MED Magazine - Issue 15 - January 2004

Shopping in American and British English
by Susan Stempleski

In a department store

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 useful.

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 them later.

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 in Britain.

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'.

Shop or store?

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 grocer's.

American British
bookstore bookshop
candy store sweet shop
fish store fishmonger's
fruit and vegetable store greengrocer's
grocery store grocer's
hardware store ironmonger's
jewelry store jeweller's
liquor store off-licence
newsstand newsagent's
stationery store stationer's

Chemist's, drugstores and pharmacies

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 and sold.

Other places to shop

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.

Buying secondhand

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.

Shopping for clothes

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 clothing:

American British
bathrobe dressing gown
garters suspenders
nightgown nightdress
pantyhose tights
parka anorak
sneakers trainers
tuxedo dinner jacket/suit
windbreaker windcheater

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.

A final note

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 supply.

Next in the series

The final article in this series will discuss American and British differences in vocabulary related to food and cooking.

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