I Say Tom-AY-toe, You Say Tom-AH-toe


Hey Americans, let’s get on a rocket and head to the UK, where we’ll find rocket on the menu as we place our lunch order. Rocket is the word the British use for what Americans call arugula—it has origins in the French roquette, while arugula stems from a variant of the Italian ruchetta. All forms relate to the Latin ericus (“hedgehog”), which is perfect given the plant’s bristly, peppery bite.

What other food differences will you need to keep in mind while across the pond?

Candy floss

American dentists are gnashing their perfect teeth right now at the thought of cavity-producing floss. But Americans can just as easily get cavities eating cotton candy as the British do. That American term picks up on the billowy, light-as-air quality of the sweet treat, while candy floss points to the individual strands or threads of sugar that are spun to form the candy cloud. Whether we’re at the Minnesota State Fair or the Nottingham Goose Fair, we love the magical sensation of sticky sweetness dissolving on our tongues while we figure out which ride to hop on next.

Fairy cakes

While British people have the great fortune to eat little cakes possibly infused with fairy dust, Americans begrudgingly eat cupcakes instead—fairy dust not included. A 1796 American Cookery recipe for cupcakes is under the title “A light cake to bake in small cups,” hence the practical name. Dismay not, fellow Americans, the British do eat cupcakes too. Fairy cakes are actually smaller versions of cupcakes and usually have less icing. The enchanting British cakes are so named because they are small enough to be consumed by fairies. Now with fairy cupcakes, we’d have practical magic!

Digestive biscuits

It’s interesting how the digestive biscuit and its US counterpart, the graham cracker, have unappetizing names that fail to reflect the tastiness of both semi-sweet cookies—biscuits are cookies to the British, but Americans think of biscuits as savory (note, too, the irony that graham crackers, despite their savory association, are actually sweet).

There are many similarities between digestives (as they’re called) and graham crackers. For example, both originally boasted health benefits: digestives were designed by two Scottish doctors to improve (surprise!) digestion; graham crackers were developed by the preacher Sylvester Graham as part of his moral crusade to protect against an epidemic of masturbation and sexual overexcitement (not sure how that worked out). Whatever ails you, one of these cookies might have the cure.

Gyro doner

You’ll probably recognize the first word, if you’ve ever grabbed a Greek sandwich or pita filled with grilled meat and veggies. Gyro doner or doner kebab are the British terms for the meal. Doner comes from the Turkish word döner, which means “rotating,” as the vertical or horizontal spit rotates or spins in the fire to cook the skewered meat (often lamb). In the US, we usually think of kebabs as roasted meat and vegetables on a stick, but in the UK kebabs can mean either pieces of grilled meat on a stick, or slices of grilled meat (from off the doner spit) in pita bread. Doner kebabs can also be filled with salad and topped with a chili sauce. Hungry yet?


How does Honey-Baked Gammon sound to you? Probably more recognizable now, because gammon is ham. Like ham, gammon can be smoked, salted, or cured. It’s also cut into long strips like bacon. Gammon comes from the Old French gambe (“leg”), which makes sense because the cut of meat comes from the back leg of the pig. In the UK, gammon is sold raw while ham is sold cooked and ready to eat. If you buy a gammon and cook it, you have ham. In the US, ham also comes from the hog’s hind leg, but we don’t make the distinction between gammon and ham. Ham is ham! Ham comes from the Old English hamm (“bend of the knee”) and is related to the Old Norse höm (“buttock”). Lovely.

Boiled sweet

No, we didn’t forget to tag “potato” to the end. Boiled sweet is the British term for hard candy. And as we saw earlier with cotton candy (candy floss), both terms are inspired by some form of the candy-making process. To make these suckers, the sugar must be boiled with water and corn syrup (used in the US) or golden syrup (used in the UK and made from sugar cane). Off the heat, you can stir in a flavoring (like peppermint) and food coloring. Then you immediately pour the candy mixture into molds and let it become hard. So the British term recalls the process that leads to the result, and the American term calls it like it is in its final form. Sweet either way!


Don’t be surprised if your British friend tells you jelly’s for dessert—you won’t be eating out of a jar. Jelly in the UK is the same as good ol’ fashioned American jello. The jel– in both words likely relates to the gel- in the gelatin used to make the dessert (or pudding, as desserts are called in the UK). But what about PB&Js;? A gelatin sandwich would be disgusting no matter where you live. Luckily the British don’t have to change the ‘J’ in the abbreviation, because they eat their sammies with jam. While we’re on the subject of jiggly sweets, jellybeans are called jelly babies in the UK. Still made from the same gelatinous substance, but shaped into little ‘babies’ instead of ‘beans.’


If you order a lemonade in London, prepare for some bubbles! Unlike in the US, lemonade is a colorless lemon fizzy drink in the UK. Lemonade can also be used for the drink Americans are familiar with, made with lemons, sugar, and water. But in the US, if the drink’s fizzy, a word like sparkling or carbonated will come as fair warning on a menu. There are actually three types of lemon beverages. Clear lemonade is made from lemons and water or carbonated water, with no sugar added. Cloudy lemonade, made with lemons, water, and sugar, is traditional in India, the US, and Canada. And a ‘fizzy lemon beverage’ is where sugar is added to the clear bubbly version. Next time you turn lemons into lemonade, which kind will you make?


If you’re aware of this British term, it might be because Harry Potter makes several references to the sweet, sticky stuff. Or maybe you’ve heard the word in its figurative sense, of being contrived, overly sentimental, or sappy. Treacle is the British word for molasses, a thick sticky liquid byproduct in the process of refining cane sugar (there are slight differences in where in the process molasses and treacle come from, but we’re keeping this sweet and simple). Golden syrup is the lighter version of treacle, and black treacle is deeper in flavor and color. The syrup was originally used as a medicine to treat poisonous bites from snakes and other animals. Treacle is deliciously decadent in gingerbreads and sticky toffee pudding.

100s & 1000s

No, we’re not about to make any calculations. Hundreds and thousands is the British term for sprinkles, the tiny beads of colored sugar or candy-coated chocolate that decorate cookies, cakes, fairy cakes, ice cream, and other adorn-able confections. The British are onto something with this phrase, appropriately calling these tiny rainbow nuggets by a name that honors their ‘uncountability.’ It also fittingly high-fives the Dutch term hagelslag, or “hail storm,” which is what hundreds and thousands of hundreds and thousands might resemble on a cake if you’re a little too heavy-handed!


After too many swigs of this stuff, we’ll forget our table manners and plunk down the plonk. This fabulously ugly-sounding word is a British term for cheap, inferior wine. We don’t tend to use this word here in the US, but we do have some decent compound equivalents, like “bottom shelf,” or (a fave), “cardbordeaux.” We should add “plonk” to the list, because you know we’ve got way more bad oenophiles out there who don’t care about the swirl-and-sniff snobbery. They’d rather get bonk on plonk.

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Word of the Day

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Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day

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