Wednesday, January 29, 2014

17 British Slang Words and Phrases Most Americans Don't Understand

Guest post by Claire Bolden McGill: A List of 17 British Slang Words and Phrases Most Americans Don't Understand

I love a good old British colloquialism or slang phrase and I throw them in left, right and centre (center) when I am talking. This can lead to much confusion for my poor American friends. I often see their brows furrow as they try to make out exactly what I’m saying. I’ve learned to stop and translate now, but I think they’re rather fond of the abundance of British phrases and sayings that pop out willy-nilly (see?!) from my mouth.

So, it made me think about all the slang-style things that I say in the company of Americans that might get them all of a doo-dah and not really know what I’m waffling (another one there!) about.

I think us Brits are a little more used to American slang words, mainly through the import of American TV shows and all the movies we absorbed when we were growing up. We’ve even adopted some, haven’t we…..?!

Anyhow, this is the list of slang phrases I frequently use…

1. ‘Throw a spanner in the works’ 
My British friend told me that she used this one whilst discussing a project with a group of Americans and they were baffled. This is predominantly because a ‘spanner’ is referred to as a ‘wrench’ in the USA, and therefore the phrase is pretty obsolete for Americans, full stop (period). I now know why, when I’ve used it, it’s had a similar reaction.

2. ‘Knickers in a twist’ 
Ooh, I love this one! It really does mean to get one’s feathers ruffled, and I think my American chums really just enjoy the fact that I have used the word ‘knickers. An excellent turn of phrase.

3. ‘Throw a wobbly’ 
I use this when I refer to someone who has just got their knickers in a twist’ and become even madder about whatever it was they got their knickers in a twist about. I don’t think this is used in the States, as far as I am aware, because I do tend to get a confused response.

4. ‘To witter on’ 
I do this myself a lot. I witter on about all sorts and I mentioned to a friend that I was ‘wittering on’ and she thought I was talking in past-participle (or such like) about tweeting. Social media has a lot to answer for.

5. ‘Chinwag’
I’m hoping that this word is slowly, but surely, making its way into common usage in the small part of America that I live in. Much like ‘natter’, this word sums up what girls do over a glass of wine or a cup of tea. American gals do like to ‘natter’ or ‘chinwag’, I’ve noticed, and sometimes over a margarita too.

6.‘Hammered’ 
My husband was totally hammered just last week and I mentioned it to my American chum, who is now used to my funny British phrases. ‘I love the way you say that,’ she said and promptly declared (in her mock British accent) that she was going to get hammered that very night. Excellent work.  Next time, she might choose to get ‘rat-arsed’ or ‘shit-faced’ or ‘wankered’.

7. ‘Skint’
I recently wrote a status update on Facebook that I was ‘skint’. I wondered at the time if my American Facebook friends would know what that meant. Sure, if they watch Eastenders they might – but not Downton Abbey, because a) they aren’t that skint and b) even when they were a little bit, they certainly didn’t use the word ‘skint’ – more like in ‘financial difficulties’.

8. ‘Knackered’
One of the best British slang phrases and I use this one oodles, possibly on purpose to add a British flavour to my rhetoric.  I do think that most Americans cottoned on this word a while ago as being very British. Someone told me that cast members used it in Love, Actually, and that’s when they fell in love with it. Thanks Hugh and Martine.

9. ‘Stuffed’
My father used to shudder in horror when, after a meal, I would declare ‘I am stuffed.’ So, of course, I said it more. He asked me if I could use the word ‘replete’ instead, so I did. My new favourite saying after a large roast dinner then became ‘I am repleted out of my face.’ Yes, he shuddered even more. Do Americans use the word ‘stuffed’? Yes, I think they might do, all said and done. I’m going to try it out and use it next time in the right company to see if it is known, let alone acceptable.

10. ‘Pissed/pissed off'
The British/American language barrier rears its head in many amusing ways of mis-interpretation with this one. Conversation as such started by an American friend:
‘Did you have a good time on Saturday night?’
‘Yes, I did, thanks. I got a bit pissed though.’
‘Oh no, what happened?’ (Shock and horror on face)
‘I had a couple of margaritas.’
‘Oh!’ (laughter). ‘You mean drunk?’
‘Yes, otherwise I would say pissed off.’
Ha ha!
11. ‘Any road up hill or down dale’
I have a British friend who uses this phrase EVERY time he starts a story, and you know it’s going to be a very, very long story. It’s just another way of saying ‘anyway’. I like it and I’ve used it, but it has meant that I’ve had to repeat the bit of the story that they then missed because they were trying to get their head round what I was saying right at the beginning.
12. ‘Bee’s knees’
This must be used here in the USA! I’m sure it is! What interests me is that it is the polite version of ‘the dog's bollocks.’ So I might use this when I am in more polite American company and want to say that something was fabulous, although to be honest, fabulous is a pretty fabulous word in itself.

13. ‘Bob’s your uncle’
Or, as I like to say, in order to be super modern and with the times ‘ Bob’s your aunt’s live in lover’.  And that’s that.

14. ‘Not my cup of tea’
Yes, this one gets frequent outings if something really isn’t my cup of tea. Like Pumpkin Latte – that’s definitely not my cup of tea.

15. ‘Naff’
What a fabulous word! There’s almost something a bit onomatopoeic about this word. It’s a healthy alternative to ‘crap’.

16. ‘Nicked’
Would Americans say they got ‘nicked by the police’? No, they would not, I am sure. It’s confusing because we Brits also use it to say something’s been stolen. We do set out to confuse a lot, don’t we?!

17. ‘Yonks’
This turns up in my vocabulary frequently. ‘I haven’t seen this in yonks’ or ‘It’s been yonks since I’ve eaten good cheese’ (that is quite true, actually!). I think the American folk that hang around with me get the measure of this one now. It’s all a bit jolly-hockey-sticks, but they seem to like that in a fashion!

Which other British slang phrases confuse you? Are there any American slang words you don't understand? Let us know in the comments below.


About the author: I'm Claire and I'm a British housewife writing about American bits and bobs. I've lived in Columbia, Maryland for 18 months and I like to write about all the things that confuse, amuse and bemuse me about being in the USA. I like to observe and compare our quirky traits, personalities and oddities because there are many and they are endlessly fascinating. From breaking into mailboxes, to choosing the Spanish option at the checkouts; from polarised poverty and wealth, to getting my head round guns and the glamour of politics; from my mission to crush stink bugs, to the American obsession with pulled pork; and from the wonder that is the PTA, to American attitudes to nudity - I write about it all! You can find my blog at www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com


55 comments:

Lisa Dorr-Pozos said...

Love this! I adore "British-isms" because so many of them allow to get out some strong emotion without saying something in American profanity!

Tim Haselden said...

Brass Monkeys used to be a good one to confuse my American colleagues, usually the phrase " You're not kidding it's cold, i was woken by a brass monkey asking if I had a mig welder."

Paul Carney said...

No confusion, but an 'old' Brum saying was "All round the Wrekin to get back to the Bull Ring.". Or, in other words, making a short story long! :D

Paul Carney said...

I was told as a lad that "Brass Monkey's" referred to the three balls hanging outside a pawn shop - "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" meant that it was so cold the balls would drop off the sign. But I think it's one of those sayings that is 'lost in time'.

Tim Haselden said...

The saying comes from the royal navy. The brass stand the balls were stacked on was the Monkey.. and if it got so cold or covered in ice , one could lift the balls from the monkey in one mass. Hence ... Freezing the balls off a brass monkey."

Tim Haselden said...

Other's include "More front than Harrod's." ie. a bit of a show off. Buried in a Y shaped coffin ie. That person in question usually is of questionable morals. Another one for skint in Brassic which is popular here in Liverpool.

Beth said...

Hey Claire, you should join the Baltimore Brits meet up group! We started on meetup, then migrated to yahoo, and now landed on facebook. Just email Marci the organizer. I'm the US spouse, my husband is the expat, a number of couples like that in the group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/baltimorebrits/

Claire McGill said...

Thanks Beth, I've done that! Would be cool to meet you all!

Anonymous said...

I have an American daughter in law who lived in Brum for several years and I never realised how much slang, especially Brummagem slang, we used until I saw her absolutely lost look at a family gathering. After that I became official translator. Although now safely back in LA she can say"Or right our kid" with the best of them

Anonymous said...

Loved all the Brum comments...but so much bastardised...i.e...Anonymous...'or right' would be followed by 'ukit'... Not 'our kid'..
and Tim....brassic lint is cockney ryhming slang for skint...etc...etc...

Anonymous said...

...Like...see you next Tuesday...!!!

Anonymous said...

My Scottish husband says "bugger". Does that really mean what he says or is he pulling my leg?

Jamie Madath said...

Love using "can I bum a fag off you?" in the US. Met with total shock and horror.

Fun Joel said...

As someone who identifies as bilingual -- I speak English AND American -- I believe that the two most important Britishisms for any American to know and understand are chuffed and gutted. And a fun one to add in would be "pants."

Got a kick out of this one!

Cyril Young said...

A brass monkey, or a monkey in general, is a instrument to clean the barrel of a cannon. The brass balls would scraaape the barrel without damaging it as it is a softer metal. If it was very cold the brass became brittle and the thin brass wires that held the balls to the rod would break.

Jonny Gould said...

A Brummie phrase. She's got a cob on, ain't she? Doubt the Yanks know that one. She's in a mood!

ariversideview said...

Brassic Lint.

Anonymous said...

You forgot 'oh....shit the bed'. Which of course is a not very eloquent way of expressing frustration when something unexpected happens. ;-)

SrslyMike said...

Interacting with a lot of Brits online, I picked up the term "knackered" and the word "utter" (as in "utter bollocks"). This is particularly curious, since I'm Polish and, at least in theory, English taught as a foreign language in schools is standard British English. In practice, however, I got most of my language skills from video games and cartoons, and trust me, Thomas The Tank Engine they weren't (mostly). So, when I'm writing in English, people take me for an American, and when I speak, I already had people guess that I'm Dutch, Swedish, British and Australian.

Ray Lee said...

You can use most, if not all of those, in Australia and most people will understand. We'll have to be careful what we say when we visit the USA later this year.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone ever say/ heard of the expression "the sun is over the yard arm"... I dont know where I picked this up, growing up in the UK. But I try to say it whenever I can (IE meaning, its time for a beer/ glass of wine/ gin & tonic) in Colorado...people stare, completely baffled, love it! :)

Anonymous said...

Paul Carney, your explanation of freezing the balls off a brass monkey is half correct. The last bit is wrong, okay the cannon balls are stacked on a plate called a brass monkey in a pyramid formation, the balls will stay in place no matter how rough the ocean is, but when the weather is freezing, the cannon balls, for some reason, won't stay in place and will roll everywhere.

Mags Owen-Crouch said...

Gordon Bennett people................Brass monkey ...yes is the holder for the cannon balls on the ship. Freezing them off...........means when it was cold the metal contracted making the rails wider apart and the balls fell off!

ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com said...

Oooh yes, love using those two!

Anonymous said...

That was wicked! Americans are a bunch of tossers!
I've trained the Yanks in my office to talk about the lovely chap, the geezer and the bloke and now they all like to 'go to the shops'. And at 4 o'clock they all say 'it's tea time!'
They also seem to think that if you speak with a British accent that somehow you are highly intelligent - but we all know that's a load of bollocks!

Ryan Carterét said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Carterét said...

I find myself using 'bollocks' and 'not my cup of tea' rather often, but I certainly need to use 'knickers in a twist', 'Bob's your uncle' and 'naff' more! I had never known that 'stuffed' was a British term; practically everyone I know has said that at one time or another.

About 'hammered', I once saw a YouTube video about British-isms where they said you could take practically any word, add an -ed to the end of it and people would know exactly what you meant. I was not totally car-parked last night, in fact I was sipping tea and reading a book. Brilliant! :)

Anonymous said...

Spend a penny, have a cuppa, in the wars and hells bells are just a few I've picked up from my British husband's family.

Anonymous said...

The sun is over the yard arm...the yard arm is a part of the rigging of the last or first sail found on the forward deck or poop deck...Normally a three foot or longer beam running horizontal from the mask to hold the bottom of the sail..late in the day when the sun was setting it passed below the yard arm before it would pass below the horizon (and night) so as it was nearly night time it was okay to have a drink or two before bed...

Anonymous said...

Charlie big potato ... nuclear sub , Aristotle ,Britney Spears....Do films like lock stock and two smoking barrels ,Layer cake do very well in the USA ...Do they die on their feet or is there a willingness to understand the rhyming slang..

T. Greer said...

Hammered-- means drunk into a stupor?

If so, then we Americans use it.

Stuffed is also very common phrase.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure "bee's knees" originated in the U.S. It was certainly very popular here in the early part of the 20th century.

mrs.b said...

I love reading different slangs that us brits use and also what Americans use. I hate the term fag for cigarette I say cig but I do say im turking for a cig and use knackered, jog on, run down the road and catch up(my fella hates that phrase) :) lets have a mooch but I cant wait for our jollies to America in a few years and I'll bare in mind that some phrases I say might mean something else hopefully not offensive :)

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Rachel said...

Hmm... In Australia, we "get our knickers in a knot" and "chuck a wobbley", which is pretty close. (I learnt many of my colloquialisms from my very Australian mother, since my very British father rarely uses many - most of the British colloquialisms I know come from Torchwood and QI). Most of those are common in Australia, though, although I'm not sure I've heard of being skint, wittering on, or No.11, but "stuffed" here refers more to being unable to do something you've tried to do and made a mess of, rather than being "full as a goog". Also, "donkey's years" is for some reason synonymous with "yonks", although the latter is more common and not to be confused with "Yanks".

On the matter of being pissed (off), I find it amusing how often non-Australians get confused between screwing up, screwing over, and simply screwing.

My giddy aunt (as my mother says), this place looks like a bomb site! Did you do this or are you telling porkies? Chop-chop, clean it up in a jiffy, and bob's your uncle!

Anonymous said...

I thought "yonks" derived from "eons," as in "I last saw him eons/yonks ago."

Anonymous said...

There are American's who don't know what "hammered" means? I thought that term originated here.

ponfretcake said...

I'd love to go to America, especially to see if anyone could understand my Yorkshire accent :p

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You must not be a person who is easy to get angry, because if compared, angry people that his heart is a volcano, if it were so, how can you expect to grow flowers in it?

oceanviv said...

Really enjoyed your post on British slang. I was born in England but haven't lived there in ages but totally understand and use the phrases. I guess it's in the blood! ;)

Tom Cull said...

Hugh Laurie and Ellen have a slang off: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XxnlQEDgVI

Unknown said...

Both senses of "nicked" essentially mean "taken".

Unknown said...

The one about brass monkeys is a myth - spare shot was stored in wooden frames, not brass- and certainly not stacked like Ferrero Rocher. Check snopes.com for details. As far as anyone can tell, it *is* just a bit of deliberate rudery.

And I suspect "skint" is just an irregular form of "skinned".

Tishma Sarkar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
nancy john said...

Of course a good certification program should teach most or all of these topics, and it's common for schools to give an orientation before teaching starts. The most critical piece of advice, I think, is that teachers need to research EXHAUSTIVLY so that they understand the ins and outs of teaching ESL students abroad

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Anonymous said...

I see the fuckwit spammers have found us.

Anonymous said...

Another good one is ..its black over bills mums. Never gets old!

Pama Bennett said...

"Bees' knees" is very old-fashioned here in the U.S.---was used in the 40's and before. I like to use the word "knackered" , followed by "as the Brits say!" I introduced my family to "Bob's your uncle" and now they use it all the time to be funny! :D

Anonymous said...

I use 'faff about' or 'faffing about' much to the confusion of my American colleagues. I have managed to get a few of them to use the phrase 'nip to the loo' - I think they think it's cute.

Paul Carney said...

I always thought that 'the bees knees' WAS American. I was told that it was from Chicago gangsters, who would talk of giving somebody the 'business' (Bees Knees) or, in other words, doing them harm.

Knackered is from the 'knackers yard, where old farm animals (Particularly horses) were sent to be rendered down into glue after being put to sleep.

Jennifer C said...

I'm nearly 60, and Bob's your uncle was in common usage in the Appalachian mountains when I was young. Of course, many of the older Appalachians at that time used archaic British terminology, and they spoke English as it was pronounced in the 1600s, before the Great Vowel Shift. I understood every Britishism in this article. My schoolmates and I didn't even need the modern translations of the works of Shakespeare, as we knew people who actually spoke like that.

Ned Ludd said...

American me who lives in France loves "naff" because the name of a French clothing company is Naf Naf. I couldn't believe it at first but now, though I am used to it, I just laugh inside.

Anonymous said...

Being from Shropshire, that makes total sense to me! The Wrekin (pronounced ree-kin) is of volcanic origin and a highly visible and well known landmark. The Bullring being a shopping centre in Birmingham. "Going around the Wrekin" simply means "a long way round". I'd say this a lot after moving away from the address and confuse plenty of Brits.

Anonymous said...

Borassic Lint is cockney ryhming slang for skint... meaning only having the skin you stand up in or tge exageration skinned...

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