British Slang Terms to Listen For Across the Pond

Monday, June 273 min read

Americans are no strangers to casual slang, but in many ways, the Brits take it to the next level. Even though it’s the same language, the differences between American and British slang are so vast that listening to a room full of Brits conversing at full speed might make you feel as though you don’t speak English at all. While the British might have a reputation for being well-mannered and aristocratic, these casual slang terms can be heard on the street, in the shops, and definitely at the pub.


“Proper” is a tough one to define concretely, in the sense that the British use it so frequently to describe many different things. In general, it’s used as an alternative to “very” or “extremely,” but to do something “properly” also means to do it correctly or in the right way. One might say, “That’s a proper good cup of tea,” meaning that not only is it very good, but it’s prepared in the accepted manner.


To describe something as “dodgy” means it’s suspicious or otherwise questionable — it might be used to describe a neighborhood, or a car salesman’s tactics. It could also refer to food that seems like it’s spoiled. It comes from the verb “to dodge,” which appeared in the 1680s meaning “to evade (something) by a sudden shift of place.” This context of sly, quick movement ultimately led to the modern transitive verb definition, which implies an intent “to swindle, to play shifting tricks with,” which extended to the shifty adjective. So, if a deal seems a bit dodgy, or too good to be true, listen to your gut.


To be chuffed is a good thing — it means to be happy or otherwise pleased, particularly if taken by surprise. It first appeared in British dialect in 1860, from the now obsolete “chuff,” meaning “swollen with fat,” a word that emerged in the 1520s. There’s a similar American idiom to be “fat and happy” — to be chuffed isn’t far off.


“Gutted” is the polar opposite of chuffed. It means to be terribly upset. While Americans think of “gutted” in a more literal sense, like one guts a fish to prepare it for eating, the British use this word in a more metaphorical way. The OED reports roots in British prison slang, and it was first cited in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang in 1984. Vacationers might say they are gutted to be going home from holiday.


To be knackered is to be extremely tired. The roots of this slang are in agriculture — it was originally a verb, “to knacker,” meaning “to kill, or castrate (a horse)” (1855), which most likely came from an even earlier usage of “knacker/nacker” as a harness-maker who probably also helped with other horse health-related matters. By the 1880s, people began describing themselves as knackered, which would mean that they felt as tired as an old, sick horse.


The answer to feeling knackered is to take a kip, or a nap. It can also be used as a verb, as in, “I kipped properly last night.” Kip does carry a connotation of sleeping somewhere other than your own bed, related to the Danish kippe, or “hovel, tavern.”


The currency of the U.K. is the pound, but shoppers are likely to hear a cashier say, “That’ll be ten quid.” “Quid” is merely slang for “pound.” It appeared in the 1680s, possibly from the Latin quid, meaning “that which is, essence,” as used in quid pro quo, a Latin phrase indicating an exchange of value.


In British slang, “bloody” is a mild expletive. It’s used to express anger, annoyance, shock, or simply emphasis — for example, “Oh, bloody hell!” According to etymologists, “the use of bloody to add emphasis to an expression is of uncertain origin, but is thought to have a connection with the ‘bloods’ (aristocratic rowdies) of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.” While it's a bit impolite, its usage is so common that it’s become generally acceptable in modern British English.

Featured image credit: Mlenny/ iStock

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