The icing/frosting on the cake: differences between British and American idioms

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by Liz Walter

Differences between US and UK English are particularly pronounced in informal and idiomatic language. There are lots of idioms that are used in one variety but not the other, for example go pear-shaped (to fail or go wrong) is used in British but not American English and strike pay dirt (discover something valuable) is American but not British.

However, there is also a potentially more confusing set of idioms, where the British and American versions are very similar but have important differences, so that using the wrong version could sound very odd. This post looks at some of these.

Some, such as the idiom in the title of this post, come about because of general UK/US vocabulary differences. The icing (UK)/ frosting (US) on the cake, is something that makes a good situation even better. Similar differences account for the idioms a skeleton in the cupboard (UK)/closet (US & UK), which means an embarrassing secret and throw a spanner (UK)/ (monkey) wrench (US) in the works, meaning to do something to prevent something succeeding:

It was a great trip, and seeing the gorillas was the icing/frosting on the cake.

Before he’s appointed, we need to make sure there are no skeletons in his cupboard/closet.

We were ready to open the restaurant before Covid threw a spanner/wrench in the works.

Some idioms start from very similar ideas but are phrased slightly differently in the two varieties. For instance, while Brits might refer slightly mockingly to a man or boy who is liked very much as a blue-eyed boy, Americans would call him a fair-haired boy, and while someone who looks very pleased with themself looks like the cat that got the cream in British English, they are like the cat that ate the canary in American English.

As far as Mum was concerned, Alex was her blue-eyed/fair-haired boy and could do no wrong.

She came rushing in, looking like the cat that got the cream/ate the canary.

Similarly, when Brits wouldn’t touch something with a bargepole (wouldn’t go near it or become involved in it), Americans wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, and while a big fuss about a small problem is a storm in a teacup for Brits, it is a tempest in a teapot for Americans. When Brits spend so much time thinking about small details that they miss something very important, they can’t see the wood for the trees, while Americans use forest in that phrase:

The deal is far too risky. I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole/ten-foot pole.

I’m hoping that our current financial problems are just a storm in a teacup/tempest in a teapot.

I was so busy concentrating on minor design faults, I couldn’t see the wood/forest for the trees.

There are of course many more common idioms with UK/US differences, but I hope this post has drawn your attention to the issue.

13 thoughts on “The icing/frosting on the cake: differences between British and American idioms

    1. Raf

      No; I fully believe that’s not a typo because the pronoun “them” when treated as singular is still correct. I’ve read about it at one of Merriam-Webster’s articles.

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