“England and America… two nations divided by a common language.”
Here’s a fun list of British slang and other colloquial English words and phrases which might be confusing for Americans and others not used to British culture.
These are taken from the Glossaries at the back of my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries books.
999 – the number to dial for emergencies in the U.K.
a dog’s dinner – a complete mess or muddle, also sometimes expressed as “a dog’s breakfast” (may come originally from an expression referring to a cooking mishap which is only fit for a dog’s consumption.)
A&E – Accident & Emergency department at the hospital (American: ER)
Allotment – a plot of land which can be rented on an individual basis, to grow your own plants and vegetables – a plot of land which can be rented on an individual basis, to grow your own plants and vegetables
(fall into) “a shambles” – a mess, a chaotic situation
Arse – buttocks, the behind (American: ass. NB. “ass” in British English only refers to a donkey)
Arse over tit – a vulgar idiom to express “falling upside-down”
At loggerheads – in a violent disagreement over something, usually when neither side will give in
Bacon butty – slang term for bacon sandwich
Barking (mad) – crazy (eg. “He’s absolutely barking”)
Barmy – crazy
Bickies – short for “biscuits”: small, hard, baked product, either savoury or sweet (American: cookies. What is called a “biscuit” in the U.S. is more similar to the English scone)
Bin (Dustbin) – container for rubbish (American: trashcan)
Biscuits – small, hard, baked product, either savoury or sweet (American: cookies. What is called a “biscuit” in the U.S. is more similar to the English scone)
Blast! – an exclamation of annoyance
Blighter – a person who is regarded with contempt, irritation, or pity
Blighty – an informal (and usually affectionate) term for Britain or England; it was originally used by British soldiers in World War I and World War II.
Blimey – an expression of astonishment
Blinding – adjective used as an intensifier to express extremes, a bit similar to “bloody” but less rude, eg. “the party was a blinding success”
Bloke – man (American: guy)
Bloody – very common adjective used as an intensifier for both positive and negative qualities (e.g. “bloody awful” and “bloody wonderful”), often used to express shock or disbelief (“Bloody Hell!”)
Blusher – a cosmetic cream or powder which is applied to the cheeks to give it a rosy colour (American: blush)
Bob (“spare a bob or two”) – a pound; (historically, a bob was slang for a shilling but inflation has raised its value!)
Bobby – affectionate slang term for a policeman; derived from the nickname for Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police. Often used in the phrase: “village bobby” to refer to the local community police officer who looks after small English villages.
Boffin – a person with specialist knowledge or skill, usually in science and technology, but often used in the sense of “a nerd”
Bog Standard – perfectly ordinary, unexceptional
Bollocking – a strong reprimand, a telling-off.
Bollocks! – an expression of dismissive contempt or disagreement, same as “Rubbish!”
Bonkers – crazy
Boot – rear compartment of the car, used for storage (American: trunk)
Bop – (v) to dance or (n) a dance; a term often used by university students
Bugbear – something that is a source of obsessive anxiety or irritation, a thorn in your side
(a poor) Bugger – there are several meaning for “bugger” but in this context, it refers to an unfortunate person, similar to “poor sod”
Bugger! – an exclamation of annoyance
Bum – the behind (America: butt)
(to have a) Bust-up – to have a big fight or argument
Cake slice – a utensil with a flat, triangular shaped head used for cutting and serving slices of cake
Canteen – a restaurant provided by an organization such as a military camp, college, factory, or company for its soldiers, students, staff, etc
Carpark – a place to park vehicles (American: parking lot)
(to) Catch someone out – to detect that someone has done something wrong or made a mistake
Cheers – a casual greeting used for both thanks and farewell
Chips – thin, long rectangular pieces of deep-fried potato (American: fries)
Chock-a-block – very crowded; crammed full of people or things
Chum – close friend (American: buddy)
(to) Chuck – throw
Chuffed – very pleased
Ciggie – short for cigarette
Clotted cream – a thick cream made by heating full-cream milk using steam or a water bath and then leaving it in a shallow pan to cool slowly. Typically eaten with scones and jam for “afternoon tea”
Cock-up – a terrible mistake, to make a mess of a situation
Coconut Shy – a game at a fair where balls are thrown at coconuts to try to knock them off stands
Codswallop – nonsense (an old-fashioned expression expressing contempt/ridicule)
Council estate housing – cheap housing provided by the government for those on low income
Cow – a derogatory term for a woman who is unpleasant, stupid, or annoying
Cripes – an exclamation of surprise or dismay
Cross – angry, annoyed
Cuppa – slang term for “a cup of tea”
Cut up rough – to become very angry
Different kettle of fish – a different situation, a different state of affairs
Dishy – handsome, attractive (used for men)
(to) Do a bunk – to make a hurried or furtive departure or escape
(to) Do a runner – to leave hastily, to run away – especially to avoid paying for something or be caught out
(to) Do your/his nut – to become extremely angry
Dodgy – shifty, dishonest
Dogsbody – a junior or unimportant person who does all the running around and menial tasks for others
(a) Domestic – short for “domestic dispute”; an argument, usually between a husband and wife
Dosh – slang term for “money”
Drink driving – drunk driving
Elevenses – a break for a snack taken mid-morning, usually around 10:30a.m. to 11a.m., also known as “morning tea”
Fête – a public function usually held outdoors and in the warmer months of the year, often to raise funds for a charity. It includes entertainment in the form of old-fashioned games and stalls which sell goods and refreshments (American: fair)
Fib – to tell a lie (usually small, white lies), also used as a noun
Finickity – very fastidious and meticulous, derived from “finicky” but more often used in British English.
Flat-out – very busy, doing something as fast and as hard as you can
Flutter – a small bet or wager, eg. “have a flutter on the horses”
(to) Fob someone off – to appease someone by evasion or deceit
Foolscap – a standardized paper size (about 13 × 8)
Football – known as “soccer” in the United States
Full on – intent, relentless (usually in the context of “very busy”)
Gabble – talk a lot, chatter
Get stuck into – to do something very enthusiastically
(to) Get your knickers in a twist – to get very agitated or angry about something
Git – someone despicable who has taken advantage of you
(to) Give a stuff – to care, usually used in the negative sense (eg. “I really couldn’t give a stuff!” = I really don’t care.)
(to) Give a toss – to care
Go down a treat – be very well received
Gormless – lacking sense, very foolish
Guv’nor – an informal term for one’s boss or someone in a position of authority (particularly used in the police force to refer to a higher ranking officer); occasionally still used as a respectful term of address
Half-arsed – half-hearted, not done with proper effort or thought (American: half-assed)
Hammered – very drunk
Hang on a tick – “hang on a moment”, wait a moment
Have a nosy around – to snoop around, to be curious and sneak into somewhere or to look into something, often without permission
(to be) Having you on – to delude or dupe you, to pretend something is true when it is not, usually as a tease or a joke
Hobnob – a type of traditional British oat biscuit, often dunked in tea. Also used as a verb – to “hobnob with someone” meaning to hang out / spend time in a friendly manner (usually used in the context of being with celebrities or other rich/power/famous personalities)
Holiday – an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in travelling (American: vacation)
Hoo-ha – a fuss, a disturbance
Hooligan – a young man who does noisy and violent things as part of a group or gang
Hoopla – a game at a fair where you throw rings from behind a line and try to encircle one of several prizes
Hotchpotch – a confused mixture (American: hodgepodge)
Hot toddy – an old-fashioned drink made of liquor mixed with water and honey or sugar, and sometimes herbs and spices
Ice-lolly – sweet frozen treat (American: popsicle)
In a jiffy – in a moment, very quickly
(to be/to have been) “in the wars” – to have suffered in some way, particularly in terms of physical injuries or dishevelled appearanace
* “in / to hospital” – in British English, this phrase is used without the article, for example, “take him to hospital” or “my sister is in hospital”
Interval – a break between acts of a performance (American: intermission)
Jaffa Cake – a quintessential round British biscuit (cookie) named after Jaffa oranges. It consists of a Genoise sponge biscuit base, covered with a layer of orange-flavoured jelly, which is then covered with a coating of chocolate. They are absolutely delicious, especially with a cup of English tea!
Joe Bloggs – the everyday man on the street (American: Joe Nobody)
Jumper – a warm, often woolly garment, which is worn by being pulled over the head, similar to a sweater. Contrast this with a cardigan, which has buttons down the front. (NOTE: this word has a different meaning in the United States, where it refers to a type of girl’s dress, a bit similar to a pinafore)
(to) Keep mum – to remain silent about something, especially so as not to reveal a secret. It originates from the “mmmmmm” sound that people make when trying to talk with their mouths closed and or with a hand clamped over their mouth.
Knackered – very tired, exhausted (can also mean “broken” when applied to a machine or object); comes from the phrase “ready for the knacker’s yard”—where old horses were slaughtered and the by-products sent for rendering, different from a slaughterhouse where animals are killed for human consumption)
Knickers – underpants, panties (usually for women)
Knobhead – idiot
Ladybird – a small beetle with a distinctive red coat covered in white spots (American: ladybug)
(to) Lay into (someone) – to attack violently with words or blows
(to) Leg it – to run away quickly, usually to escape someone/something
Let the side down – to fail to do your bit as part of a team, to disappoint your colleagues or team members
Lie-in – when you remain in bed, lazing around, even after you’re awake, often done as a special treat on weekends (American: sleep-in)
Lift – a compartment in a shaft which is used to raise and lower people to different levels (America: elevator)
Lippie – slang term for lipstick
Locum – a person who stands in temporarily for someone else of the same profession, especially a cleric or doctor
Loo – toilet
(To not have a) Look-in – to not have a chance to do something or to succeed
Lose your rag – to lose your temper, to suddenly become very angry
MI6 – the British Secret Intelligence Service
Miffed – to be offended and annoyed
Mingin’ (minging) – derogatory slang term to describe something very unattractive or unpleasant
Moggie – a mix-breed cat
(to) Muck around / about – (1) to “muck around” is to act silly and behave in a childish way, play around and waste time; (2) to “muck about” with something is to tinker or play around with it; (3) to “muck someone around” is to deliberately inconvenience them and treat them badly, eg. “he kept mucking her around and changing the time of their date”
Mug – face
Mugging – an assault and robbery in a public place
Nappies – a piece of disposable absorbent material wrapped round a baby’s bottom and between its legs to absorb waste. (American: diapers)
Nark(ed) – annoyed, exasperated
Natter – to gossip, have a friendly chat
(to) Nick – to steal
Nosh – food (usually of the slang variety)
Nutter – a crazy person, a madman (but often used in an affectionate way, e.g. “You nutter!” as you laugh at a friends’s joke)
O.A.P. – Old Age Pensioner
Off your own bat – spontaneously, at your own instigation, without being prompted by someone else. Originated from a cricketing term.
Off your trolley – crazy, mad (American: off your rocker)
On to a loser – be involved in a course of action that’s bound to fail
One sandwich short of a picnic – a derogatory term to describe someone who seems simple, stupid, or crazy
Packed lunch – home-made lunch packed into a bag or lunchbox to take to school or work.
Pants! – rubbish! (an exclamation of contempt) – can also be used to express dismay
Peaky – tired, pale
Pillock – an idiot, a stupid person
(to) Pinch – to steal
Pissed – drunk (not to be confused with the American meaning of this word, which means “angry” – in the UK, that meaning would be conveyed by “pissed off”)
Plastered – very drunk
Plod – a slang term / nickname for a policeman
Plonker – an annoying idiot
Poncy – pretentious, affected
Pork Scratching – crispy, salty snack made of roasted pork skin (American: pork rinds)
Porter – usually a person hired to help carry luggage, however at Oxford, they have a special meaning (see Special terms used in Oxford University below)
Posh – high class, fancy
Post shop – post office combined with a shop selling a variety of everyday items and groceries, often found in small towns and villages
Poxy – riddled with pox, third-rate
Prat – idiot, often a superior, condescending one
Pub grub – food served in a pub
Pudding – in the U.K., this refers to both “dessert” in general or a specific type of soft, jelly-like dessert, depending on the context.
Punter – colloquial term for a paying guest or customer, particularly in a pub
Put paid to (eg. your plans) – to stop abruptly, to destroy
Queue – an orderly line of people waiting for something (American: line)
Quid – slang term for one pound
(to) Ring – call (someone on the phone)
Rotter – someone to be regarded with contempt
Row – an argument
RSPCA – The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; the largest animal welfare charity in the UK
(to do a) Runner – to run away, escape
Run-in – a confrontation
Santa’s Grotto – usually found in a department store or shopping centre at Christmas time, this is a temporary area (often in the shape of a cavern) that is brightly decorated with Christmas ornaments and where children can meet an actor dressed up as Santa Claus, take photos with him and possibly receive gifts from him.
(to) Scarper – to escape, run away
Scrounge – to try and obtain something (typically food or money) at the expense of others or by stealth
Scupper – to spoil, often used in the context of plans
(to) Send someone off/away with a flea in their ear – to reprimand someone sharply, to deliver as stinging reproof or rebuff which makes someone go away, feeling discomfited.
Shaft / Shafted – treat (someone) harshly or unfairly ; to be treated badly or unfairly eg. “the lawyer shafted me with his fees”
Shag – (v) to have sexual intercourse with or (n) the act
Semi – short for “semi-detached”, a type of house which shares ones wall with another, i.e. is joined to another house on one side.
Skip (Bin) – giant metal container for construction waste and other big items of rubbish, often used in building & renovation (American: dumpster)
Sloshed – very drunk
Smarmy – behaving with a superior attitude
Shandy – beer mixed in equal parts with a soft drink, usually lemonade, ginger beer, apple juice
Shattered – very tired, exhausted
Snug – a small, comfortable area in a pub or inn
Snog/Snogging – kiss/kissing
Sod – a term used to describe someone foolish, idiotic or unfortunate. Can be used in both a contemptuous manner (“He’s a lazy old sod!”) or in an affectionate or pitying way (“Poor sod—he never saw it coming.”)
Sod off – “get lost”, go away, stop bothering me; milder version of the phrase using the F-word.
Sodding – am adjective used as an intensifier, usually in a negative context
Sop – something done or given to appease someone who didn’t get what they really wanted
Sort-out – the activity of tidying and organising things, especially sorting them into categories
Stroppy – grumpy and irritable (often used in conjunction with “cow” to describe a bad-tempered woman who is unpleasant and unlikeable)
Stuff (something)! – an expression of frustration, showing contempt and apathy towards something (another way to say “I don’t care! Or “Who cares about…!”)
(to be) Stuffed – to be in deep trouble (milder form of the F-word version)
Stuffed shirt – a pompous, righteous person
(to) Stump up for (something) – to pay an amount of money unwillingly
Swine – (pig) someone to be regarded with contempt
Ta – slang for “thank you”, more often used in the north of England
Take a punt – to take a gamble at something, make a guess, give it a go
(to) Take against (something or someone) – to take a violent dislike to, to feel hostile towards, often without good reason
(to) Take the micky – to joke about something, similar to “pull my leg”
(to) Talk up (something or someone) – to praise and promote something
Takeaway – food that’s taken away from the restaurant to be eaten elsewhere (American: takeout)
Telly – television
Torchlight – light from a torch, a portable battery-powered electric lamp. (American: flashlight. NOTE – different from the American usage of “torch” which is a blowlamp)
Tosser – a despicable person
Totty – a slang term for an attractive, sexually desirable woman
Tuck into – to eat with great enthusiasm
Twit – an idiot, often used in an affectionate context
Twitcher – a particular type of birdwatcher whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds
Uni – commonly used abbreviation for “university”
Undies – slang for “underwear”
Union Jack – the national flag of the United Kingdom, formed by combining the red and white crosses of St George, St Andrew, and St Patrick and retaining the blue ground of the flag of St Andrew
Up the spout – slang term for “pregnant”
Up to snuff – up to the required standard. The phrase originated in the early 19th century and is derived from the practice of inhaling a powdered form of tobacco called ‘snuff’, which was considered important for the fashionable gentlemen of society. (Similar to “up to scratch”)
Vicar – a member of the clergy in the Church of England (similar to American pastor, minister)
Wanker – a despicable person
Wee – small, tiny
Whinge – to moan and complain (usually in an annoying way)
Willy – penis
(to) Wind someone up / to be wound up by – this has two similar but subtly different meanings: (1) to tease someone or play a joke on them, get them agitated on purpose but usually in a non-malicious way; (2) to deliberately annoy or provoke someone.
The meaning will depend on context. eg. one friend laughing at another friend’s incredible story: “You’re winding me up!” (first meaning: you’re teasing me!) – VS one friend complaining about the second friend’s music (second meaning eg. “You’re really winding me up! Stop playing your music so loud!”)
Works a treat – works very well, very effectively
Yob – rude, uncouth, thuggish person, often used by snobs to describe the lower classes (It was coined in 18th century England as part of the fad amongst upperclasses to speak backwards. Formed by spelling ‘boy’ backwards)
Yonks – a long time, “ages”
Arvo (Australian) – afternoon
Barbie (Australian) – barbecue
Drongo (Australian) – idiot
Grub (Australian) – food
College – one of thirty or so institutions that make up the University; all students and academic staff have to be affiliated with a college and most of your life revolves around your own college: studying, dining, socialising. You are, in effect, a member of a College much more than a member of the University. College loyalties can be fierce and there is often friendly rivalry between nearby colleges. The colleges also compete with each other in various University sporting events.
Don / Fellow – a member of the academic staff / governing body of a college (equivalent to “faculty member” in the U.S.) – basically refers to a college’s tutors. “Don” comes from the Latin, dominus—meaning lord, master.
D.Phil – Doctor of Philosophy, the equivalent degree to a Ph.D at other universities.
** at Oxford, one “reads” a subject, one doesn’t take it—for example, someone might ask what subject you took and you would say, “I read History at Magdalen.”
Formal Hall – three-course formal evening meal in the college dining hall, with a dress code: gowns must be worn, together with jacket and tie for men, smart outfit for women. The meal is preceded by the banging of the gravel and the reading of college grace in Latin. Some colleges have Formal Hall every evening whereas others only have it on certain nights of the week.
Fresher – a new student who has just started his first term of study; usually referring to First Year undergraduates but can also be used for graduate students.
Gown – formal black academic robe worn by students and staff, particularly during Formal Hall, Examinations and during Matriculation and Graduation. There are various types of gowns: the simplest is the short, sleeveless Commoner gown which all Freshers start with; if you have shown outstanding achievement in your first year, you then receive a University scholarship and can change to the longer, bat-winged Scholar’s gown.
K.A. – the King’s Arms, one of the most popular student pubs in Oxford
High Table – refers to both the table and the actual dinner for the dons of a college and their guests. Often situated at one end of the dining hall.
Matriculation – the ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre when a student is officially conferred membership of the University of Oxford. Usually takes place in the student’s first term, at the end of the first week in Michaelmas Term—however there are additional ceremonies at the end of Michaelmas and also Hilary and Trinity Term. You must matriculate within two terms of starting your course, otherwise you will be unable to take a University examination.
Michaelmas Term – the first term in the academic year (autumn), followed by Hilary Term (spring) and Trinity Term (summer).
Noughth Week – Oxford terms are shorter than at other universities and can be very intense; they are divided into eight weeks with a Week 0 or “Noughth Week” coming just before the start of Full Term (when official teaching begins). During Noughth Week, students usually arrive, settle into their rooms, organise things like their gowns and sub fusc, their bicycles, and other things for student life, and there may be some social events, especially for the Freshers.
Porter(s) – a team of college staff who provide a variety of services, including controlling entry to the college, providing security to students and other members of college, sorting mail, and maintenance and repairs to college property.
Porter’s Lodge – a room next to the college gates which holds the porters’ offices and also the “pigeon holes”—cubby holes where the internal University mail is placed and notes for students can be left by their friends.
Quad – short for quadrangle: a square or rectangular courtyard inside a college; walking on the grass is usually not allowed.
“Read” a subject – at Oxford, one “reads” a subject, one doesn’t take it—for example, someone might ask what subject you took and you would say, “I read History at Magdalen.”
S.C.R. – the Senior Common Room, for the Fellows
Sent Down – to be forcibly expelled by the University or College authorities. At Oxford University, you always “come up” at the start of term and “go down” at the end of term, regardless of the actual geography of your home town in relation to Oxford.
Sub-fusc – full academic dress worn during all formal University ceremonies; consists of your gown, mortar board and for men, a dark suit with a white collared shirt, bow tie and black shoes, for women, a dark skirt with white collared shirt, black ribbon and black shoes and stockings.
Tutor for Admissions – a member of the college faculty who oversees the intake of new undergraduate students each year
A British biscuit is an American cookie and an American cookie is a British cookie and an American biscuit is a British scone and an American scone is something else entirely. Simple!
– Oxford Dictionaries blog