“Crisps,” “Builder”

In the last couple of weeks, I came upon two examples of a not uncommon phenomenon: an American, writing for an American publication, using an obvious Britishism when writing about Britain or a Briton. You might call it protective coloration, or going native. The first one was in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert in which she describes what she finds in a parking lot (which she does not call a car park) near her airport hotel at Heathrow: “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”

Of course, crisps is the word British people use for what Americans call potato chips or chips (which is what British people call what Americans call french fries or fries). But, as a matter of fact, crisps has been worming its way into AmE of late, specifically for products that are more off-beat than your typical Wise or Lay’s potato chips. This one, for example:


So I will categorize crisps as “on the radar.”

The other example came in a New York Times obituary of “Micky Lay, a bibulous retired builder who helped Mark Rylance craft his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play about British outcasts, ‘Jerusalem.'” The relevant term is builder. In the U.S., that word is used pretty much exclusively by newspapers in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.

In Britain, the OED says, “As the name of a trade, builder now denotes the master artisan, who receives his instructions from the architect, and employs the masons, carpenters, etc., by whom the manual work is performed.” That is what Americans would call a “contractor.” But I believe that British builder also refers to a lower-level laborer, what we call “construction worker.” I await enlightenment on this point.

Builder has made some inroads into the youth of America via the animated children’s series “‘Bob the Builder,” which has aired here since 2001. Some of the kids who watched it back then have grown up by now. But I don’t see any evidence of builder being used here in the British sense. That may have to do, unfortunately, with our construction slump. It’s not a job with great prospects, so no one under thirty has much reason to talk about it.

35 thoughts on ““Crisps,” “Builder”

  1. “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”
    Interesting that they used the British ‘crisps’, but kept the American ‘soda’.

  2. You can also have a “jobbing builder” – who tends to do small-time projects, and hence moves from “job to job”. I don’t know if “jobbing”, used this way, exists in American English?

  3. I’m not sure about present-day Canadian speech, but my brother who owned a construction company in Montreal was always called a builder. The answer to the question, “What does your brother do?” was, “He’s a builder.”

  4. And what would British speech use ‘…in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.’?
    I think most of us would say ‘property tycoon’ for people in that business. For the king of the comb-over himself, I have a special term which is internationally understood.

    1. Perhaps the most derogatory compliment a client can use in respect of his appointed building contractor is to refer to him as “a bit of a builder” – which usually goes down like the proverbial “sack of sh*t”!

    2. Donald Trump is a “developer”, or a “property developer” – or perhaps a destroyer of the Scottish rural way of life – depending on your perspective.

  5. Look up “hairy arsed builder”, “builder’s bum” and “builders’ tea” – see if you think any would apply to Donald Trump!

  6. I’ve not heard “builder” generally used in the British sense here in New York City, but as an incurable Anglophile I’ve done my part for it by introducing friends to both episode 1 of “Posh Nosh” (Architect’s Fish and Chips featuring a builder) and Make Mine A Builders tea which I purchase at Myers of Keswick and serve at home. I’m backing builders! ;P

  7. One small detail is that we don’t have packages of crisps. We do have crisp packets lying around in car parks, along with drinks cans and sweet wrappers. We buy a packet of crisps.

    We call real estate developers property developers. Builders could mean building contractors who take on a contract and control the whole job or it could mean the bricklayers and other tradesmen who do the actual work on foundations, walls, roof, insulation, fitting and finishing etc. The tradesmen may be self-employed sub contractors or they may be employees of the contractor. The low-level labourer is usually called a labourer or sometimes a builder’s labourer, unless he specialises and is called something else, such as a hod carrier. That’s a mason’s labourer who carries bricks or mortar in a hod or container held on the shoulder.

  8. Just to make things more confusing, there seems to be an emerging difference between chips and fries here in the UK.

    “Fries” is being used much more often to refer to very thin US style french fries, which we get quite a lot in all fast food places, but especially the US transplants.

    Chips are still the big fat things you would buy with a piece of fish (or saveloy; I’m not fussy) and would eat out of newspaper (until it got banned), and also the sort of thing that is more usually served in a pub with a meal.

  9. Presumably the writer’s knowledge of British English was not good enough to realise that “candy” should be changed to “sweet” wrappers and “soda” to “drinks” cans and that it’s “packets” or “bags” of crisps not “packages” — fair enough, but the oddest thing about this odd sentence is that construction “packages of crisps”. Apparently, the litterbugs were thirsty but not hungry, and they threw away their crisps/chips unopened. Surely the distinction between, eg, a “pack(et) of cigarettes” (which contains cigarettes) and an empty “cigarette pack(et)” holds good in American English too?

  10. Curious that (in the US) if you’re a contractor then everyone knows you build things for a living. A contractor, after all, is just someone who has a contract to do something. It’s on a par with ‘supplier’. You would expect to now what product or service is being supplied.

    In the UK contractors are increasingly used by businesses to avoid putting another person on the payroll – and they can be doing any job under the sun, rather like a freelancer.

    You get paid a higher day rate then a proper employee but the company avoids any need for pension contributions, national insurance, holiday/sick pay etc. And when they’ve had enough of you they can get rid of you quickly and with no compensation such as redundancy pay.

    1. We actually have that other kind of contractor, too. Part of a constellation of terms that include “freelancer,” “consultant” and “work for hire.”

  11. A propos ‘builder’s tea’. We had a lovely American work experience student a few years ago. When she offered to make tea, I asked for ‘just builder’s, please’, which indicates strong, ‘ordinary’, everyday Indian tea, served with milk and sugar to taste, as Isebrand mentions above. She looked completely bewildered, so we explained that it’s because builders are renowned for drinking their tea very strong – so you could stand a spoon up in it, as the saying goes. She worked out that we meant ‘construction workers’ and from then on in that office, strong English tea was known as ‘construction worker’s tea’.

  12. “Crisps” vs “chips” is also working the other way around. There are now several brands of crisps in the UK which call themselves “chips”. They tend to be the more upmarket varieties.

  13. In relation to the terminology for the packaging of crisps discussion, we British types also use the term “bags of crisps” and “pack of crisps” but that tends to be in conversational use, with “packet of crisps” being used both in spoken English and when writing about them. It’s hard to explain but “packet of crisps” although probably the most common term of the three, is perhaps slightly more formal (although the mix of formality and crisps is not a regular occurrence!)

  14. British English uses the same words with different meanings determined by underlying thought or context.

    A ‘builder’ can mean a person who is owner/manager of a construction company; it can also be a general reference to someone who works on a building site as labourer, bricklayer, plasterer, tiler.

    It depends on the conversation.

    It is often used in the plural… ‘getting the builders in’, to make repairs, renovations or adding an extension, in which case it can refer to the trades collectively of all those, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, etc who might be involved.

  15. I would use the word “builder” (when referring to an individual) to mean someone who can turn their hand to any kind of general domestic construction work (carpentry/bricklaying/guttering/fencing etc) rather than someone who works only on one specific trade (plumber/electrician/bricklayer). I would use the word builder (when referring to a business) to mean a business that undertakes all kinds construction work – typically a small family owned business – and which employs both skilled tradesmen (and women) and labourers. I wouldn’t call any of the large international construction companies (like (say) Kier) “builders”. I would probably call them a construction or civil engineering company.

    “Contractor” takes its meaning from its context. Remember that labour law in the US (where employment is a contract “at will”) is completely different from labour law everywhere else in the world (where employees have contractual and statutory rights). Companies may seek to characterise the engagement of some of the people working for them as being “contractors” rather than “employees” to avoid certain labour law and tax consequences. So you often find IT staff who are engaged for a particular project being “contractors” rather than employees.

  16. Incidentally, an article about the Super Bowl in the Independent on Sunday in the UK today says, “Americans will consume 15,000 tons of crisps during Super Bowl.”

    I wonder if that is US tons or Imperial tons (or even metric tons, which are almost the same as Imperial tons).

      1. … but not according to statute. Part V, Schedule 1, Weights and Measures Act 1985: “Tonne, metric tonne = 1000 kilograms.”


  17. Aussie perspective:

    Chips is the basic word used to refer to any of these potato based snacks. Crisps is not used.

    If you need to differentiate further (relatively uncommon, context is normally enough):
    Hot Chips = Thick potato chip – the kind served with fish and chips or available from KFC
    Packet of Chips = Thin Potato or corn chips in packet form (of all shapes and variations)
    Fries (rare) = Thin crunchy shoestring chips (ie. McDonalds style)
    Wedges = very thick chip cut into a wedge shape.

  18. In Britain there is usually a specific difference between crisps and the similar snacking “chips”. The former are made from potatoes while the latter are generally manufactured using corn. To complicate matters, of course, a minority will name them on a whim and ignore the prevalent terminology. For example, there are supermarket “brands”, where sometimes you might see bags of “American-style potato chips” which are in every conceivable way potato crisps.

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