5 Words That Mean the Exact Opposite If You Go to England

Jack Reacher makes no sense, and to understand why, you need to understand British English
5 Words That Mean the Exact Opposite If You Go to England

England is a strange land, where they speak a language known as English. You might have trouble understanding what anyone there is saying. 

For example, you might hear someone described as “mean,” and you think that refers to how they say cruel things. You later realize it really refers to how they’re stingy with money. Then you hear someone else is “greedy,” and you assume this is similarly about money, but the description this time actually refers exclusively to how the person overeats. Finally, you hear some weird guy on the subway say, “My life is brilliant,” and you have no idea what that Britishism means at all. 

As amusing as it is when these words confuse you — you’re never quite sure exactly which potato product these “chips” are until they arrive — they can also get weirder than that. Sometimes, words don’t just mean something different from what you thought but mean the complete opposite. 

Tabling an Issue

In America, when someone says, “Let’s table that discussion,” they mean, “Let’s stop talking about that for now.” They’re saying you can talk about it again at some later date, but they’re really saying, “Let’s drop that,” and there’s no telling if you’ll ever address it again. 

We got this phrase thanks to parliamentary procedure. The idea is that when you want to set aside a motion, you lay it down on a table rather than holding it up. Later, when someone revives the topic, they do so by saying, “I move to take from the table the motion.”

In Britain, when someone wants to table something, it instead means they want to discuss it right now. In Britain, the phrase also comes from parliamentary procedure. The difference is, Britain’s House of Commons has a literal “table of the house” (it’s where the they keep the ceremonial mace), and this table is where documents were traditionally placed when they were being deliberated

ceremonial maces

Cyril DavenportEmilio Kopaitic

Ceremonial maces aren’t a weird British thing. America has one, too!

Naturally, this can lead to some confusion if Americans and Brits ever get together and debate whether to debate something. Winston Churchill wrote about an incident during World War II, when the British prepared a paper and said they wanted to table it. The Americans, who considered the matter urgent, strongly objected, saying tabling was a bad idea. “A long and even acrimonious argument ensued,” said Churchill, before the two sides eventually realized they were arguing for the exact same thing. 

Public School

If you went to public school in the U.S., that means you went for free, in a school set up by your local government. You learned how to take a punch, the correct way to hold a cigarette and other such crucial skills. In England, however, the term “public schools” refers to the most elite schools in the country, places like Eton and Harrow. Much like U.S. public schools, these institutions mainly teach fighting and etiquette, but they’re what we would call private schools. They’re run by private institutions and charge fees.


George E. Koronaios

Their students fence six hours a day.

Even in Britain, not everyone knows why schools like Eton are called “public.” Some think it’s because they originally were free. Eton was founded in the 15th century as a charity school. They’re really called “public” because they’re open to the public — in that children from any locality can apply (and pay to enroll if they are accepted). Other schools are only for people who live in a specific area, which happens to also be how American public schools operate. 

England has government-run schools, too. They’re just not called “public schools.” These secondary schools are either called grammar schools or comprehensives, and to find out which of the two you go to, you have to ask the Sorting Hat.

The Doughnut Effect

America has a long tradition of rich people fleeing cities and taking their tax dollars with them. The suburb they move to ends up nice and shiny, while the inner city decays. We call this the donut effect. Much like a donut, a tasty ring surrounds a hollowed-out core. 

Over in England, they’ve got some villages older than any American suburb. Areas get run down over time, and when the money finally comes together to revitalize someplace, it ends up renovating the city, which turns into a lone beacon surrounded by gloom. They call this the doughnut effect. Much like a doughnut, a crusty sphere surrounds a tasty center. 


Rod Long

Donuts come in all shapes and sizes. Or two shapes, at the very least. 

That’s confusing. It’s confusing even if we spell the food two different ways for clarity (“donut” versus “doughnut”), which not everyone bothers doing. In reality, in both England and America, donuts are sometimes ring-shaped and other times filled. But in America, there’s an expectation that a donut’s a ring by default, while in England, people expect one filled that’s with jelly — a filling that they refer to as “jam,” by the way.

Maybe England should call their phenomenon the “jam tart effect.” Though, everyone would then conclude that this is some offensive observation about the city being full of sluts. 

Luck Out

If you luck out, that means you stumbled into some good luck. You sure lucked out by coming early the day your coworker brought in those jam tarts, for example. At least, that’s how you’ll understand the phrase if you’re familiar with American English. Someone in England might be more likely to interpret “luck out” to mean you stumbled into bad luck. When you think about it, that’s a pretty reasonable way of using that phrase. You can use it the same way you might use “struck out” (we trust that British people are super into baseball idioms). 

When examining this issue, the blog Language Log picked out the following passage from one of the Jack Reacher books:


Though the character Reacher is American, the author Lee Child is British. It appears here that the author is using “luck out” in the exact opposite way from how Americans do.

Some commenters suggested that Reacher may be using the phrase sarcastically, but that doesn’t appear to be true, based on the rest of the paragraph’s flow. Anyway, Americans should be most shocked by the revelation that Jack Reacher is written by a Brit, as it raises a troubling question: Is he making fun of us?

A Moot Point

You know I feel so dirty when they start talking cute,” sings Rick Springfield in the song “Jessie’s Girl.” “I wanna tell her that I love her, but the point is probably moot.” 

Does this lyric make sense, or is it nonsense? To answer this, we must turn to the 11th century. 

Justin Higuchi

It was a strange time. Rick Springfield was still a young man. 

Back then, a moot was a meeting to discuss law stuff. By the 16th century, it had changed to a type of discussion that law students hold to discuss a hypothetical case. This meaning lives on in the modern student activity “moot court,” which is something like a mock trial. In the United States, “moot” soon referred to an argument that’s merely hypothetical, with no practical importance. From there, it evolved to the current usage, which is something that there’s no point in discussing. 

In England, however, moots traveled a different evolutionary path. Since a moot was where people debated, ideas became referred to as “moot” if they were worth debating. That brings us to the present day, where someone “moots” a plan when they propose it. If a British person says a point is moot, they mean it’s up for debate, while when an American says it, they mean it’s closed for debate.

One thing we can all agree on, though, is that when a point is moot, we should table it. 

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