Brits Call Flashlights "Torches," Which Is Very Confusing for Americans

Some words don’t transcend space and time. Americans say “flashlights,” but Brits call them “torches.” Why the difference?

Jamie Lerner - Author

May 14 2024, Published 12:07 p.m. ET

A person holding headlamp/outdoor flashlight
Source: Getty Images

When it comes to English vocabulary, some words don’t cross borders as much as others. While we know slang differs between the United States and the United Kingdom, two of the world’s biggest English-speaking countries, even official terminology can differ between the two countries. One of the greatest examples of this is that British people call flashlights “torches.”

Article continues below advertisement

With the D-Day 80th anniversary torch relay, British veterans relay an actual old-school torch throughout the UK’s most notable cities and sites before traveling across the English Channel. As Americans watch on, we learn that the British also refer to flashlights as torches, which is pretty confusing! So why do British people call flashlights “torches”?

A mechanic using a flashlight or "torch" to look under a car
Source: Getty Images
Article continues below advertisement

British people call flashlights “torches” because of its inception as an “electric torch.”

The invention of the flashlight goes back to 1896 when dry-cell batteries were first invented. Before that, batteries had to be stationary, or they would leak or malfunction. But when the dry-cell battery came about, inventors had whole new worlds open to them with the possibilities of portable electronic items.

Three years later in 1899, British inventor David Misell created the first flashlight while living in America. Russian immigrant Conrad Hubert called it a “flashlight” because the light would actually flash instead of consistently staying on. Copper portable batteries were still fairly new and they couldn’t maintain constant currents, so they only gave flashes of light. Users would have to turn the flashlights on and off frequently to avoid draining the batteries as well. So, Conrad gave it its fitting name.

Article continues below advertisement

In the United Kingdom, however, the invention of the flashlight led users to compare it to what we know as the torch. Torches, for those who have forgotten, are basically wooden sticks with fire at the top to light one’s way. Usually, they use a bit of gas to keep the flame going, such as in the case of the Olympic torch or the commemorative D-Day torch.

Article continues below advertisement

But when the flashlight came about, Brits called it an “electric torch” since it served the same purpose as an oil or fire torch. Over time, however, the word “electric” was dropped from the object’s name and it’s now simply known as a torch. While this may confuse some people, especially Americans, it usually just takes a matter of context to know if a Brit is referring to a flashlight or a wooden torch.

A woman and young boy using a flashlight or "torch" to read a book in the dark
Source: Getty Images
Article continues below advertisement

Plus, “torch” isn’t the only confusing word in the British vocabulary. Brits call sidewalks “pavement,” even though we would call any paved road or walkway pavement. The same occurs with the word “bin,” which Brits use specifically to describe a trash can, while Americans use it to describe any general basket, bin, or bucket that can hold other objects.

And while we love to talk about the differences in language between British English and American English, the fact that so many millions of people speak the same language at all is really a special way to connect with other cultures. English is the most spoken language in the world, and yet there are so many eccentricities and nuances between those who speak it. Instead of getting confused and frustrated, it’s best to appreciate and embrace our differences.

More from Distractify

Latest FYI News and Updates

    Opt-out of personalized ads

    © Copyright 2024 Distractify. Distractify is a registered trademark. All Rights Reserved. People may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.