A Guide to British Slang

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The United Kingdom might share a common language with the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, but that doesn’t automatically mean it's easy to understand the British if you speak English. Brits love to throw colloquialisms, idioms, and other slang into everyday speech. Here’s a brief guide to help you understand the local lingo.

Referring to the Weather

A black umbrella resting on the ground while its raining
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British weather is notoriously fickle, so it’s no surprise that people in the U.K. are always talking about it. Alongside the typical descriptions you might hear, Great Britain uses slang to describe the day's forecast. If it’s cold, the British will often refer to the weather as being "a bit parky." The phrase has been in use since the 19th century but its origin is unclear. If the wind gets up, you might hear people complaining that it’s "blowing a hoolie," a phrase which likely originated from the Scottish word "hoolan," meaning strong gale.

The British are always pleased when the sun makes an appearance and will often exaggerate its effects. It only has to be in the mid-70s before the Brits describe the weather as "boiling." Of course, there are also plenty of expressions for rain. "Spitting" rain isn't as bad as if it's "bucketing down" or "raining cats and dogs." Nevertheless, the British will still be "cheesed off" or fed up that it’s raining. "Muggy" weather will often make the British moan because humidity is unpleasant, but don’t confuse it with the term "mugged off," which means you have been played for a fool or "mug up," which you’d use to describe learning something new.

Knowing Your Place

Christ Church college in Oxford, England
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Expressions regarding certain types of place can also prove problematic. Educational establishments are a good example of this sort of confusion. In the U.K., school is place you attend between the ages of five and 18, although you might swap school for college for a couple of years after you reach 16. If you progress to higher education, then you’ll attend "uni," which is short for university, after you graduate.

At home, Brits won’t excuse themselves to go to the restroom or bathroom, but instead will refer to the toilet as a "loo," "lav," "bog," or "khazi." It’s not uncommon either for families to have their own rather elaborate sayings. If it’s getting late, you might hear, "I’m off to Bedfordshire," while a snooze earlier in the day could prompt, "I’m going to have a kip." The word "kip" originally came from a term for a brothel or doss house, although there are no such connotations if you use the term today.

Expressing Feelings

Interior of public transportation with people sitting
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There’s no shortage of slang when it comes to expressing feelings. You might hear people boast that something’s a "piece of cake," which means it’s easy. That will undoubtedly make them feel rather "chuffed" or pleased with themselves. If people are "gutted," they’re disappointed, while if they’re cross, you’ll hear them describe themselves as "pissed off." Don’t confuse that with the slang term "pissed," however, which means drunk.

"Knackered" is a common way of saying you’re tired, while irritation might manifest itself with the exclamation, "Stop fannying around" to the person whose indecision or "faffing around" is the cause of the problem. To get rid of someone, you might hear "sling your hook" or "do one." Getting something wrong could be described as a "cock up," for which you could expect to receive a "bollocking." Instructions can also be confusing. "Budge up" means to make space on a bench or seat, while "give us a bell" is simply being asked to make a phone call.

Food and Drink

Person pouring tea from a white pot
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Another topic that features a considerable use of slang is food and drink. The quintessentially British cup of tea is shortened to "cuppa" but never "cuppa tea." What you’re actually hearing is "cup o’ tea." If someone offers you a "brew," it means they are about to put the kettle on. Be ready with your answer about how you take it such as "white with one" (milk with a single spoonful of sugar) or "builder’s," which means exceptionally strong.

Dinners that might need a translation include the popular comfort food "bangers and mash," which is a dish consisting of roasted sausages served with mashed potatoes. Potatoes generally are referred to as "spuds." When it comes to sweet foods, you might be confused to find jam and jelly are two very different things. Technically, these aren’t slang terms, but it’s helpful to know that jelly comes in a bowl with ice cream, while jam is something you’d spread on toast. "Jammy," however, has nothing to do with food and instead refers to someone’s exceptionally good luck.

Regional Variations

Brown ox standing on a hill in Faroe Islands
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If you think you’ve mastered British slang, don't forget you'll need to also take on regional variations. In the northeast, you’ll hear "Wey, aye" instead of "Well, yes." Meanwhile across the border in Scotland, anything that’s tiny is referred to as "wee," although in England the word is slang for urine, so it’s definitely a wise move to remember which country you’re in. In Yorkshire, anyway becomes "any road" and on the opposite side of the Pennines, you’ll hear "ta-ra" instead of goodbye from a Scouser (a person from Liverpool) and "our kid" to describe a younger member of the family in northern cities such as Manchester.

East London has its own language in the form of Cockney Rhyming Slang. You don’t need to use it yourself, but it’s handy to understand since most of the slang words aren’t used in their full sense. Hence, "Have a butcher’s" means to take a look (from a butcher’s hook), going "Up the apples" is upstairs (short for apples and pears), and "Me ol’ China" means mate (china plate). Occasionally, you’ll hear a whole phrase such as "Would you Adam and Eve it?" (believe it).

Of course, this guide is just a taster. Come on over and have a chin wag and we’ll chunter on until you tell us to put a sock in it. All right?


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