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zebra crossing

Why did the zebra cross the road? The language of driving in the US and UK

In the UK’s not-too-distant past, it was possible for most any Tom, Dick, or Harry (with a little money) to plunk himself down in the driver’s seat of an automobile, turn on the ignition, and zip around to his heart’s content—without ever having taken a test.

Collective shudder.

So I think we can all be grateful that, seventy-nine years ago today, the Road Traffic Act 1934 was introduced in the UK, making the driver’s test (or rather, driving test, in traditional British English—more in this vein later) compulsory for all new drivers.

Meanwhile, in the United States, progress was a little slower. Though Chicago and New York City had been administering driving tests since 1899, it took a while for the states to follow suit—South Dakota was the last in 1959.

As cars proliferated on lengthening, widening roads and the number of licensed drivers increased, the language of driving (necessarily) became more standardized—but in very different ways in the UK and the US. Giant bodies of water (rhyming with Shlatlantic Shlocean) tend to have this effect, perhaps.

The result?

Completely different words for the same (or similar) driving-related concepts, and not just because US drivers have licenses and UK drivers have licences— British terms (in this editor’s opinion) tending towards the poetic, and American terms tending towards the efficient.

We all know the basic variances (bonnet = hood; boot = trunk; petrol = gasoline). But let’s take a look at some you might not know.

Zebra Crossing vs. Crosswalk

Upon hearing the term zebra crossing for the first time, an American very well might assume that zebras in fact roam the United Kingdom, incessantly crossing roads and obstructing traffic, thereby necessitating specially-designated ‘zebra crossings’ much in the manner of the familiar ‘deer crossing’ signs.

deer crossing
But really, the British word designates those areas, helpfully marked with broad white stripes, at which vehicles must stop if pedestrians wish to cross.

Crosswalk, at half the syllables (and displaying the American penchant for combining multiple words into one), is a clearer if less visually evocative mode of referring to these areas at which pedestrians may safely cross the street. You could also take the time, of course, to say pedestrian crossing—especially if they’re being particularly slow doing so this morning. And if they’re super slow and if you’re feeling super grumpy about it, you could even muse upon the etymology of the word pedestrian: from the classical Latin for “going on foot”, it originally was (and still can be) an adjective meaning dull.

Roundabout vs. Traffic Circle

In certain regions, Americans use the word roundabout as well. However, it was originally and is chiefly used in the United Kingdom—though they are perhaps as nightmarish for new drivers to encounter there as they are in the US.

+1 point for the UK, though: for them, a roundabout is also the name for a merry-go-round on playgrounds and fairgrounds. So really, what could be more fun!?

Slip-road vs. On-/Off-ramp or (Entrance/Exit) Ramp

Speaking of fun, these are…decidedly not.

Not only can the really curvy ones make you feel a little sick to your stomach, at the wrong time of the day you may then be forced to select precisely the right moment to accelerate suddenly and weave the giant metal thing encasing you between two other careening giant metal things, with no less than surgical precision.

Though Americans tend to call these small roads leading onto or off of the highway ramps (often with a prefix or attributive noun determining direction—on or off, entrance or exit), they’re simply slip-roads in UK English. Maybe it’s just me, but the origins of slip seem to make the whole situation more questionable in terms of safety: the word comes from Old High German slipfan meaning to slip or slide (inevitably reminding me of the summertime backyard toy which is sprayed with water before one slides belly-down on it at incredible velocities) and, interestingly, it has carried the meaning “to fall into mistake or error” in addition to “to fail to hold or stick”. Uh-oh.

Ramp, at least, seems more stable: it comes from the French rampe, which in the sixteenth 16th century was an inclined plane to which the stairs of a staircase were fixed.

Saloon car vs. Sedan

When Americans think of saloons, they think of swinging, torso-length-and-height wooden doors, bar brawls, and Western films—not automobiles. But in the driving world, saloons and sedans signify the same thing: a closed-bodied car with two rows of seats. (The British use both words.)

Where do these words come from?

Saloon comes from the French salon (also familiar to English-speakers), from the Italian salone, augmentative of sala meaning hall. As transportation by train became commonplace in the 19th century, the word saloon began to refer to a train carriage furnished luxuriously as a drawing room (as saloon car or saloon carriage); eventually, it came to signify an automobile capable of seating four or more people on two rows of seats (drawing room not included).

Sedan, on the other hand, has obscure origins. It may stem from an Italian derivative of the word sede (seat), which is from Latin sedere meaning sit. It also has transportation-related origins, though nothing so speedy as a locomotive; in the 17th century, a sedan was known as an enclosed chair on poles, carried by at least two people to convey a lucky third to his or her desired destination.
Saloons and sedans: despite their etymological differences, both came to refer to the same kind of car!

Sleeping Policeman vs. Speed Bump

If there was ever a reason to love British English, this is it. Although it is common to say speed bump in Britain, there is a much more expressive option as well…

We all know drivers who take no care when running over speed bumps—those raised pieces of road are intended not to bump up your speed but rather to pitch your car upwards, jolting you into slowing down. But perhaps if these drivers were to take the British term sleeping policeman literally and think of speed bumps as policemen—sleeping in the middle of the road no less, literally laying their lives on the line to prevent do-badders from doing bad—they might pay more attention!

So, what have we learned?


a) policemen enjoy a nap in the street
b) zebras are good at slip-and-slides
c) traffic circles are retired amusement park rides, or
d) the differences between British and American English never cease to amaze; it makes one wonder how identical concepts, expressed using the same language, can sometimes yield such drastically different forms.

If you answered a, b, or c, well…not quite.

If you answered d., you were paying attention—and we agree with you!

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