plumbing the depths for words

I was at a party again today. It must be the party season, as I've got another to go to tomorrow. Thank goodness. If it weren't for parties, I'd just be sitting alone at my computer most of the time, not having interesting interactions with British English.

First thing to note about the party was that once again someone I'd just met assumed I was Canadian. I'm going to start keeping track of these. That'll be number 1.

Second thing to note is an interesting Cocktail Party Effect I experience. The Cocktail Party Effect is our ability to tune into one conversation and ignore others in a noisy environment, but while still apparently paying enough attention to the surrounding noise to switch our attention when someone in another conversation says our name. I've noticed that I switch attention when others say American or the States, etc. I can't help but (BrE) earwig (=eavesdrop).

Today I found myself listening to the end of a conversation between Better Half's Sister and Distant Relation. DR is an Englishman with a vacation home in South Carolina (first time I've come across that combination!). He's trying to supervise some plumbing work from a distance, and was saying that "everything there has a different name." I didn't catch all of the examples, but did get (BrE) tap versus AmE faucet and BrE bath vs AmE tub. I can add the following. Some of these you would hear in either country, but different words are preferred in the two countries.

sink trapU-bend
(toilet) tankcistern
hot-water heatergeyser (for certain types)

All of this ignores discussion of what to call a toilet or the room in which a toilet stands. I'm saving that for another time. [Now available here.] Meanwhile, can anyone add to the plumbing list? I know there are more differences out there...


  1. Not specifically having to do with the "plumbing" itself...but...I've noticed that my English husband will "have a shower", while I "take a shower".



  2. This works the same for baths as well--the British have them and Americans take them. A lot of these so-called light verbs differ in British and American--I'll have to write about them sometime...

    I looked for a link to a definition of light verb, but couldn't find one, so here's one from a paper by Tan, Kan & Cui:

    "A light verb construction (LVC) is a
    verb-complement pair in which the verb
    has little lexical meaning and much of the
    semantic content of the construction is ob-
    tained from the complement." (the complement, loosely speaking, is the stuff that has to come after the verb--the sentence would lose its grammaticality or sense if it were left out)

  3. Hello, in my English home a sink is a sink when it is in the kitchen or utility room but it is a basin when it is in the bathroom (where the bath is !), shower-room (note hyphen to seperate 'r') or in the loo, toilet, w.c. (name of room shortened from water closet), cloakroom, or en-suite (next to the bedroom). Perhaps a 'sink' is utilitarian, and a basin is for personal use. The type of sink for a bottom is of course a bidet.

  4. Good point. I think I was being rather bathroom-focus(s)ed, following on from the bathroom-focus(s)ed conversation that inspired the entry.

    People talk about plumbing fixtures a lot more around here, I think. No one I know in the US has re-done their bathroom to the extent that they got a new sink/basin, etc. But it seems like half the people I know in Southeast England have entirely replaced their bathroom, shower-room, or loo in the past 5 years! (And it's not that the people I know here are in a higher socio-economic class than my American friends/family!)

  5. I visited English friends who had moved to the States in 1971 - their standard of living was much higher than it had been in England. That is perhaps why we are replacing bathrooms - we are just catching up !

  6. You're right about the catching up--there are a lot of old bathrooms in this country that need replacing. But I also know some perfectly good bathrooms that have been changed in the name of fashion. A lot of it I think has to do with the real estate market here (out of control!) and the appetite for house-porn (e.g. tv shows about decorating, selling houses, buying houses, stately homes, interesting homes, etc.). There's probably a reason why the word house-proud came about in Britain!

  7. When I am in Florida they always refer to the toilet as The Commode when they refer to the toilet bowl/pan itself.
    Imagine my confusion though when going to The Home Depot (B & Q) when looking for a door handle to be told in one section, that I needed to go to the 'hardware department'! Duh, I thought it was a Hardware Store (shop)or BrE Shed
    AmE shed!!

  8. "House-proud" reminds me of that song by Madness -

    Our house, in the middle of our street... our mum she's so house-proud

    I guess the Brits were proud of their houses even way back in the 80's before the DIY craze hit.

  9. Re: It being assumed you're a Canadian

    This is quite normal in the UK.
    If we hear someone with a North American accent and can't place it accurately we ask if they're a Canadian. If you ask a Canadian if they're an American they feel quite insulted. If you ask an American if they're a Canadian they usually don't mind :)
    That's also probably why Canadians cover their bags and jackets with maple leaf badges while they're travelling, in the hope that they won't be mistaken for an American.

  10. I have two plumbing questions that are more cultural than lexical, coming from British fiction from some decades back. One: why are "drains" such an embarrassing but necessary subject? Nobody ever brings them up in American fiction. Two: why do English people apologize to foreigners for "our weather, our cooking and our plumbing"? I understand the first two (though the cooking has improved a good deal), but why apologize for plumbing? Perhaps my two questions are connected -- British drains are somehow more problematic than other people's?
    Otherwise, my own experience of British plumbing is that it's pretty much what I'm used to, except that the hot and cold taps/faucets in the basin/sink are separate in the UK, making a comfortable temperature for rinsing hard to achieve.

  11. I believe the same have/take distinction applies to one of the things people do while sitting on the short white appliance which may or may not be found near the bathing apparatus. This is the one that converts to an adjective unchanged in BrE but always takes -y in AmE.

    For what it's worth, lavatory to a plumber means the sink, and etymologically that's right.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. DR is an Englishman with a vacation home in South Carolina
    In Australia, one would refer to a "holiday house" (or, less frequently and perhaps more pretentiously, "holiday home"). I wonder if it is the same in British English?

  14. You're right, one would. I don't always catch all of my Americanisms.

  15. Despite the date, I'm going to say something that does not appear to have been said (including in the more recent post that linked me here): "tap" is not strictly BrE. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm more likely to get water from the tap than the faucet (after all, it is tap water), but maybe that's just another one of my NYC/LI idiosyncrasies.

  16. The collocation 'tap water' is definitely AmE, but in other contexts it's possible, but rare. For instance, there's only one instance of 'tap' coming within four words of 'drip' in the Corpus of Historical American English (and that's from a play), whereas there are 13 with 'faucet'.

    Ben Yagoda has been noticing a lot of BrEisms coming into AmE on his blog, and I think that his data is very much focussed on the NYC area--so I wonder if your experience is part of a somewhat local trend...

  17. a couple (of) things: was interested in your comment about bathroom fittings being replaced Lynne: I'd also been getting the impression that my UK friends and family replace their bathrooms (and, for that matter, their kitchens) more readily than my US friends: interesting to hear that confirmed by someone else. Secondly I think the British apologise for their plumbing because the water pressure is usually too low to take a decent shower.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)