comes from the word "rut" which basically means what the JargonFile says. It is usually used to refer to animals...

Speaking as an Aussie, "root" is not used exclusively for animals... it's akin to "shag" in Britain. -- RodneyRichardson.

Isn't this a BritishCulturalAssumption that "fanny" is used in non-English speaking world?

OK, somebody has to ask. What does "fanny" mean?

In the USA, it means "ass". In the rest of the English-speaking world, it refers to an adjacent part of the female anatomy. Knowing this is useful AdviceForAmericansAbroad. So basically, the rest of the world gets big laughs when you refer to your bum bag as a fanny pack.

(Even "ass" is problematic. In the USA it means only "rear end". In the UK, its primary meaning is "donkey", with "arse" preferred for what's spelt "ass" in the USA.)

[Which is why the scientific world went to a dead language to communicate. Gluteus Maximus anyone?]

I remember a long time ago hoarding some business cards from Applied Reasoning Systems to send to some friends in England. They used to say but they didn't seem to know why that was so funny (which made it all the funnier).

I found funny for similar reasons. Puerile I know...

We had an (originally English) client whose company (in New England) was Graphic Integration Technologies, chosen at least partly so he could go around with a name badge that said GIT...

Let us not forget that to a Brit a "fag" is a cigarette and to a Yank it is a derogatory remark for a homosexual man (I don't know if other cultures have interpretations of fag - and I wonder how we ended up with 2 such different meanings). Things went strangely silent in a meeting in the US when I described the design as having been drawn on the back of a fag packet... (what I meant was it was hastily sketched out - I think the US would have used napkin (as in paper napkin from a restaurant)). I didn't get fired - and I still haven't gone back home yet - that was 5 years ago and I'm most likely here for life.

[Let's not forget to add confusion a 'faggot' is also a 'fag' (gay man), but a 'faggot' (small meatball like thing) is not a 'fag' (cancer stick).]

Your accent probably saves you because if you use "strange" phrases and have an accent, then the listener is more likely to write it off as slang difference.

I find an interesting phenomenon occurring - I am beginning to naturally Americanize my spelling. I don't particularly want the reader of my prose to identify me as "different" - my reasoning is: why construct a diversion from what I'm trying to say? This feeling also comes from beginning to get a little tired of strangers telling me that I sound "neat" and that they want to visit England one day (I'm from Wales and it's the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) - I try my best to be polite (they don't realize that this is not the first time I've heard this and that really I would just rather buy my Subway sandwich and be on my way ...). It's all part of the fun! -- JohnHarding.

Both meanings of the term "fag" mentioned above come from the term "faggot" for a bundle of dry sticks. Referring to a homosexual as a "faggot" is derogatory, and particularly so because it harkens back to the times when homosexuals were publicly burned at the stake. That's the explanation I've heard, anyway. -- RjLesch

Is England used to refer to Great Britain the same way that America is used to refer to the USA? - see EnglishOrBritish for more information.

No it's the same way as USA is referred to as America. Which I always thought was funny since America covers two continents. So if you say you're American, I say what part, Canada, Cuba, Chile, ...?

In casual situations, I write the word "Amerikan" with a "k" to refer to residents of the USA. This provides a distinction from Americans - citizens of the Americas - and is derived from the Russian word normally transliterated as "amerikanskiy". I chose this because when I refer to Amerikans in speech, I usually use "amerikanskiy" as a derogatory term, followed by spitting on the floor. As you might guess, I am Canadian. -- JbRainsberger

Well, I suppose as long as you're trying to be offensive, yes, that's a good solution...

Another question for JohnHarding - Can you tell an American's regional background from his/her accent, well enough to locate them as tightly as Wales/England? If not, why take offense at being thought 'English' when the difference between an English accent and a Welsh one is much less than English/French? -- PeteHardie (American, btw)

Slight problem here: the different regions you mention all belong to the same country, the USA. Last time I looked, Wales was not a part of England. -- ChrisR

Er... Last time I looked, Wales was a Principality in England... Wrong, wrong, wrong, anghywir...

You've obviously never heard a true Welsh accent!

I can't recall. I did take a trip to Wales about 12 years ago, but I took ill, so I have little recollection of the accents. However, the point still stands - for all of its differences, a Welsh accent is similar to an English one, at least as similar as an Alabama drawl is to a Vermont one -- PeteHardie

Don't insult me. ;-) We don't sound anything like the English. There are a lot of anglicized places in Wales, but there are also lots of places where people have very strong Welsh accents. There's also something called Wenglish ( For example: "It's a tell-us-what-you-do-know exam question." It's getting more difficult to find natural sources of Wenglish now. Old ladies in small villages are often the richest sources of Wenglish.

The difference between Welsh and English accents? When I was a student, I worked one summer at a factory in Yorkshire. Chatting one day with colleagues, we managed to identify at least four distinct accents amongst coworkers. I mean accents that could be localized to a particular area in a ten-mile radius of the factory.

''Exactly - you spent a summer with the people. Most Americans have spent less than 48 hours listening to British accents, and much less hearing Welsh/Irish/Scottish ones. They can hardly be expected to distinguish between the 4 superficially similar accents, especially with such ringers as Yorkshire in the mix. -- PeteHardie''

Well then I'm sure Americans won't take offense if I tell a New Yorker he has a wonderful Californian accent? England and Wales are different and the former does not equal Great Britain or the UK. -- Setok

I can't speak for every American, but I am from New York, and I wouldn't be offended if you said such a thing. I'd just figure you weren't very familiar with the many different accents in the U.S. However, I do agree that the basic differences between what constitutes Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and just England should be more widely known.

Find me an English actor who can reliably differentiate between Norfolk and Somerset.


Before the decimal Pound (100 pence = 1), the UK had a byzantine currency of pence, shillings, and pounds unfathomable by normal (base 10) people. Some of this is carried forward in their slang. For instance, I have a vague feeling I know the difference between quid, bob, guineas from reading SherlockHolmes, but I wouldn't bet real money on my answers (not even tuppence)

Aaagh! I don't think the libra, solidus and dinarius came from Byzantium but from Rome. If you base 10 people consider yourselves normal, are there a hundred minutes in your hour, or ten days in your week? ( ) Base 12 arithmetic is quite easy and natural, and most of us do it routinely, and we also have twenty digits on our four limbs. Decimalisation was a horrible mistake, probably even worse than metrication.

While we're on the BritishCulturalAssumption page, let us also note that the CanonicalOrder? is Pounds, Shillings and Pence (also known as LSD but not to be confused with LysergicAcidDiethylamide?).

"quid" is a pound. "bob" is an old style shilling, 20 to the pound (so 5p in new money). "guinea" is 21 shillings in old money, 1.05 in new (and still in use in a small way - when horses are sold the price is quoted in guineas). "Tuppence" is 2 pence (old or new), of course

"Ten Bob" still survives in common speech for 50 pence. Are you sure? I have never heard it used.

Can anyone tell me why the British have a word for 20 shillings (Pound) and another word for 21 shillings (Guinea) when there isn't a word for 19 or 22 shillings?!

See: for an excellent, and seemingly logical explanation. -- DaveMorgan

Wikipedia says "rises in the price of gold caused the value of the guinea to increase, at times as high as thirty shillings". So the exchange rate of the guinea wasn't fixed, and ended up at 21 shillings, probably around the time the coin was withdrawn from circulation. The fee for a degree at Cambridge University is £1.05 - presumably it has been that since decimalisation.

Nobody uses any of these terms except for quid these days.

Well, there are expressions that do and are still in use.

For example, "bent as a nine bob note"

Tuppence is still used too (but not for referring to money!) er, it can still refer to money, its not that common though as tuppence is such a small quantity

I've also heard new expressions coming into use. I once heard someone say he wouldn't pay more than an Archer for the car. An Archer is 2000 pounds, the sum of money Jeffrey Archer paid a prostitute to go on holiday, and then won lots of money in a libel case on the grounds he hadn't slept with the woman. He subsequently went to jail for lying in court.

My personal favorite always was the half-crown :) -- ChrisR That's 12.5p, by the way, half of the 5 shilling crown or dollar. Two-and-six (2/6 two shillings and sixpence): before decimalisation, the half-crown had its own coin.

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