Travel blog

British Words & Phrases Americans Don’t Understand

Posted by Diana Cowgill on Oct 12, 2021 8:09:14 AM

British and American flag in front of Big Ben

While Americans and Brits technically speak the same language, all it takes is five minutes down the local to realize that theirs is a very different form of English. From insults to compliments, technical talk to slang, there’s plenty to confound those of us from across the pond. Learn how to navigate this foreign land with just a few common British English words and phrases:

British Words for Food

Hungry Americans traveling in Britain might feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland. What’s up is down, what’s down is up. Fries are chips, chips are crisps, cookies are biscuits, and cake is pudding. This guide will help you keep your wits during mealtimes:

  • Chips: Fries. They’re usually thick-cut and served with malt vinegar.
  • Crisps: Chips. Of the potato or tor-till-uh variety. Cheetos are called “puff snacks,” and Doritos are called “Doritos.”
  • Pudding: The dessert course. From Treacle Tart to Knickerbocker Glory, pudding is the perfect end to a great meal.
  • Biscuit: Cookie.
  • Lolly: Popsicle.
  • The Local: The friendly neighborhood pub that not even the smallest villages are without. One key thing to remember is that you don’t go to the local, you go down the local.
  • Cuppa: A cup of tea. “Cuppa” is never used for anything but the national drink.
  • Rashers: Slices of cured ham.If you order rashers, you might or might not get what Americans consider bacon. Ask for “streaky” if you want the fragrant, crispy breakfast staple.
  • Elevenses: A hobbit-approved light snack break of coffee, tea, and biscuits. Served between breakfast and lunch, around 11 in the morning, elevenses is not brunch.
  • Jar: A pint of beer.

British Weather Words

Brits love nothing more than chatting to strangers about the weather. If it’s the normal gray and drizzly, they’ll have plenty of say. And if it’s sunny, they’ll talk about nothing else!

  • Mac: A raincoat, specifically a waterproof Mackintosh.
  • Wellies: Wellington boots, the tall rubber rain boots used for traipsing through the countryside.
  • Brolly: An umbrella. They have only been used successfully as a flying apparatus by one practically perfect individual, so we suggest relying on them for rain protection only.
  • It's Blowing a Hooley: A storm with intense winds. It was blowing a hooley when Hagrid first told Harry Potter he was a wizard.
  • It’s Brass Monkeys Out: It’s cold!
  • It's Glorious: It’s hot.
  • I’m Melting: It’s hot.

Synonyms for British Words Americans Don’t Understand

The UK and America are two nations divided by a common language. They say po-tay-toe, we say po-tah-toe. They say Jam Sandwich, we say police car. Here are some helpful direct synonyms:

  • Fringe: Bangs. The forehead sweeping hairstyle favored by Jackie Kennedy, Farrah Fawcett, and Liz Taylor’s fabulous version of Cleopatra.
  • Jumper: Sweater.
  • Trainer: Sneaker.
  • Dummy: Pacifier.
  • Plaster: Band-aid.
  • Nappy: Diaper.
  • Hole-in-the-Wall: ATM.
  • Footpath: Sidewalk.
  • Lift: Elevator.
  • Naughts and Crosses: Tic-tack-toe.
  • Trolley: Shopping cart.
  • Torch: Flashlight.
  • Boot: Car trunk.
  • Juggernaut: 18-wheeler.
  • Zed: The letter Z.
  • Dosh: Cash.
  • Footpath: Sidewalk.
  • Footy: Soccer, known here as football. The beautiful game is virtually a national religion.
  • Do: A party.
  • Ring: Call on the phone. Ring your mates, ring the chip shop, ring your work to tell them you’ve got tickets to the footy match and won’t be in ‘til Monday.
  • Fancy Dress: A costume.
  • Nervy: Nervous, fidgety.
  • Chuffed: Happy. One would be quite chuffed, for example, if they saw the Union Jack flying during their tour of Buckingham Palace. It would mean the Queen was at home, likely dressed in something fabulous paired with pearls and smart yet sensible shoes!
  • Loo: Toilet.
  • Toilet: Restroom.
  • Naff: Tacky.
  • Nick: To steal.
  • Bobby: Police officer.
  • Jam Sandwich: Patrol car. Certain British police cars are painted white or grey with a bright orange stripe running down the side. They somewhat resemble jelly sandwiches, particularly if you’re hungry.

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British Nicknames for Cities and Countries

Brits love a good nickname, including places around the UK. You can avoid looking like a bumbling tourist when you hear these words out in the wild. Just nod your head and agree that, aye, The Dubs is beautiful this time of year.

  • Old Blighty: England.
  • Land of Saints and Scholars: Ireland. Medieval Ireland had numerous convents and monasteries, home to some of Europe’s most learned men and women.
  • The Dubs: Dublin.
  • Titanic Town: Belfast.
  • The Big Smoke: London.
  • London Town: London.
  • LDN: London.
  • Auld Reekie: A term of endearment for Edinburgh. The Scottish capital was famously smoky and stinky in the 17th century, and although it smells much better today, the nickname stuck.
  • LPG: The pronounceable nickname for the Welsh town of Llanfairpwll-gwyngyllgogerychwyrndrob-wllllantysiliogogogoch.

Britain’s Most Insulting Sayings

The British are not afraid of hurting your feelings—but their insults are so colorful that you somehow don’t mind. The land of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill is known for its dry wit and vicious putdowns. Here are just a few of the biting terms you might overhear:

  • Yankee: An American.
  • Muppet: A clueless, ignorant person.
  • Dodgy: Not to be trusted.
  • Tosh: Utter nonsense. “It’s absolute tosh that Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar!”
  • Gormless: Very stupid. “Didn’t I feel gormless, putting salt in my cuppa this morning instead of sugar!”
  • Ankle-biters: Children or very small dogs. A term most often used by grumpy men trying to read the newspaper while queued up for the train.
  • Dead from the Neck Up: A biting way to accuse someone of being unintelligent… or of following a rival football team.

Quintessentially British Expressions

Some British sayings and words simply don’t translate. Having a chinwag outside of Brittania? Pish posh, mate! Wouldnae happen! Here are just a few of our favorite odds and sods of British words and phrases:

    • Quid: One pound sterling. Just enough for a packet of crisps and some sweets.
    • Queue: A line, or to line up.
    • Bits and Bobs: Odds and ends.
    • Odds and Sod: Bits and pieces.
    • Couldnae: Couldn’t. Most often used in Scotland. Prounced “coodnee.”
    • Wouldnae: Wouldn’t. Prounced “woodnee.”
    • Shouldnae: Shouldn’t. Prounced “shoodnee.”
    • Willnae: Won’t. Prounced “willnee.”
    • Ta!: Thank you!
    • Moggy: Your average housecat.
    • Know Your Onions: Understanding something. “She certainly knows her onions about footy!”
    • Toodle Pip: Goodbye!
    • Cheerio: Goodbye!
    • Laters: Goodbye! Pronounced “lay-uhs!”
    • Chin Wag: A nice long chat, often over pints down the local.
    • Jolly: Very, quite, exceptionally. “Jolly good!” is the ultimate compliment.
    • Cracking: Great. If you’ve provided the lads down the pub with cracking banter, you’ll certainly be asked back.
    • Bloke: Dude.
    • Lad: Young dude.
    • Bruv: Brother, bro. A shortened version of bruvva, the London cockney pronunciation of brother.
    • Owt: Anything.
    • Bugger All: Nothing, naught. “That lad knows bugger all about owt!”
    • Banter: Conversations between friends. Playful, fun, full of good-natured insults.
    • Scrump: Pilfering fruit from a garden. The fruit must hang over the homeowner’s property line, or it is stealing, not scrumping!
    • Cheesed Off: Feeling upset.
    • Skint: Broke. Having bugger all in the bank.
    • Skive Off: Play hooky.
    • Knackered: Completely exhausted.
    • Pish Posh: What nonsense!
    • Collywobbles: Nervousness to the point of queasiness. Less butterflies in the stomach, more dread in the gut. “Public speaking gives me the collywobbles!”
    • Minted: Very, very rich. Regency romance heroes are generally both minted and handsome.
    • Ramble: A pleasant walk in the countryside. Hiking’s relaxed cousin.

Practice Your British Slang Terms with YMT Vacations

Try out your best British slang on a YMT Vacations tour of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland will give you plenty of chances to use these new British words and phrases around people who will understand them.

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Visit castles, explore swingin’ London, walk the Scottish moors, or go down the pub in a tiny Irish village. These tours offer an unforgettable cultural immersion into these scenic, historical, and friendly countries sitting just across the pond. To join us, call your travel agent or YMT Vacations at 1-888-756-9072.

Topics: Europe, England