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07/05/2012 / van berger

Speaking another language: American vs South African English

Lately I’ve been noticing that there are so many words and terms that we refer to differently in South Africa. I often get blank stares when I ask for certain items in shops or restaurants and have started to begrudgingly switch from South Africanisms to Americanisms just so people understand me a bit better. There are however some things the patriotic South African in me won’t change: a barbeque will always be a braai!

I’ve started making a list of all these words and thought it would make a fun blog post (and perhaps helpful to both Americans visiting SA and visa versa).

Here’s my dictionary list of terms so far:
(They are in no particular order)

A pot pie is kind of a strange term for us South Africans. After all, is there really ‘pot’ or ‘weed’ in these pies? This is California after all (see my last post on medical marijuana). I presume they added the word ‘pot’ because the dish is cooked in a pot and not a pie dish like their ‘traditional pie’ which is usually sweet (apple pie or sweet potato pie). Think of the diner experience where you order a slice o’ pie which you wash down with horrible coffee.

I got laughed at when I said D and I hired a car. Apparently it sounds quite ‘ bourgeois’ to Americans.

Sweets here means dessert, so anything that’s related to skittles, starbursts, jelly beans (yum!), etc is referred to as candy.

On a recent road trip with friends, they tried to use the word ‘robot’ in every sentence simply because it does sound pretty funny  to hear ‘turn left at the robot’!

I don’t think we have ‘half and half’ in SA. It’s a weird concoction of half milk and half cream (typically you can choose it in a coffee shop or buy it at the super market). They also have full fat and skim milk obviously.

American’s don’t use the word ‘mince’ and I suppose to them it would appear that we were saying ‘mints’.

They laugh when you say  you’re ‘just going to the loo’ as it’s seen as quite a posh term that the British use. Sometimes when I ask where the bathroom is I have to really emphasize the ‘a’ otherwise they look at me blankly. When I pronounce it the way they do, they act like it’s a revelation ‘Oh, the baaaathroom!’ haha.

It’s the same word, but the pronunciation can cause real confusion! I often have to americanise ‘water’ emphasizing the r at the end in order to be understood. (Although I do think it’s cool that you automatically get brought glasses of water in restaurants here- you don’t have to ask. They don’t seem to mind if that’s all you want to drink.)

We had a funny discussion with the same set of road trip friends (see above robot jokes) about how odd both of these terms actually are – a costume here implies ‘Halloween costume’ while a suit for us is…well just that – a ‘suit’ (with a tie usually).

This is a lame one, but as a temporary house-girlfriend  I’m the one doing most of the clothes washing. So I thought it was interesting that they call such a mundane term something else and that actually most of the time it only comes in liquid form.

D and I been confused for over 4 months now over what on earth a ‘entrée’ is in America. In South Africa an entrée would typically refer to a starter, but over here it’s the same thing as a main. A starter in the US is called an appetizer. They often have both mains and entrées (essentially the same thing) on a menu which is very confusing.

Most South Africans know this from US TV shows. However I was surprised to find that there are actually ‘biscuits’ here which aren’t ‘cookies’, but a savoury ‘breakfast meal’ that’s a sort of pastry biscuit often served with gravy.

A jersey over here is a ‘football jersey’ – yes those ugly things with the numbers and surnames of the players that the cool kids wear. They call a jersey a sweater (which I suppose you do sweat in when it’s hot!)

(Pictures sourced from Pinterest

More Americans are starting to use the term ‘bill’ over here, but ‘cheque’ is more popular (i.e when asking for your bill at the end of a meal). On a side note – they really do still use cheques in a big way over here! The internet banking in SA is way better.  Another side note- it’s usually expected that you pay a 15-20% tip on your bill in the USA (compared to 10% in SA).

Americans say they’re off to the store instead of the shop. A subtle difference, but interesting nonetheless.

This is another obvious one to us South Africans. However,  I had never tasted ‘american bbq’ before which is in fact a type of food popular in many restaurants. It’s typically a meat such as ‘pulled pork’ or ‘brisket’ which they slow cook for ages and then serve with a slightly sweet tangy sauce. It’s often served with corn bread and other comfort food on the side (like macaroni & cheese and coleslaw).

Americans call cool drinks ‘soda’. It is common for more Southern states to call it ‘pop’ which I think is cute.

I still find it strange to hear people talk about the price of gas as opposed to petrol. Never mind the fact that you have to fill up your own tank at a gas station. The first time D and I tried we looked like the biggest idiots, not knowing what we were doing and how to pay!

I always assumed napkins were the cloth version of serviettes, but over here they’re all called napkins.

Oh how we miss good old ‘All Gold’ tomato sauce! Most of the ‘ketchup’ here contains high-fructose corn syrup which is incredibly evil. If you had to order tomato sauce in an American restaurant I presume they would bring you some sort of tomato pasta sauce.

I think this is a weakness in South African English – we don’t really have names to show the difference between packet chips and greasy chips except for occasionally putting ‘slap’ in front of it. For the Americans reading this: ‘slap’ isn’t pronounced like a ‘slap in the face’, but rather like ‘slupp’ emphasizing the ‘up’. It’s a slang word and refers to soft chips. The french fries in America don’t have anything French about them, but I guess at least they know the difference when they talk about the two types.

Does anyone have any others they’d like me to add? Let me know in the comments below! 



Leave a Comment
  1. BB22 / Jul 5 2012 17:31

    I’m American dating a South African. We will regularly get into discussions using different words to describe the same things and get completely confused! It’s wonderful! Here are a few to add to your list:

    Dust Bin vs. Trash Can
    Cabinet vs. Cupboard vs. Closet – I still get this one wrong!
    Waistcoat vs. Vest
    Boot vs. Trunk
    Packet vs. Bag
    Pram vs. Stroller
    “Give her a ring” vs. “Call her/Phone her”

    I liked “All Gold” ketchup, but you CAN find an organic “Heinz” brand that’s really delicious:|13652417&CPNG=kitchen&ci_src=13736960&ci_sku=13652417&

    • van berger / Jul 5 2012 17:47

      Thanks those are some great additions to the list 🙂
      Completely forgot about boot vs trunk- that’s a big one!
      I have actually found the organic Heinz which I bought which is MUCH better- it just sucks not knowing what you’re going to get at a restaurant.

  2. J.Pharis / Jul 18 2013 00:43

    Just a quick correction: In the US, “pop” is an almost exclusively NORTHERN term. In the South, everything is just called “Coke.” Source: I’m a born and bred Louisianan. Also, here:

    • van berger / Jul 18 2013 00:58

      Thanks for the correction- appreciate it! Very interesting that Coke has become such a popular term that it’s used to refer to all soda!

  3. Leender / Dec 6 2013 06:38

    I’m 14yrs old male a South African but i can see and hear the difference on American Movies and Music.
    SAE VS AmE.

    Accelerator vs Gas Pedal
    Shopping Trolley vs Shopping Cart
    Headmaster Vs Principal
    Soccer Vs Football
    Lorry Vs Truck
    Ground Floor Vs First Floor
    Cinema Vs Movie Theater
    Colour Vs Color
    Chappies Vs Chewing Gum/ Gum
    Boerwors Vs Sausage
    Cheque Vs Check
    Anywhere Vs Anyplace
    Grade 10 Vs 10th Grade
    Pavement Vs Sidewalk
    Taxi Vs Cab
    Bathroom Vs Restroom
    Maths Vs Math
    Super/Flying kick Vs Karate
    Flat Vs Apartment
    Magistrate Vs Lawyer
    Stalk Sweet Vs Lollipop
    Sofa Vs Couch
    Poppey Vs Cartoons
    Police Vs Police officer /Cop
    Match Vs Game

  4. Steve / Jun 14 2014 01:36

    “Just Now” .. though Americans do not use that term, I think most of us would naturally assume “just now” to mean “immediately” or close to it. I dated a South African girl and travelled to SA several times. It seemed that for South Africans “Just Now” can mean anything – from immediate to sometime next week … or month. I found that confusing and frustrating/disappointing at times.

    I also dated an Australian girl in the past. I find South African English shares more in common with Australian English than with American English.

  5. Vanessa / Oct 28 2014 13:08

    I’m a South African who moved to Arkansas a year ago…
    Some of the others I have come across are:
    Tap vs faucet
    And in the world of babies:
    Nappy vs diaper
    Dummy vs pacifier/paci/binky
    Pram vs stroller
    And here in the south they often refer to a plastic packet as a sack… the first time someone said “would you like a sack?” I was like “sorry, a what?”
    Oh, and for whatever reason no one seems to understand me when I try order a coke! ;-P

  6. Sarah Sensenig / Jan 23 2015 19:18

    Reblogged this on Til-the-Day and commented:
    Someone else’s blog post comparing South African English and American English. Because I haven’t had time…
    And Mrs. Kerry Sensenig will “soon” be here!
    Plus, it’s cool coming from the African perspective.

  7. Donovan / Jan 23 2015 20:22

    Great post!

    I’m a South African who lived in the States for 12 years. A few more:

    – hood vs bonnet
    – glove box vs cubby hole
    – truck/ pick-up vs bakkie
    – apartment vs flat (and “apartment complex” vs “block of flats”)
    – chapstick vs lip ice (Americans found this one pretty funny!)
    – q-tip vs ear bud

    Food ones:
    – papaya vs pawpaw
    – zucchini vs baby marrow
    – egg plant vs brinjal
    – cantaloupe/ honey dew vs spanspek
    – pickles vs gherkins
    – American smarties are not SA smarties! They’re not even chocolate!
    – What we call pancakes, Americans call crepes. And what they call pancakes are what we might think of as giant crumpets.
    – In South Africa, you hear “chilli” and you think a spicy pepper. In America, it could have that meaning, but it also refers to a stew.
    – Have you noticed that some cereals have different names? Same brand, but different names. “Kellogg’s Frosties” are “Kelogg’s Frosted Flakes”, and “Coco Pops” are “Cocoa Krispies”…

    • van berger / Jan 24 2015 12:22

      Thanks for those additions to the list! 😃 quite insane how we speak the same language but have so many different terms!

  8. Donovan / Jan 23 2015 20:34

    One more crazy one: Have you heard Americans refer to a white vest as a “wife beater”!? Apparently it has something to do with the stereotype of what a lazy, drunk, abusive husband would be wearing as he lounges around his house all day. What a name for a piece of clothing!

  9. supakwai / Jun 17 2015 20:22

    Very interesting comparisons!

    I’m a South African living in Taiwan which uses American English as well
    American English don’t have “now now” nor “just now”

    I’ve had a bad encounter with asking for “water” in Starbucks when I was visiting the US, I had to repeat water many times in order to get my waaaater!

  10. Chantal / Jun 30 2016 17:02

    Doo doo in south Africa means to sleep. You tell this to your toddler

  11. Colleen / Oct 13 2016 00:10

    I would sometimes just want to understand the cooking shows. The ingredients they refer to sometimes are things i never heard of. I know we have the ingredients in south Africa but because we name it differently its difficult to follow he show. Please help with some of the names in cooking. One thing im stuck on is “Salontro”hope im spelling it correctly. What is it in South Africa?

    • van berger / Oct 13 2016 00:13

      Hi Colleen. Cilantro is the same thing as Coriander in South Africa. Another one I can think of is Arugula in America is the same thing as Rocket here. Hope that helps 🙂

      • Colleen / Oct 13 2016 00:18

        Thanks. .that really does help….i want to try making some of these dishes but thr names throe me off more often than not….

      • Colleen / Oct 13 2016 00:19

        Thank you .that really does help….i want to try making some of these dishes but thr names throe me off more often than not….

  12. Colleen / Oct 13 2016 00:16

    Lol…i love this one….Im South African and another one only we understand is an afrikaans one that goes “ja…nee”…..basically translates into English as “yes…no”…which means i understand……lol….South African is a lovely langauge sometimes

  13. Helen / May 24 2017 14:42

    Well of all place, I am learning about American language in Chia. How about kokis vs felt tip pens and a pram vs a stroller and then there is tekkies vs trainers and naartjies vs mandarine.

    • van berger / Jun 27 2017 23:32

      Those are good additions to the list!

  14. Michael Yale / Jun 27 2017 11:53

    Thank you for this. We are American’s visiting South Africa for the first time and stumbled across this information and find it very helpful!

    • van berger / Jun 27 2017 23:32

      Pleasure! So glad it came in handy 🙂 Enjoy your stay in SA


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