When we arrived in London, my knowledge of the countries making up the United Kingdom was derived from the elastics rhyme ‘England, Ireland Scotland, Wales, inside, outside on the rails’. I’d heard the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain, and British and wasn’t exactly sure what they each referred to. I was sure however, that there would be faux pas to avoid (similar to confusing Americans and Canadians, or Australians and New Zealanders).

Mostly of these terms were geographical. The British Isles refers to the two large islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and many smaller surrounding islands. These include the Isle of Man which is known for the Bee Gees, Motorbike racing and tax evasion. Jersey which is known for its cattle, dairy products and tax evasion and Guernsey which is known for its cattle, blue post and telephone boxes and tax evasion.

Great Britain is the biggest of the islands, encompassing England, Wales and Scotland. Ireland is the second biggest and is directly west of Great Britain. However, geography won’t save you if you get the political terms wrong. The United Kingdom encompasses Great Britain and the north-eastern part of Ireland, sometimes called Northern Ireland. Ireland refers to the southern part of the island of Ireland, sometimes called the Republic of Ireland or ‘Éire’, but never Southern Ireland. ‘British’ is an adjective pertaining to the United Kingdom, e.g. the British, but people from Scotland, Wales and particularly Ireland would prefer to be referred to as Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather than British.

This may have covered the geographical and political terms, but what really got us were the small, everyday terms we didn’t know. To add insult to injury people in customer service have mastered the facial expression that conveys “what on earth are you talking about, you must be an idiot”.  I have been given this look on a number of occasions, usually for using an incorrect though similar term for a product or service.

The first time was at the Marks & Spencer lingerie department when I asked for a bra wash bag, a zip-up mesh bag that protects bras in the washing machine. The sales assistants gaze flicked to my handbag, as if I was going to fill it with water, toss in a scoop of washing powder and wash my delicates in it. She then gave me The Look, suggested I use a pillowcase secured with a hair tie and sent me on my way.

Next was at the Post Office where I asked for a money order. The Post Office sells insurance, internet access and exchanges foreign currency but a request for a money order earned me The Look. I tried to explain the concept but was briskly told they didn’t provide that service while the cashier looked over my shoulder for the next customer. I later found out that they do offer this service, but it is called a Postal Order – thanks for nothing Royal Mail.

I got The Look for asking for ‘cash out’. I knew this service was available, as the woman ahead of me had used it, so I explained that in addition to paying for my groceries I would like some cash.

“Oh, you mean cash back,” corrected the check-out girl.

I thought about telling her that in Australia a cash back offer involves buying a product and then sending away proof of purchase and a completed form to get a cheque in the mail. I could have added that cash out is a much more logical term than cash back, as the cash is coming out of my account not back from anywhere except perhaps the back of the till drawer. I spared her my soapbox rant however, as by working out what I wanted and giving me the correct term to use in future she had actually provided outstanding customer service by supermarket checkout standards.

I then tried using the term ‘cash back’ at a small local supermarket.

“Nah, we don’t do cash back, there’s a hole in the wall outside,” replied the check-out boy.

I couldn’t understand why some sort of vandalism or construction issue prevented them from providing this service and stepped outside to see the extent of the damage. There I discovered that ‘hole in the wall’ is an English term for an automatic teller machine. Good thing I hadn’t tried to give The Look.