London slang, getting lost in translation

A student reflects on the many cultural differences she experienced while interning abroad.


I sat there for a moment, staring at my phone screen, trying to figure out what “cba” meant. 

I’d been living in London for about a month and texting a British guy for a couple of weeks. We had gone on one date. But I just couldn’t decode this text I’d received from him. 

Was it something to do with his job? Some company I didn’t know about? It sounded more like an acronym for a weird government department than anything I had heard of before. 

A few minutes of Googling later, I found my answer. “Cba” was the cousin of the more polite “can’t be bothered.” It stands for “can’t be arsed.” 

As most Americans would, I laughed a little bit. 

Recently, it seems like everyone and their mother is spending semesters abroad, and I admittedly was no different. 

I had never even been on a plane before. The farthest from Pennsylvania I had ever traveled was South Carolina or Maine. So I was expecting a massive culture shock, and at first, it didn’t really happen. 

Being American in an international city like London generally wasn’t that weird. Yes, some things weren’t familiar, like food choices or worrying about being obnoxious on public transportation. But it wasn’t like I needed to learn another language or mannerisms entirely. 

At least, in theory.

I felt strangely comfortable in London. After a few weeks, I had already passed the touristy point and knew my way around the city. I had the Tube route announcements memorized. I figured out whether I was a Waitrose, Tesco or Sainsbury’s kind of grocery person. I visited enough places to give tourists insider tips. 

This feeling of comfort changed when I started working and dating in the city though. That’s when I realized how the smallest differences can be so startling.

It all started with learning strange texting language like “cba,” but it progressed into me absentmindedly spelling “favorite” with the letter “u.” I also realized no one besides my roommates from Temple University understood my American slang. 

At my internship, my office had a completely separate hot water tap just for tea, and our cabinets were filled with mugs. Eating at your desk earned you extremely odd looks and going out to the pub after work was a huge part of office culture. 

While Americans can be seen as too upfront or abrupt, British work culture revolves a lot around indirect direction. This may sound counterintuitive, but phrases like “when you get a chance” or “when you have time, can you look into that” are commonplace, but not literal. 

They really mean “complete this as soon as possible.” 

I once used the phrase, “dress pants” to describe business formal wear to a co-worker. Based on the mix of horror and confusion on her face, I slowly remembered “pants” is the word for what Americans would call underwear. 

During all of this, I slowly got used to the culture. Sometimes, I still felt like the stereotypical American girl, but I was able to fit in fairly well most times. 

A few months later, the guy who taught me weird British slang became my boyfriend. And the city — thousands of miles from Main Campus and my family — felt like home. 

Now on a pretty regular basis, you can hear an English accent bouncing around my apartment through FaceTime, although my boyfriend uses American slang now way more than ever.

I’ve definitely picked up on some of his terms too. 

I say “mate” more than I probably should and have replaced my previous usage of “to be honest” with “to be fair.” And when I use that phrase in my texts as “tbf,” I confuse my American counterparts in the process.

A few times, I even caught myself saying “two-pound 50” or “75 p” in place of American monetary terms. 

And while my boyfriend and I still confuse each other sometimes by using specific terms that get lost in translation or interpreting things a certain way, we always seem to work it out. 

But there are a few words I can’t see myself using, no matter how integrated I become. I can’t imagine my Philadelphia tinged accent sounding any less ridiculous by using words like “gaff” to describe my house, or “boot” instead of “car trunk.” I’m sure my British counterparts would agree. 

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