Traveling overseas and immersing yourself in a different culture is an eye-opening experience — except, or maybe especially, when you end up lodging a foot firmly in your mouth by saying the wrong thing.
Believe it or not, many seemingly innocent words we Americans use in our everyday speech get lost in translation as soon as we set foot outside North America, and this can lead to embarrassment at best, offense at worst.
Thankfully, you can avoid looking any more like a tourist than you already do simply by learning what not to say when you're abroad.
You probably don't want to want to walk up to someone and say “I love your pants!” when you’re in the UK.
In America, pants are just another word for trousers, and both terms are used interchangeably, with the latter even sounding old-fashioned in some circles. In Britain, however, pants can only mean one thing: underwear.
Needless to say, this one catches most Americans with their pants down when they visit the UK for the first time.
If you ask for bangs in the US, your hairdresser will understand you want your hair cut short across your forehead. Innocent enough, right?
Outside of North America, however, “bang” is vulgar slang for an act of primal intimacy.
The hairstyle we call “bangs” is more politely referred to as a “fringe” just about everywhere else.
Say “knob” stateside, and people’s minds won’t go any further than the door handle.
But in the rest of the Anglosphere, you’re guaranteed to get a few chuckles. That’s because "knob" is another word for the most prominent feature of the male anatomy.
It’s not hard to see how a phrase like “I fiddled with the knob and it fell right off in my hands” could paint a very interesting mind picture outside the U.S.
If your first name is Fanny, you might want to get a legal name change before you enter the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa. Here in the U.S., “fanny” might be an old-fashioned word for “bottom,” which can still earn a chuckle, but in these countries, it’s another word for female genitalia. Calling someone a “fanny” is also one of Scotland’s favorite go-to insults.
It’s no wonder those dorky ‘90s waist pouches we affectionately call “fanny packs” are referred to as “bum bags” outside of North America!
If you say you’re pissed stateside, you’re very angry. In Britain and Ireland, however, “pissed” means fall-down drunk.
Unless you want everyone to think you’ve been hitting the hard stuff, don’t forget to add an “off” to the end. “Pissed off” means the same thing everywhere.
To make things slightly more confusing, telling someone to “piss off” is a strong way of saying “get out of my sight.” And “taking the piss” means “to make fun of” overseas, which has nothing to do with boozing or anger whatsoever.
In the U.S., shag refers to that impossible-to-clean 70’s-style rec room carpeting with long fibers. In the UK, however, the word has one meaning and one meaning alone: sexual intercourse.
You can see why saying something like “I love the feeling of a good shag between my toes” would go down very differently in the UK.
In the U.S., suspenders are those stretchy straps that hold up the trousers of nerds and 1980s businessmen alike.
In the UK, however, the word “suspenders” means something far more titillating. It refers to the elastic that attaches lacy lingerie stockings to a garter belt.
What we call suspenders they call “braces,” instead.
When you say someone’s been dogging you in the U.S., it means they’re harshly judging or criticizing you, or won't get off your back. Say the same thing outside of North America, however, and you'll likely raise a few eyebrows or maybe even have the cops called for indecent exposure.
“Dogging” is British slang for partaking in — and allowing others to watch — public sexual acts with strangers in an outdoor environment.
In the US, the word “gypsy” has positive connotations. It’s associated with free-spiritedness, mystical mysteriousness, and a nomadic lifestyle that has inspired many a Halloween costume. But the word has a far less positive meaning in most of Europe. There, it's a derogatory term for the Romani people, an ethnic group of travelers stereotypically associated with lawlessness and cheating going back thousands of years.
It makes sense that we call ourselves “Americans” when we technically mean “United States of Americans.” (That’s the name of our country, after all.) It's much less of a mouthful.
Call yourself American in South America, however, and you risk unintentionally stirring up some ire among the locals. Much like Oceania, “America” is a geographical region that encompasses multiple countries and continents — not just the USA. Not too surprisingly, South Americans also view themselves as Americans, because that's exactly what they are.