Fun facts about the English language
and other things that are good to know
Whether you’re a native speaker or it’s your second language, we’ve compiled some fun facts and other ‘good to knows’ about the English language for you.
Most of the content here is light-hearted, with the aim of making you smile. Having said that, some entries are quite matter-of-fact with the objective of shedding some light on those mysteries that surround the English language. Quite a few of the bite-sized language snippets you’ll find here contain information and knowledge that we’ve picked up over the years whilst proofreading and editing or translating for our clients.
This list of fun facts is by no means exhaustive just yet, and we’ll continually be adding more. Should you have a language-related query about either English or German which we haven’t covered, then we’d love to hear from you.
Enough said. We hope that despite English being weird at times, the fun facts on this page can be understood through tough thorough thought though… (And there are plenty more oddities where that came from!)
Click on the categories below for some English-related fun. You might even learn something in the process and improve your communication skills!
What they mean:
“I’m not leaving the house today unless it’s on fire.”
What the rest of the world think they mean:
I’ll see them later.
What they mean:
“Please re-write it completely.”
What the rest of the world think they mean:
They’ve found a few typos.
What they mean:
“I’ve forgotten it already.”
What the rest of the world think they mean:
They will probably do it.
In British English, the term ‘pound sign’ refers to the currency (£), whereas in US English, it refers to ‘#’ (which the Brits call hashtag).
Informal US English often uses the simple past with adverbs such as already, ever, just and yet, whereas British English is more likely to use the present perfect. E.g.
Did you write that yet? (AE)
Have you written that yet? (BE)
Americans say ‘airplane’ to describe the flying vehicle, whereas the Brits say ‘aeroplane’.
The Brits make their moussaka using aubergines, whilst Americans use eggplants.
In a restaurant, a Brit would ask for the bill and an American would ask for the check.
In the UK, a car has a bonnet, but in the US it has a hood.
In the USA, people eat fries, and in the UK, people eat chips. Plus, American chips are actually British crisps.
Americans garnish their dishes with cilantro, whereas the Brits call the leafy herb ‘coriander’.
Both US and GB English use ‘different from’ when contrasting two things. ‘Different than’, however, is mainly used in US English, whilst ‘different to’ is used exclusively in British English.
In the USA, the game played on a chessboard using 24 disc-shaped pieces is called checkers, whilst the Brits refer to it as draughts.
In US English, ‘entrée’ means ‘main course’, whereas in British English, it refers to the dish you eat before the main course.
In the UK, houses are sold by estate agents, whilst in the US, this is done by realtors.
In the US, the word ‘bangs’ is used to refer to the hairstyle at the front of your head. In the UK, however, it’s called a fringe.
Brits change gear using a gearstick, while Americans change up or down using a gear lever or gear shift.
When they’re not at work, Americans go on vacation, whereas Brits go on holiday.
In the UK, it’s an indicator that tells other road users that a vehicle is turning left or right, whilst it’s a turn signal in the USA.
For most verbs that end with -ize or -ise, either termination is acceptable in British English. For some words, however, -ise is obligatory. These include advertise, disguise, exercise, surprise, advise and revise, to name just a few.
Brits call the red insect with black spots a ladybird, whereas this is known as a ladybug to Americans.
In US English, ‘mad’ is more commonly used to mean ‘angry’, whereas in British English, it usually means ‘insane’.
In the USA, children learn math. In the UK, they learn maths.
In US English, ‘momentarily’ means ‘IN a moment’ but in British English, it means ‘FOR a moment’.
Babies and toddlers wear nappies in the UK, and diapers in the USA.
In British English, ‘pants’ usually means ‘underpants’. In US English, ‘pants’ refers to the item of clothing worn on the legs (known as trousers in the UK).
Americans refer to the adhesive strip of material used for covering cuts and wounds as a Band-Aid, whereas this is called a plaster in the UK.
British addresses feature a postcode, whilst American ones contain a zip code.
Americans ride the waves in a sailboat, whilst the Brits hop on a sailing boat.
The Brits use Sellotape when wrapping a gift, while Americans use Scotch tape.
The Brits call the device fixed to the exhaust of a motor vehicle to reduce engine noise a silencer whereas in the US, it’s called a muffler.
The adjective ‘smart’ is most commonly used to mean ‘stylish’ and ‘upmarket’ in British English, whereas it usually means ‘intelligent’ in US English.
The Brits grip and turn nuts or bolts using a spanner, whilst Americans use a wrench.
A rutabaga is what Americans call the vegetable known as a swede in the UK.
In the UK, the handy portable source of light is called a torch; in the USA, it’s called a flashlight.
The Brits put their shopping in a trolley; in the USA, people put their groceries in a cart.
In the UK, people cross the road on a zebra crossing, while in the US, you get to the other side using a crosswalk.
Brits close their jacket or bag using a zip, whereas Americans use a zipper.
…but you can’t tuna fish. Unless, of course, you play bass.”
– Douglas Adams
…and was cited for littering.
…we finally got the ball rolling.
Alpaca my bags!
…really quack me up.
By pressing the paws button.
With his roars!
By using shell phones!
…but then it struck me.
My car got toad.
…so I know the drill.
One will see you in a while, the other will see you later!
…it will still be stationery.
…makes you well red.
They always were in a chord.
The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was brilliant!
That hit the spots!
A watch dog.
Hide and speak.
They come in packs.
Because they’re always stuffed!
To prove he wasn’t a chicken!
… on an abacus.
To secure something:
The garden furniture was bolted to the ground to prevent theft.
He jumped up and immediately bolted for the exit.
Heading to a destination:
I was relieved to finally be homeward-bound.
Restrained from movement:
She was bound and gagged before being tortured.
To connect something:
Anticipating turbulence, the passengers buckled their belts.
To break or collapse:
His legs buckled under the strain.
To attach something:
He always had a pen clipped to his shirt pocket, in ease of reach.
To cut something (off):
I clipped the hedge every few weeks to keep it tidy.
To keep doing something:
He continued along the pier to the very end.
In US law, to suspend legal proceedings:
The case was continued until June 24.
Pleasant and agreeable:
What a cool song!
His speech received a cool reception.
To add fine particles:
As a finishing touch, she dusted the cake with icing sugar.
To remove fine particles:
He dusted the crumbs off his trousers and onto the floor.
One or the other:
We’re planning to go on holiday next year, either to Greece or Malta.
There are houses on either side of the road.
He often enjoyed a fine wine with his dinner.
“How was your day?” – “It was fine.”
The least severe category of burn:
She suffered first-degree burns in a house fire.
In US law, the most severe category of murder charge:
He was looking at a life sentence for first-degree murder.
To add something, e.g. to food:
The chef garnished each dish with parsley.
To take something away, e.g. money:
The court garnished his wages.
An advantage that ensures equality:
She treats patients with severe mental and physical handicaps.
A disadvantage that prevents equal achievement:
Golfers work hard to bring down their handicaps.
You need to be quick, there’s only one left!
He left for Dover first thing this morning.
The alarm was off.
The alarm went off.
Plain and unchanged:
The original flavour is my favourite.
Novel and creative:
John is a nice name, but it’s not very original.
The sun’s out. Let’s have a BBQ!
By the time we arrived at the scene, the fire was already out.
It’s quite cold out today.
I quite agree.
To pay to use something:
I rent a small apartment in the centre of town.
To be paid for allowing someone to use something:
It states in my housing contract that I am not allowed to rent rooms to anyone.
The film was first screened on British television in 2015.
The pool area is screened by tall hedges.
To sow with seeds:
Spring is the perfect time to seed the lawn.
To remove the seeds from something:
The dinner party host seeded the tomato to his guest’s liking.
To fix in place:
The foundations were firmly set in concrete.
To get moving:
We set out on our journey at the crack of dawn.
Acting in a way that implies they have done something wrong:
He’s a very suspicious-looking fellow.
Suspecting that someone else has done something wrong:
I was suspicious of her motives.
To dispose of:
I haven’t worn this jacket in years, I should probably throw it out.
To present for consideration:
Let’s start throwing some ideas out there.
One particular kind:
Which variety of grape is the sweetest?
Many different kinds:
There was so much variety to choose from.
She hated her wicked stepmother.
Excellent (British, informal):
He’s a wicked DJ.
Unlike in German, since its entry in the OED was updated in October 2019, ‘ANGST’ is now also a verb in English.
‘Die Art’ means a type or kind of something rather than the English meaning of ‘art’!
The German verb ‘bekommen’ means ‘get/receive’, rather than ‘become’!
Being a billionaire in Germany makes you a trillionaire because ‘eine Billion’ means ‘one trillion’!
In Germany, a company’s ‘Chef’ is in fact the boss, not the guy who cooks the meals!
In German it’s 1,25; in English it’s 1.25.
‘Direktion’ doesn’t mean ‘direction’, it means ‘management’!
In German, ‘elf’ doesn’t refer to the mythical creature. It’s actually the number 11!
‘Eventuell’ looks like it should mean ‘eventually’, but in fact means ‘potentially’!
‘Fabrik’ isn’t ‘fabric’, it’s a ‘factory’!
Just to make things confusing, a ‘Fotograf’ is a photographer – not a photograph!
Telling a German that you have a ‘gift’ for them could result in some slightly concerned looks… ‘Gift’ means ‘poison’!
If you follow signs for a ‘Gymnasium’ in Germany, you’ll reach a school rather than a gym as you might expect!
‘Hochschule’ literally means ‘high school’. But to make things confusing, it actually means college or university!
‘Mist’ doesn’t mean the same in English. It’s actually a German profanity!
In education, ‘Noten’ aren’t your notes – they’re your grades!
„German quotation marks“ – “English quotation marks” – «Swiss quotation marks»
Ask for a ‘Rezept’ in a German shop and you’ll get a recipe, not a receipt!
In German, a ‘Rock’ is a ‘skirt’!
If you hear a German talking about their favourite ‘Roman’, you might be a bit confused. But they’re in fact talking about a novel!
‘Spenden’ means to donate money, rather than to spend it!
If a German describes you as ‘sympathisch’, it doesn’t mean they find you sympathetic; they think you’re a likable person!
‘Der Tag’ means ‘day’, not ‘tag’!
In Germany it’s 1.000.000, in the UK 1,000,000 and in Switzerland 1 000 000 or 1ʹ000ʹ000.
‘Unternehmer’ literally means ‘undertaker’, but actually means ‘entrepreneur’!
The German word ‘war’ means ‘was’, and is pronounced quite differently to the English noun ‘war’!
‘Ich will’ looks like it should mean ‘I will’, but it in fact means ‘I want’!
‘Winken’ doesn’t mean ‘to wink’. It means ‘to wave’!
The devil is in the detail: Whilst there’s nothing wrong with translating “Schrauben, Unterlegscheiben und Gegenmuttern” as “bolts, washers and nuts”, the English will jar on the ears of a native speaker, as the order is wrong – naturally, they’d say “nuts, bolts and washers”.
Two oddities to do with the number 2:
1) The English word ‘intestines’ has each of its letters occurring exactly twice!
2) The only English word that consists of two letters, each used three times, is the word ‘deeded’ (meaning ‘transferred by legal deed’).
The first number to contain an ‘a‘ when written out is one thousand.
In 2017, Oxford Dictionaries named ‘youthquake‘ the word of the year. It means ‘A significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’.
Find out why ‘youthquake’ was chosen as the word of the year here.
The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year 2018 was ‘toxic’.
Find out why it was chosen as the winner, what it was most collocated with, and which other words were shortlisted here.
In 2019, the Oxford word of the year was ‘climate emergency’ (defined as ‘a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it’).
Other words that were shortlisted for the 2019 word of the year can be found here.
The choice between ‘a’ and ‘an’ before an abbreviation depends on pronunciation, not spelling:
Use ‘an’ if the abbreviation starts with a vowel sound when spoken (an NHS hospital, an OBE, an SOS signal, etc.).
Use ‘a’ if it starts with a consonant sound (a KLM pilot, a UNICEF card, a BA degree, etc.).
‘Awful’ used to mean ‘full of awe’. Now, of course, it has a negative meaning.
A baby hedgehog is called a hoglet.
Interestingly, ‘bid’ in lower case is vertically symmetrical, and ‘BID’ in capital letters is horizontally symmetrical.
The word ‘comet’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘long-haired’.
Not all adjectives should have commas between them.
Can the adjective be used with ‘more’ or ‘less’? If so, a comma is needed.
A banana is a soft, mushy fruit.
Both ‘soft’ and ‘mushy’ can be made comparative, e.g. softer, less soft, mushier, less mushy.
No comma example:
A Kiwi is a small edible fruit.
A fruit cannot be ‘more’ or ‘less’ edible. It’s either edible or it’s not, so no comma!
Monday is the only day of the week that has an anagram: it’s dynamo!
When abbreviated, the days of the week consist of 3 letters with the exception of ‘Thursday’: Mon., Tue., Wed., Thur. (not ‘Thu.’), Fri., Sat., Sun.
That’s a tricky one causing confusion and debate – even among native English speakers! Here you can find out what’s correct in a question, USE to or USED to.
‘St’ (without a dot) is the contraction for ‘Saint’, whereas ‘St.’ (with a dot) is the abbreviation for ‘Street’.
When linking two words, the meaning is different depending on whether a hyphen or an en dash is used.
‘Blue-green’ (with a hyphen) means a bluish green colour, whereas ‘blue–green’ (with an en dash) means blue and/to green, e.g. used before ‘colour blindness’.
The expressions ‘fat chance’ and ‘slim chance’ both mean the same thing despite the two adjectives being opposites!
‘Fewer’ is used for people and things in the plural. For example, “Fewer students are enrolled on the course this year.”
And ‘less’ is used for something that cannot be be counted or doesn’t have a plural. For example, “This car uses less fuel than my previous vehicle.”
In non-technical contexts, Oxford style recommends using words for numbers below 100; in technical contexts, numbers up to and including ten are to be spelled out.
Traditionally, abbreviations end in full stops while contractions do not (e.g. lieut., cent., assoc., Dr, Ltd, Mrs).
No second full stop is needed if an abbreviation closes the sentence. E.g. The meeting starts at 10 a.m.
The most commonly used adjective is ‘good’ …and the most commonly used noun is ‘time’.
The English word ‘goodbye’ originates from an Old English phrase meaning ‘God be with you’.
Only three English words in current use end in ‘-gry’. They are ‘angry’, ‘hungry’ and ‘hangry’.
‘Made of’ and ‘made from’ are both used to describe the material of an object, but ‘made from’ indicates that the material of the object has been processed, so it is no longer in its original state. E.g. Chairs are made of wood. Paper is made from wood.
The term ‘mayday’ comes from the French ‘venez m’aider’ meaning ‘come help me’.
Ironically, ‘misspelt’ (‘misspelled’ in US English) is the most commonly misspelt word.
Mothering Sunday is not celebrated on the same day around the world. Whilst the event is celebrated in March in the UK, it takes place in May for the majority of countries.
Find out the exact dates for the UK here.
‘Dreamt’ and its derivatives are the only English words to end in ‘mt’.
Every odd number contains the letter ‘e’: one, three, five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, etc.
English is an official language in 79 countries and territories.
And it is the official language for maritime and aeronautical communications.
The shortest English word ending with ‘-ology’ is ‘oology’ – the study of birds’ eggs.
Most English words come from French or Old English, and some are loan words from other languages, e.g. from German.
A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backwards as it does forwards, for example ‘nurses run’.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the Panama hat doesn’t come from Panama but from Equador.
‘Polish’ is the only word in the English language that changes from a noun or verb to a nationality when it is capitalised.
A portmanteau is a word that combines two other words to create a new one. E.g. brunch (breakfast + lunch), hangry (hungry + angry), smog (smoke + fog), etc.
The letter Q is not always followed by a U in English. Exceptions include ‘burqa’ and ‘Iraqi’.
‘Queueing’ is the longest English word with five vowels in a row.
‘Rhythms’ is one of the longest English words that doesn’t contain any vowels.
The word ‘robot’ originates from the Slavonic word ‘robota’ which means ‘servitude’ or ‘forced labour’.
In English, scientific units are written out in lower case, even if they are derived from a personal name, e.g. ampere, joule, newton, volt, watt, etc. However, their corresponding symbols are written in upper case, e.g. A, J, N, V, W, etc.
The word with the most meanings in English is the word ‘set’. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 430 possible definitions, and the entry is over 60,000 words long!
When capitalised, the word ‘SWIMS’ is the same upside down.
Apparently, bilingual people will act more cautiously and take fewer risks when speaking in their second language.
There is a seven-letter word in the English language that contains ten words, without rearranging any of its letters: ‘therein’, which contains ‘the’, ‘there’, ‘he’, ‘in’, ‘rein’, ‘her’, ‘here’, ‘ere’, ‘re’, and ‘herein’.
The word ‘testify’ was derived from a time when men were required to swear on their testicles.
The only planet not named after a god is our own, Earth. The others are, in order from the Sun, Mercury, Venus, (Earth,) Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.
Abbreviations of organisations that can be said like a word don’t take the article word, but abbreviations where each letter has to be spelled out individually do. E.g. NASA, UNICEF, UNESCO, NATO, OPEC, etc. but the FBI, the CIA, the UN, the EU, the BBC, etc.
One of the longest English words that can be typed using the top row of a computer keyboard is ‘typewriter’.
There are only three words in the English language with the letter combination ‘uu’: vacuum, continuum and muumuu.
Inverted commas can be used to enclose an unfamiliar or newly coined word or phrase. In this case, they should only be used for the first occurrence of the word/phrase in a piece of work.
In restrictive relative clauses, either ‘which’ or ‘that’ can be used in British English, but only ‘which’ can be used in non-restrictive clauses.
Restrictive clauses don’t take commas, e.g. “The dog which had no tail barked all night long.” or “The dog that had no tail barked all night long.” (There were many dogs, but only the one with no tail was barking.)
Non-restrictive clauses on the other hand are enclosed by commas. The information within them can be omitted without affecting the meaning of the sentence, as it is an ‘extra detail’. E.g. “The dog, which had no tail, barked all night long.” (The dog was barking, and by the way it happened to have no tail.)