american English global English

Bringing some colour to your day …

The other day, an American friend of mine told me he’d got a kitten, but then completely stumped me by saying she was a ‘brindle’. Was that a special breed, I wondered, or did she need medical treatment? It turns out, ‘brindle’ is what we in the UK would call tortoiseshell, and it got me wondering what other UK-US linguistic differences there might be when it comes to colour. As it happens, there are quite a few.

In British English, we say something is ‘brindled‘ to mean its fur is varicoloured, but then we have specific names for the results. In the same vein, Americans use ‘tabby’ much more widely than we do; there, you’ll find ‘yellow tabby’ cats – what we Brits would call ginger. I have to say, I prefer ginger; somehow ‘yellow tabby tom’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘ginger tom’, and doesn’t bring to mind the image of a great big burly male cat surveying his territory. But it does take account of the fact that ‘tabby’ refers to markings that feature dots, stripes or swirls of a different colour (which ginger cats often have, in white).

There are similar differences in the world of horses. What we would call a chestnut, over the water is likely to be known as a sorrell, which sounds much more exotic to me (though maybe that’s just because I loved My Friend Flicka when I was young). Where we differentiate between black-and-white (piebald),  brown-and white (skewbald) and tricoloured horses, in the US these are just known as paints. Again, I like this, because a lot of them do look like the product of some kind of art project, where someone has been standing, flicking paint at the horse, á la Rolf Harris (Can you tell what it is yet?).

When it comes to dogs, there’s further confusion. In the UK, we shorten Golden Retriever to Retriever, but in the US, they’re known as Goldens. Irish Red Setters, though, seem to be more likely to be called a Red Setter here, and an Irish Setter there (possibily to distinguish from the English Setter?).

It’s all quite fascinating to me, and if this look at colour has piqued your interest, check out Beth Penfold‘s tour through the autumn colours here.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author


Sharon Creese


Leave a Comment