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4 More Differences Between the UK and US English. The Legal Systems – Part 3 (Plus Bonus Naughty Words)

Online Legal Translations > Blog  > 4 More Differences Between the UK and US English. The Legal Systems – Part 3 (Plus Bonus Naughty Words)

4 More Differences Between the UK and US English. The Legal Systems – Part 3 (Plus Bonus Naughty Words)

Today we are going to look at some more differences between the Legal Systems of the US and the UK— two countries separated by a common language.

The differences for legal professionals in the US and the UK are primarily found in 3 areas:

  • Educational Requirements
  • Types of Lawyers
  • Organization of the Courts

Thousands of pages could easily be written on these topics, so for the purposes of brevity, we will be making broad generalizations in this post.  We encourage you to conduct further research of your own in these areas, as they are fascinating topics for lawyers, language professionals in general.

BONUS – NAUGHTY WORDS!!  If you stick around to the end of this post, I promise to get to some silly stuff.  But first, let’s go to school.

Legal Education in the US

In general, after graduating from high school at about the age of 18, prospective American lawyers attend a college or university to obtain a 4-year degree called Bachelor’s degree, before being admitted to law school, which in the US is a 3-year, full-time program. After graduation, lawyers must pass a 2- to 3-day examination called the “bar exam,” which is required by each individual state in which the lawyer wishes to practice.

Legal Education in the UK

In general, in the UK, there are two main routes to becoming a lawyer. The first is known as the Law Graduate Route, where at about the age of 18, a prospective lawyer in the UK immediately begins a course of legal study for a Qualifying Law Degree, which is a 3-year program.  Following this, a 1-year Legal Practical Course is required.  Finally, 2 years of a sort of “on-the-job training” known as a Period of Recognized Training must be completed.

The other Route to becoming a lawyer in the UK, for a prospective lawyer who has a 3-year degree in an area other than the law, is called the Non-Law Graduate Route.  By this route, after said 3-year degree, prospective lawyers complete a 1-year Graduate Diploma in Law (sometimes called a “Conversion Course”), and then take the 1-year Legal Practical Course discussed in the paragraph above, as well as the 2-year Period of Recognized Training.

Different Types of Lawyers in the US

In the US, all lawyers are called “lawyers” or “attorneys” interchangeably, and are qualified to appear before courts on behalf of clients, but many lawyers, as in the UK, never enter a courtroom during their entire careers.

Different Types of Lawyers in the UK

In the UK there are two main types of lawyers—“barristers” and “solicitors.”  Very generally speaking, a solicitor may give advice and opinions to clients. A barrister may engage in these activities, as well as to make appearances on behalf of clients in a courtroom setting.

Court Systems in the US

In general, the US courts consist of three levels: the District, Appellate and Supreme Courts—similar to the UK’s 3 levels described below.  However, the US System also includes both federal and state courts, which operate concurrently deciding on somewhat overlapping areas of the law.  A person may appeal their case up through these three levels, in either the state or federal courts.  Appeals from the State Supreme Court may also be appealed directly to the US Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States.

Court Systems in the UK

There are 3 main levels of the courts in which a case may be heard in the UK.  First is the Crown Court, where a case is initiated, similar to the US’s District Court.  Next is the Court of Appeals, to which the decision of the Crown Court may be appealed, and finally, at the top, is the Supreme Court.

In both systems, there are also some specific courts for certain areas of the law such as bankruptcy, military matters, etc.

These are the most basic differences between the Legal Systems in the US and UK.  Comparisons of the two systems can be fascinating.  For some interesting and slightly more in-depth information, I recommend this article or this one.

Now, on to the Silliness:

I love British Comedy.  I grew up on “Are you Being Served,” “Monty Python” and “Fawlty Towers.” The irreverence of British comedy combined with wonderful characters make for some of the best comedy in the world.

Some of my biggest laughs have also come from innocuous uses of words or phrases in one form of English that mean something naughty in another form.  I learned many such expressions watching the brilliantly low-brow “Shameless.”

So, let’s jump right in, shall we?

Fanny. In the USA, “fanny” is an extremely innocent, even quaint way to refer to someone’s backside.  In the UK “fanny” references, in a not-so-polite way, a woman’s… lady parts.  In the US a “fanny pack” is one of those (horrible) belted pouches some people wear around their waists—especially tourists, apparently.  It is understandable why these things are called “bum bags” in the UK, but “bum bag” sounds to this American, like a good, all-purpose personal insult.

Mate.  In the UK “mate” is a totally normal and common way to refer to a friend, and can specifically distinguish such friendship from more romantic relationships.  “Are you dating?” “No, we’re just mates.”  In the US, we do not refer to our friends by this word.  “Mate” over here usually refers to procreation activities among animals.  If someone in the US says, “That’s my mate,” one might wonder if they are an animal behavior scientist, or just very unromantic.

Pants.  In the UK these are underwear, intimate apparel worn under a dress, skirt, shorts, trousers, etc.  In the US “pants” are said trousers, or more precisely, a generic term encompassing all long-legged garments.

Rubber.  An item used to correct mistakes made in pencil, right?  Nope, in the US this is a rather old-school, somewhat crude name for a condom.

Hooker.  Rugby is a sport that, much like Cricket and Soccer (Football), has sadly never caught on in the USA.  Not too many people in the US are familiar with the rugby position “hooker.”  So, when you tell someone in the US you have a favorite hooker, they might wonder why you are so open about patronizing prostitutes.

Shag. Ok, well prior to a certain 60s spy parody, in the US, the word “shag” referred to a women’s hairstyle with a long layer around the bottom, or carpeting for a room that featured long strands of fibers, and looked a bit like artificial grass.  In the UK “shags” are apparently a lot more interesting than that.

Taking the Piss/Pissed. In the UK, the phrase “Are you taking the piss” is akin to the American expressions “Are you pulling my leg?” or “Are you making fun of me?” In the US, the closest we come to that expression is “taking a piss,” which simply means urinating, if a bit slang. As for the word “pissed,” after 7 pints of Newcastle and only a packet of chips to eat, in the UK one would likely be “pissed,” or “drunk but not to the point of vomiting,” so I am told.  On the other hand, in the US, if your mate did vomit in your car after consuming said Newcastles, you would probably be “pissed,” or “extremely annoyed/angry.”

All silliness aside, navigating your way through UK and US English dialects can seem like trying to cross the North Atlantic in a hurricane, but it is certainly possible to gain a strong, professional command of these differences with a little research and a lot of practice.

Remember, this is not an exact science! I am sure some readers from both sides of the ocean are reading this and thinking “but we don’t say it like that!”  These dialects are just like translation itself. Ten different competent translators would translate the same document 10 different ways, and all would be correct.

When translating into a version of English which is not your “native dialect,” a sensible course of action is to create and develop a glossary-like document to which you may refer throughout your translation.  Build your toolbox of English dialects. When providing translations, always consider your audience first—as the purpose of our work is, after all, to make words from one language understandable and accurate in another.

What about Automation?

Although there are some great UK/US dialect settings within CAT tools, desktop publishing and even within MS Word, these tools do not address much beyond spelling variants, and none of these tools are comprehensive.  I use my UK/US glossaries and a checklist I that have developed, each and every time I work into UK English–and of course I am sure my word choices still give me away as a Yankee on occasion.

To be sure, people from the UK and the USA are speaking the same language, but rarely in the same way.

Check back for our final segment in Part 4 of the differences between UK and US English, links to my US-UK toolbox and finally, the answer to the question: “What about Canada and Australia?”

©Dygert, LLC 2018

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