MED Magazine - Issue 15 - January
Shopping in American and British
by Susan Stempleski
While the term department store has been part of
the vocabulary of both British and American English for more than a hundred
years, a British speaker who goes shopping in a department store in the
U.S. will almost immediately notice some differences in American and British
vocabulary. For example, whereas in Britain a customer will be waited
on by a shop assistant, in the U.S. a customer will be helped by
a sales clerk (pronounced as if were spelled 'clurk') or a salesperson.
And in American department stores people usually go to a cashier
to pay for their purchases, while in Britain they pay for them at a cash
desk or a paying desk. If you are planning to go shopping in
an American department store, you will probably find the following expressions
A bargain basement is an area in a department
store, usually the floor below ground level, where you can buy things
at reduced prices.
A charge account is an account that you have
with a store which allows you to make your purchases with a charge
card (a plastic card issued by the particular store) and pay for
A gift certificate (called a gift token
or gift voucher in Britain) is a gift card or document that you
buy in a store as a present for someone, so they can come to the store
later and exchange it for an item they want: My sister gave me a
$50 gift certificate for my birthday!
A sales slip is a somewhat old-fashioned term
that some Americans still use to refer to the small piece of paper that
a sales clerk gives you listing the items you have bought, but nowadays
most Americans call this a receipt, the same term that is used
A sales tax is a tax that is added to the basic
price of an item you buy. In the United States, this tax is collected
by local governments (city or state), and it varies a great deal (between
0.05 and 10% of the purchase price) from place to place. Only five of
the fifty states in the U.S. have no sales tax: Alaska, Delaware, Montana,
New Hampshire and Oregon.
Cash or credit? If you want to buy something
in an American department store, the sales clerk will probably ask,
'Cash or credit?' What this means is, 'Do you want to pay for
your purchase with cash, or do you want to charge it to a credit card?'
Depending on how you want to pay for the item, you should answer by
saying something like, 'That'll be cash' or 'That'll be credit'.
The nouns shop and store are used somewhat
differently in American and British English. In general, Americans use
store the way the British use shop to describe any
room or building where people can buy things or pay for a service. Most
British shops would be called stores in the United States,
where the noun shop is more often used to mean a small retail establishment,
such as an antique shop or gift shop. Notice in the following
list how frequently Americans use the word store in the names for
different places to shop. Notice, too, how Americans use the ending -y,
as in grocery, and the British use the ending -s, as in
|fruit and vegetable
Unlike the British, Americans don't go to chemist's,
at least not when they need aspirin. When Americans need medicine, they
go to a drugstore or a pharmacy. A drugstore is a
store that sells medicines and other items, such as body care products,
stationery, watches and cigarettes. Some drugstores, especially
members of large American retail chains such as Rite Aide or CVS, may
even have a one-hour photo processing department on the premises, where
customers can have photos developed and printed. A pharmacy, like
a drugstore, is a store that sells medicines and (often) other
items, but it can also be part of a store, where medicines are prepared
American English has some special terms to describe special
shopping areas or other types of stores found in the United States. Here
is a list of the most important ones:
A convenience store is a small store, open for
long hours, that sells a variety of goods, especially food and drinks,
cigarettes, newspapers and magazines.
A discount store or discount house is
where Americans go when they want to save money. A discount store
is usually large and sells goods at prices that are lower than usual.
This can be for a variety of reasons. The store may employ fewer salespeople;
it does not offer credit accounts; it has no delivery service; the decor,
if there is any, may be very simple; the fitting rooms where customers
try on clothes may be shared by several people at the same time.
A mall or shopping mall (called a shopping
centre in Britain) is a very large building (or group of buildings)
that contains a large number of stores and restaurants, sometimes a
movie theater, and usually has plenty of space outside for parking:
Sarah likes to hang out at the mall with her friends.
An outlet (sometimes called a factory outlet)
is a store that sells the goods of a particular company or goods of
a particular type, often at prices that are lower than usual: The
company has hundreds of outlets nationwide.
A shopping center is an area where a group of
different stores and businesses such as banks and restaurants are all
built next to each other: There's a little shopping center next door
with a bank, a pizza shop, and a dry-cleaning place.
A shopping strip (the American equivalent to
what some British people call a parade of shops) is a group of
shops and businesses that fronts onto a road or highway, and is often
located outside or at the edge of a town or city.
A variety store is a general store, smaller
than a department store, which sells a very wide range of items
everything from clothing and cameras to gardening equipment usually
at low prices.
Americans are always on the move, and for that reason
it's always easy to find secondhand goods especially household
items for sale. Here are some of the most common terms associated
with this type of shopping:
A garage sale (sometimes called a yard sale)
is an occasion when people sell things, often in their garage or outside
their house, which they no longer want. People often advertise these
kinds of sales in local newspapers or on signs they post on the streets
near the place where the sale will be held.
A rummage sale (what the British call a jumble
sale) is a sale of a mixed collection of things that people no longer
want, especially in order to make money for an organization.
A thrift shop (called a charity shop in
Britain) is a store run by a charitable organization, such as the Salvation
Army, which collects and then sells items like clothes, sports equipment,
or furniture that people no longer want. The money that is collected
is donated to an old people's home, hospital, or some other institution.
Speakers of American and British English call many items
of clothing by exactly the same name: blouse, jacket, shirt
and skirt, for example. In other cases, they use completely different
words and expressions to indicate what is essentially the same item of
Some other clothing terms are used in both varieties
of English but to describe very different sorts of things, as is
the case with the following:
The word jumper exists in both American and British
English, but whereas the British use the word jumper to refer
to a warm piece of knitted clothing that covers the top half of the
body, for Americans a jumper is a sleeveless dress that is worn over
a shirt or blouse. What the British called a jumper is called
a sweater by Americans.
In Britain pants are underwear, the things men
wear underneath their trousers. But in America men wear pants
over their underwear, since pants is the most common American
word for the British term trousers. If you are in an American
store and want to buy what the British call pants, you should
ask for men's shorts or briefs.
For what the British mean by vest, Americans
say undershirt, and for what Americans mean by vest, the
British say waistcoat. Thus, an American wears a vest
over a shirt, while an Englishman wears one underneath.
While American and British English show some differences
in vocabulary related to shopping and other common activities, all evidence
suggests that the two varieties of the language are moving closer together.
The movement is mostly eastward. Each year, more words that were once
exclusively American are found in the spoken and written language of both
Britain and the U.S. For example, a generation or so ago, the use of rain
check (a piece of paper you can use to buy something later that is
not available at the moment) would immediately identify its user as an
American, but today more than one store in Britain uses rain checks
as the name for the vouchers it gives out when special offers are in short
The final article in this series will discuss American
and British differences in vocabulary related to food and cooking.
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