British words and phrases that cause confusion
Language experts have named the most commonly used British words and phrases that cause confusion for non-native English speakers.
The team at award-winning language learning app Busuu ‘have had a butcher’s’ (had a look) at quirky sayings that are familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Britain, but will make no sense if you’re hearing them for the first time.
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Brits love their slang, so you can expect to come across it often in everyday conversations.
Having a starter guide to some of the most commonly used lingo might help you avoid awkward situations and incorporating it into your vocabulary will make the locals think you’re ‘ace’ (awesome, excellent).
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A spokesperson for Busuu said: “Even when you’re a fluent English speaker, you can have a hard time understanding what people are saying when you’re not used to having a ‘chinwag’ (conversation) with Brits.
“Although slang varies per region and evolves all the time, some gems are so embedded into British culture that it’s essential to know them if you don’t want to be caught off guard.
“Whether you’re planning to come to the UK for a holiday or want to understand your favourite British TV series better, then becoming familiar with slang is a great way to fully immerse yourself in the culture.”
Here are explanations of some of the most common British words and expressions which can cause confusion:
Tea – meal or hot beverage?
If someone invites you for ‘tea’, it can mean a nice warm cuppa – or it could also be an invitation to a meal, either a late-afternoon snack or dinner. So don’t be surprised if instead of a hot beverage you’re served a steak dinner.
If someone refers to something – or someone – as the ‘bee’s knees’, then it means that they think that it’s – or they’re – excellent, or that they rate it – or them – highly. This phrase is still in use, although it dates back to the 18th century, and its origin is unknown. Theory is that bees carry pollen on their knees – and that’s how the expression came about.
Spend a penny
Although it sounds confusing, ‘spending a penny’ has nothing to do with money. When you’re at a pub and someone says they’re going to ‘spend a penny’, then they’re not going to return with pints, but instead, they’ve gone to the loo (bathroom).
If someone says that they’re ‘Hank Marvin’, then they don’t mean the British rock ‘n roll guitarist – they mean that they’re starving. The expression comes from Cockney rhyming slang, where the original word is replaced with something that rhymes with it.
What’s better after a long day at work than going back to your ‘gaff’? You guessed it right, gaff means home. It originates from Ireland but is often widely used around all British Isles.
Bob’s your uncle
This phrase is commonly used when describing something that is easy to do. You can use it at the end of a sentence after listing directions. It essentially means “and that’s it” or “voilà”. For example, to get to the house you need to walk straight, take the first turn on the right and ‘Bob’s your uncle’!
This one might be a little bit easier to guess, as ‘bog standard’ stands for something basic or average, but often in a more dismissive way. It has a negative ring to it because the word bog was used for toilets in the past.
Chips vs crisps vs fries
The ‘chips’, ‘crisps’ and ‘fries’ debate is not related to slang but it could be confusing for non-Brits.
Those who are not from the UK are likely to be more familiar with American English. Therefore, if you go out to a restaurant in the UK and your meal comes with ‘chips’, then you can expect to see fries on your plate. If you want a bag of what Americans call 'chips' in the UK, you’ll have to ask for ‘crisps’.
If you’re told that you’ve got good ‘banter’ or ‘bants’, take it as a compliment, because it means that you’ve got a good sense of humour and witty conversation.
Take the biscuit
You can use this phrase when you want to say that someone has been especially annoying or rude.
For example, “My neighbour has always been rude, but blasting music in the middle of the night really takes the biscuit!”
If it’s the end of the month and you haven’t had your pay day yet, then you can say that you’re ‘skint’, which means that you’re broke, or have little money left. It derives from the word skinned.
‘Minging’ was originally used to describe something smelly, but nowadays it’s more broadly used as disgusting or unattractive.
Full of beans
This saying does not mean that you’ve just munched on a can of baked beans. It’s used to describe someone who is full of life or has a lot of energy. The saying has an interesting origin – apparently when horses were fed beans they became more lively and energetic.
You all right?
This is a question that you will hear a lot in the UK. This is just a British way of saying hello and they’re not expecting you to go into detail about how you’re feeling or how your day has been. It’s almost equivalent to the American “What’s up?” and the best response for this is, “Yeah, you?”
Pretty much any word in past tense for drunk
The Brits have a wide vocabulary of words that represent being drunk. More specifically, there’s over 3,000 words to describe a person’s state after they’ve had a drink or two.
Here’s just a small selection of some of them: ‘trollied’, ‘bladdered’, ‘plastered’, ‘wellied’, ‘leathered’, ‘rinsed’, ‘sloshed’, ‘pickled’. The most extreme way to describe someone who has had too many drinks is ‘mortal’.
A few sandwiches short of a picnic
This expression may sound sweet and innocent, but you definitely don’t want to be called a ‘few sandwiches short of a picnic’. It’s a humorous way of saying someone is not intelligent.
If you want to claim something first, then shout out ‘Bagsy!’. It’s equivalent to calling shotgun or dibs.
‘Ta’ is a short way to say thank you. It’s a quick and informal way of showing gratitude and you can hear it a lot on the street. For example, if you’re passing someone or someone holds the door for you then you can say ‘ta’ to them.
If you don’t know what ‘fancy dress’ stands for in the UK then you could get yourself into an awkward situation. If you’re invited to a ‘fancy dress event’, then leave your ball gown at home and bring a fun costume.
‘Stop being mardy’ is what parents say to their children when they’re moody and whining. But it also applies for people who are sulking and feeling sorry for themselves. The saying comes from the word mard which means spoiled.