Aluminium not Aluminum

I have finally got around to finishing this post…I have had a lot of “real life” work on lately, with starting in a new lab and doing some other non-blog writing.

There was a recent (ish) current discussion on Twitter about the difference between British and American English within the lab atmosphere, which then spawned the amazing hashtag #DowntonLabby.

As everyone knows, there are also plenty of words that Americans use in place of our sensible British English words including: sidewalk (pavement), cell phone (mobile phone) and, in my humble opinion, the worst culprit of them all, aluminum. Dudes, it is aluminium.

This conversation got me to thinking: what other British words are totally foreign to those across the pond? Most chemists will know that Americans say alk-kill and Brits say al-kyle, but I am particularly interested in words for lab equipment that aren’t easily translated between the two great nations. I have attempted to come up with a list with the help of google but please do add your opinions in the comments section. Do Americans even use these words? Am I completely wrong? Please do let me know either way.

So here goes… (I have put the British English term first, followed by the American version)

Teat = pipette bulb – a little birdy told me that you don’t use this word

Bellows = rubber bulb we use instead of compressed air for column chromatography

Clamp stand or retort stand = Ring stand (Is this because we use “rings” for balancing separating funnels? What if you have a normal clamp on it?)

Conical flask = Erlenmeyer flask

Boiling flask = Florence flask

Measuring cylinder = Graduated cylinder

It seems Americans have a propensity for removing letters from French words, for example:

Pipette = Pipet

Burette = Buret

Are there any Brits out there that have spent time in a US lab or vice versa who may be able to add to or remove from the list? I am hoping that BRSM tells us all about the differences between the UK and US labs when he moves across the pond later in the year.

I look forward to your input.



p.s sorry if this is complete rubbish.


13 thoughts on “Aluminium not Aluminum

  1. This might or might not be lab equipment depending on your research, but I just realized a few days ago that those in the US don’t use spanners – they use wrenches. I would have defined a wrench as something subtly different (in the sense it’s adjustable).

      • I heard this week from Spanish and French labmates that in their respective languages, the type of spanner that they were using is called an ‘English spanner’. I would just have called it a spanner. 🙂

    • Americans do use “wrench” as a very general term, employing descriptors to distinguish among them, (monkey wrench, crescent wrench, pipe wrench, etc.) Americans do use “spanner” but to refer to a tool other than that which the English do.

  2. As a teenager growing up in America, I had a bit of a stutter (or stammer?) and could not pronounce “aluminum” and so I would say “aluminium” instead. Unfortunately, I could not find a comparable work-around for “cinnamon.” I think that your list is pretty good. For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard “Florence” flask in the US. It was always a “boiling” flask. And, if you watch “Breaking Bad” Mr. White refers to it there, in New Mexico, as a “boiling” flask. Also, I’ve seen both “pipet” and “pipette” as well as both “buret” and “burette.” All are acceptable. As an American in Australia, where the English is more English than American, I think that most of the important equipment seems to be designated pretty much the same. One potential difference is the freeze dryer. In my US labs “freeze dryer” and “lyophilizer” were used interchangeably. Here, if I say “lyophilizer” my lab mates look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language. Of course, most of my lab mates speak English as a second language so perhaps my observation is not relevant.

  3. Not an English-American difference, but we had a Danish guy work in our lab for a few months and he asked us for a “sucker ball”. Took us a while to realise he was after a pipette teat…

  4. I should be able to come up with a few (being a Brit that has been here in the US for quite a while). It somewhat shocked me how quickly I started pronouncing the chemical terms the American way, ‘zee’ groups now ‘zed’ groups, meth-il not meeth-ile, etc.But even after *cough* years here, i still occasionally run into a term that Americans don’t use.

  5. Heh, up in Canada we called the Florence a flat-bottomed round bottom flask for a while. More of a joke than a serious name though.

    Both clamp stands and ring stands are just stands though (there’s nothing special about the stand to differentiate the names). A ring clamp would be a non-flexible clamp in the shape of a ring, for holding separatory funnels.

    Here’s a list of common/essential glassware. Is there anything else on the list that has a double name?

  6. This story reminds me of my postdoc days in the US. Our group was quite international, with a mix of Americans, Spaniards, Britons, Germans, Greek, etc. (I hail from Finland). One day the word “vesicant” popped up and it turned out that only the British postdoc knew what it meant – the Americans did not seem to recognize the word or at least could not explain what it meant…

  7. I once caused some consternation by asking if anyone had a torch I could borrow. In the US torches are only the stick with the wad of burning material at the end that you use to chase vampires with, flashlight was what I needed.

    Allen keys are hex wrenches, even though I think Allen was American.

    Nearly twenty years over here and I’m sticking with “colour”.

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