British Expressions that Americans Find Funny

The following is a guest post.

I recently published my list of 10 silly American words – expressions that I still find ridiculous, despite having lived here almost 12 years. I generally try avoid situations when I have to utter the words “bangs” or “rutabaga” or other such words that I find to be just, plain silly. I have my pride, after all.

To be fair, there are many British words and sayings which humo(u)r or confuse my fellow Americans. Just last week, I used the word “slapdash” in a meeting, only to get what I call “the look” from colleagues. Anyone who’s been a traveler in a foreign country trying to make themselves understood knows that look. It infers, “I have absolutely no clue what you are trying to say but I’m going to nod and smile nonetheless.”

Being a communicator at heart, getting “the look” pains me. But at the same time – and with the glass half full – I seize the opportunity to clarify my statement (which can sometimes lead to further hilarity) or, at the very least, educate my audience about the meaning of the expression so that the next time they find themselves in the room with a Brit, they can nod sagely rather than inflicting “the look.”

Here’s a shortlist of some of those British expressions that have caused me to be on the receiving end of “the look”:

  • donkey’s years (= a very long time)
  • putting a spanner in the works (= throw a wrench)
  • Bob’s your uncle (= and there you have it)
  • gone barmy (= gone mad)
  • a lotta bottle (= a lot of courage)
  • picking up fag ends (= listening to the end of conversations)
  • dog’s bollocks (= cat’s meow)
  • fancy dress (= costume)
  • chuffed to bits (= very pleased)
  • gobsmacked (= amazed)


I confess that I also proactively alter the way I pronounce several words here to avoid getting “the look.” For example, I’ll ask for wahder, say tooona (instead of tuna) and ask for tom-ay-to. It pains me but “the look” pains me more.

Meantime, my fellow Americans, here are some useful links to sites to help your English cross the pond: Effingpot – the very best of British and British Sayings/British Words.

Samantha is a Brit who came to the US almost 13 years ago with her work, intended to stay a year, went on a blind date …. and is still here! Before moving to the US, she lived in France so technically, she’s not lived in the UK for over 16 years, so please do not ask her for restaurant recommendations in London. You can read more of her observances about the expat life, motherhood and more over at Keeping the Glass Half Full.

Comments

  1. Danielle says

    I hate ‘the look’. I wish people would instead say, “I have no clue what you mean.” So far, in 9 years, no one has said it though.

    Toona. me too. And Vy-damins.

    Never heard of cat’s meow. Dog’s bollocks is much more fun to say :) Though my (American) husband asked is he could use it in front of my mum. Hmmmm. No.

    p.s. what’s wrong with saying rubbish? I get ‘the look’ for saying that. It’s self-explanatory, no?

  2. Diana says

    Maybe “taking the piss out” is too rude to be on this list? ;-) Personally I love that expression, but I know a lot of Americans wouldn’t get it.

    Adore the word “chuffed.”

  3. Hanna says

    Being in Canada, we have a couple of the expressions up here too. I also have a few Brit friends and I’ve learned to add most of the above to my daily banter. We say ‘donkey’s years’ and ‘Bob’s your Uncle’ in Canada ! I love ‘chuffed’ , and ‘rubbish’ is one of my faves. I also love ‘taking the piss out’ and among friends I’ll use it :). Another favourite is “sorted”. I just love reading these posts!

    • Sue Hickey says

      Being in Canada, you probably know Newfoundland, where I am from and which is the most British place in terms of speech and culture outside of Britain. We know all those expressions and use a lot of them. Gobsmacked is common here, and until recently people smoked not cigarettes but fags. Another British expression we use is “Shank’s mare,” meaning on foot. Taking the piss out is common too, and there are parts of Newfoundland where people still retain Irish accents and dialects. But we ALSO celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with a dirty big bonfire!

  4. says

    I love to pull out ones from so long ago that even the Brits probably no longer say them! Ones I heard my grandmother so many years ago; such as, “on his uppers,” which means he’s in such financial straits that the soles of his shoes are worn out and only the shoes’ uppers are at all intact.

  5. Tom says

    Sorry, but ever since John Lennon wrote his little book, “A Spaniard int he Works,” back in the 60’s – we knew what that all meant!

  6. Lillie says

    I was quite amused when a (handsome) English friend offered to “knock me up” during my first visit to London. I just smiled, and said nothing — and he looked at me horrified and said..”I’ve just said something dreadful — haven’t I?”

    I was equally amused when an older gentleman (pensioner) said… “keep your pecker up”.

  7. Jennifer says

    I am a Yank and I like using “chuffed to bits” and “gobsmacked”. Just curious – how do y’all say tuna??

  8. says

    Here’s a few more from my friend in Cornwall, England.

    1) Going Bodmin (= going crazy)

    2) Mad as a bag of frogs

    3) All done and dusted, Bristol style

    4) Enough said, sooner mended

  9. says

    I’m also a bit confused about how to say “tuna” in British English. I must say anyone who thinks rutabaga is a funny word should rethink prawns and marrow! But, I am a die hard anglophile and I try to learn new British words to gobsmack my friends!

  10. Lillie says

    I just read the funniest phrase in a book I’m currently reading.

    In a conversation discussing the condition of a woman hospitalised with serious injuries, the following comment was made:

    “Mrs. Clifton has not made progress and is still in a very poor state. It would not be over-egging the pudding to say that she might not last the night”…..

    (obviously I’m laughing at the “over egging the pudding” comment — not poor Mrs. Clifton’s prognosis – and hopefully no one knocked her up while she was unconscious) :)

  11. says

    Often, lists like these seem to include words which nobody really uses any more, so I was delighted to find in yours several expressions that I use happily and liberally – donkey’s years, chuffed and gobsmacked, for example.
    I like the sound of Effingpot – I will check them out!

  12. Peggy Pence says

    We had friends from Yorkshire who introduced us to phrases we use all the time now:

    “Daft as a ship’s cat” “Daft as a brush” “Thick as two planks”

    Hmmmm… now I’m beginning to wonder whether they liked us or not.

    • says

      Hehe Peggy – as a Yorkshirewoman by heritage I know they do have some of the best phrases there, many of which are even today a mystery to people outside Yorkshire…

      ‘Living ower t’brush’ (living over the brush) = Living together without being married

      ‘Put t’wood in t’oil’ (put the wood in the hole) = Shut the door.

      ‘Frame thissen’ (frame yourself)! = Sort yourself out!

      Confused? :-)

      PS It’s ‘As thick as two short planks’

  13. says

    My (British) husband still recalls with glee the months spent working in a Maine summer camp in the eighties, bamboozling his American colleagues with such vernacular delights as “tracky bottoms” (jogging pants) and “bog roll” (toilet tissue).

    Tuna is pronounced “tyoona” or “tchoona” depending how posh you are.

    Other ‘daft as…’ (or similar) phrases in common current English usage include

    He’s as daft as a box (not bag) of frogs
    He’s got the brains of a rocking-horse
    He’s one pork pie short of a picnic
    or
    He’s lost his marbles (= gone completely bonkers)
    He’s barking, woofing mad.

    I was going to add the ‘chocolate teapot’ expression then saw Melissa had already added it above. I can vouch that ‘chinwag’, ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘rubbish’ are all everyday common English words!

    What about ‘top’ as a word meaning good, first-class or admirable? As in ‘He’s a top bloke, he is’. I’ll push for anything that halts the insidious invasion of the Americanism ‘awesome’ into the English language in lieu of our rich variety of alternatives!

    • Sue Hickey says

      how about stunned as me arse (more Irish than British), common here in Newfoundland? Or “hangashore,” another Irish word (useless man, lazy) or “sleeveen,” (crook, untrustworthy), again Irish Gaelic, still used here in Newfoundland?
      Here our challenge is to keep America at bay in terms of language. We even have our own Dictionary of Newfoundland English, now online.

  14. Tessa Lemke says

    My Mother says Cods Wollop…What is this? I am very American as I have lived here since I was a little girl.

  15. Paul Pritchard says

    Cods Wollop = usually used as “He is speaking a load of Cods Wollop”, meaning he is speaking rubbish (sorry trash or nonsense for our American friends).

    One of my late Fathers favourite expressions, often being used to comment on another persons efforts suddenly being thwarted by an unseen problem, for instance, walking into a locked door, or perhaps tripping over. On witnessing such a mishap, my father, a true English Gentlemen complete with pipe, moustache and monocle, would simply look upon the unfortunate and sum up the accident with “Well that stopped him farting in church”. Always raised a smile.

  16. Katie says

    I loved reading these! I’m British and have only been in the states a year but I have a few to add!

    -‘around the wreakin’- meaning to not get to the point quickly, talking around the houses… Maybe that’s one too?
    – knackered- feeling tired or exhausted

    i hadn’t noticed this one until it was pointed out to me… I was asked why I say ‘right’ in front of some words… Such as “it was a right nightmare”… The only way I could explain it was to say ‘it really was’ something… :-/

  17. says

    I had a hilarious (or excruciating, depending on how you look at it) experience with “chuffed to bits” or “chuffed” as I used the expression, at my wedding.

    An Aunt on my Wife’s side heard that I was “Chuffed” at my wedding started a very awkward conversation by talking about “how we would say obese”…turned out she thought I said “chubbed” and thought I was talking about how I was fat.

  18. Tania says

    Dear Samantha,
    can I use your wonderful post about British slang words for my blog? I am teacher of English and I was chuffed to bits to read about these phrases at this website, so I thought it would be great to share these expressions with my students. Thank you!

    • Melissa says

      Tania, since this is my blog it is up to me to give permission for original content posted here. I will let you link to the post however, I ask that you not copy the post and put it in its entirety on your blog. Google may punish my blog (and yours) if you duplicate content. It’s a pretty big no-no. But as I say, feel free to link to it.

  19. Pedant says

    Lovely article… but if you’re writing about real English, please remember that “infer” does not mean “imply” – it means the opposite. If you imply a meaning, and I get your drift, I infer your meaning.

    cheers
    A. Pedant.

  20. says

    When someone says “Bob’s your uncle” a common response where I come from (London) is “and Fanny’s your Aunt.”
    I always liked the Irish expression to describe being really hungry: “I could eat a horse between two bread vans”
    There’s also ‘thick as a brick’

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