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Housing vocabulary in
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Housing vocabulary in American and British English
by Susan Stempleski

First in a series of articles on differences between American and British English.

American vs British English
Types of homes
The rooms in a house
In the kitchen
Furniture and furnishings
How many flights up?
Next in the series

American vs British English

"England and America are two countries separated by the same language."

This famous quote attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is certainly an exaggeration. The differences between British and American English have never been as different as people have imagined. Nevertheless, as any learner of English knows, there are some areas of language - especially vocabulary and use - in which the differences between these two varieties of English can be a source of confusion and even embarrassment. This article describes some of the major differences in vocabulary and usage related to housing.


Types of homes

Whether you are British or American, the place where you live is your home, no matter what type of building it is. This is one case where Americans use the same term as the British. When it comes to naming specific types of homes, however, the Americans and the British usually use terms that are quite different. In a few cases, such as ranch house (a house on one level, often with a roof that does not slope much), the terms describe types of dwellings that are native to the American continent, thus unknown in Britain. Some other American terms, such as apartment (what the British usually call a flat), may be familiar to speakers of British English, but in Britain they are used to describe different sorts of things, as in the following example:
If you visit Hampton Court, you can take a tour of the Royal Apartments.

Many of the differences in housing vocabulary are in the words used to describe types of homes. The following is a list of examples in which different words and expressions are used to indicate essentially the same type of house and apartment.

American British
apartment house or apartment building block of flats
apartment hotel service flats
condo/condominium owner-occupied flat
duplex semi-detached house
row house terraced house

In other situations, however, there may be no exact British equivalent for the American term, as is the case with the following:

A brownstone is a house made of red-brown stone, especially one built in the cities of the eastern U.S. in the nineteenth century: She bought a lovely old brownstone in Greenwich Village.
An efficiency apartment is a small apartment that usually already has furniture and has no separate bedroom, and only a very small bathroom and kitchen. The nearest British equivalent is a bedsit (or bedsitter), a rented room that is used for both living and sleeping in, but which does not have its own bathroom and kitchen.
A housing development is a large group of houses that were built at the same time and are similar in style.


The rooms in a house

The good news here is that American and British English use the same words to describe most of the rooms in a house: bathroom, bedroom, dining room and kitchen. Note, however, the following differences:

The bathroom in an American home always includes a toilet, and Americans often use the word bathroom as a polite synonym for the word toilet (even in a public building). If you want to use the toilet in an American home, you should say something like 'May I please use the bathroom?' as many Americans consider the term toilet indelicate. This euphemistic use of the word bathroom can be sometimes taken to extremes, as Americans will say things like, 'My neighbor's dog went to the bathroom on my lawn.'
The main room in an American home, the room where people usually sit and do things together like watch television and entertain visitors, is called a living room. The British name for this room, sitting room, sounds rather quaint and old-fashioned to American ears.
The word cupboard exists in both American and British English, but whereas a British cupboard can be used for storing all sorts of things, from clothes to toys, to Americans a cupboard is almost always a kitchen cupboard - a place for storing food or dishware. Thus, most Americans would be very surprised to hear someone tell them to put their clothes in a cupboard, since they usually hang their clothes in a closet.


In the kitchen

Ask an American and a British person to list the things that can be found in their kitchens and then compare the lists. You will discover a relatively large number of appliances and other items that have different names in American and British English. Here is a list of the most common ones:

American British
blender liquidizer
can opener tin opener
clothes pin clothes peg
electrical outlet power point
dishpan washing-up bowl
dish towel tea towel
dishwashing liquid washing-up liquid
faucet tap
scale scales
stove cooker
waste basket waste bin

Polite houseguests in the U.S. will offer to do the dishes (wash and dry the dishes) after a meal. The British equivalent do the washing-up is confusing to many Americans for whom the verb wash up usually means to wash yourself, especially your hands and face.


Furniture and furnishings

Most items of furniture and household furnishings share the same names in American and British English, but there are a few exceptions that may cause confusion. Sometimes it is merely the case of different names for the same object. For example, what Americans call a shade (a sheet of material that you pull down to cover a window) is called a roller blind by speakers of British English. And what speakers in Britain call a standard lamp (a lamp on top of a tall pole that stands on the floor) is called a floor lamp in the U.S. Sometimes, however, the differences are potentially more confusing, as in the following cases:

To an American, a bureau is a piece of furniture with drawers for holding things such as towels or items of clothing. The British call this piece of furniture a chest of drawers. To the British, a bureau is a piece of furniture with drawers, but with a top part that opens to make a writing table. An American would call this piece of furniture a writing table.
In American English, a cot is a light narrow bed that can be folded up, for example for use in camping. In fact, the British call this type of bed a camp bed. To speakers of British English, a cot is a small bed for a baby with tall sides that have bars, something Americans refer to as a crib.


How many flights up?

The American system for indicating the floors of a building is different from that used by the British. In the U.S., the term first floor is used to refer to the ground level of a building. However, in the British system the first floor is the floor immediately above the ground level. Americans call that floor (the one above the ground level) the second floor. This difference in nomenclature continues all the way to the top of a building. To make things even more confusing, Americans who live on the ground level sometimes say they live on the ground floor, and some who live on the level above the ground level will describe their apartment as being one flight up. And if you live on a really high floor in an American apartment house, you will probably ride upstairs in an elevator, what is known in British English as a lift.


Next in the series

The next article in this series will discuss differences in vocabulary related to transportation and travel, an area where there are a great many differences between American and British English.