Every Language Has A Few Phrases That Don’t Always Translate Well. It Appears British English Excels In This!

Being a Brit myself who moved stateside I found that sometimes when I talked about something people would look at me as if I wasn’t speaking English at all.

As a whole making the mistake of thinking my British English would translate over with no problems to American English I found this not to be the case, and just as even now I sometimes have a ‘huh’ moment when someone says something to me, I can’t help but wonder if other people have the same problem understanding us Brits.

We Brits don’t help ourselves when we turn the slang on and then wonder why no one understands us.

I’ve thought of a few phrases that are quintessentially British idioms and added some examples of what they mean and how they are used.

I’m sure I’ve missed loads but I found it fun making this list.

“A few sandwiches short of a picnic”

This phrase was first heard from the British comedian Lenny Henry who used it in his Christmas special in 1987 to describe someone who lacked common sense.

“She’s great fun, but she’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”


Most often used to describe a raincoat, it is better known as describing someone a bit geeky.

“Alan is such an anorak when it comes to train trivia.”


The British equivalent of calling ‘shotgun’ so wanting to be in the prime place. It is also used when someone offers up something for free.

“Does anyone want this?”

And someone shouts out “Bagsy!”

“Bee’s knees”

Despite its British origins, it became popular in the USA in the 1920s, since then the phrase has dwindled. The bee’s knees was a reference to something cool and awesome.

“The Beatles are the bee’s knees.”


This is about excessive drinking. Such as someone going drinking for anything from 24 hours to a four-day bender.

“I bumped into him towards the end of his four-day bender. He was a wreck.”


This refers to when someone has been lucky by achieving something skillfully and without fault.

“And did you see that equalizing goal in the last minute of injury time? He pulled a blinder there.”

“Bloody Hell”

Just think WTF and you’ll understand what a Brit is saying.

“Bob’s your uncle”

The British equivalent of ‘Hey presto!’ means that something is not as difficult as you first think.

“Press down the clutch, put it into gear, then slowly ease off the clutch again. Bob’s your uncle — you’re driving!”


Describes something basic.

“How was the hotel?” “Oh, nothing exciting to report. Just your bog-standard room, really.”


In American English, this is the trunk of a car.

“Shove the shopping in the boot.”

“Botch job”

Where a repair job has been done in haste and will just fall apart at any time,

“Frank did a botch job on these shelves — they’re wonky!”


Abbreviation of “umbrella.”

“Grab your brolly, it’s raining outside.”

“Budge up”

Instead of just saying ‘can you move up’ in for example a seating area the Brits ask someone to budge up.

“Hey, there’s loads of room on that bench. Budge up and make some room for us, too!”

“Builder’s tea”

This is about a very strong cup of tea with different amounts of milk added, not so sure all builders like their tea strong though.

“How do you want your tea, weak, medium or builder.”


A name for a task that isn’t always easy to do or in a comfortable way.

“He handles a screwdriver very cack-handedly.”

“Cack” is also an old-fashioned slang for feces.


Description of someone who acts out but in a fun way.

“John’s children are absolute rascals — they tied my shoelaces together last week!”

“Those cheeky monkeys.”


Description of people having a catch-up session or gossip. The thoughts behind this are that the jaws of those talking resemble a dog’s tail wagging.

“Those two are having a proper chinwag — I haven’t been able to get a word in edgeways for half an hour!”


When something is full to the brim and can’t have another thing added, or rammed tight, sometimes shortened to ‘chocka’.

“We should’ve taken the other route. This road is chocka!”


Excited and overjoyed about something that fills you with pride.

“I heard you got the promotion. Congratulations! You must be chuffed.”


A huge mistake that screams out to be seen.

“You dropped a clanger there.”


This is about something made up, a lie, fake. The words ‘cod and wallop’ historically meant the kind of rubbish people talk when they are drunk.

Something untrue — often made up for dramatic effect.

“Oh, what a load of codswallop!”

“Cost a bomb”


“Your watch is gorgeous.”

“I should hope so, it cost a bomb.”

“Cream crackered”

This is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘knackered’ ‘tired’

“This week’s done me in already, and it’s only Tuesday. I’m cream crackered.”

“Curtain twitcher”

A nosey neighbor who is always moving their curtains to watch what is going on.

“She’s obsessed with anything that happens on this street. She’s a bloody curtain twitcher, but she still won’t sign for our packages.”


If you think of when we describe someone who is intelligent as ‘bright’ and knows their stuff, then think of the opposite then this will make sense to you.

“She’s a bit dim.”


This refers to something that is easy to do.

“This will be a doddle.”

“Dog’s dinner”

Something to describe a right mess that someone has made.

“You’ve made a dog’s dinner of that.”

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist”

A phrase often used to say to someone to calm down about something, knickers is what Brits refer to as women’s panties.

“Calm down don’t get your knickers in a twist over it!”


This describes something that is a waste of your time. It comes from the word ‘faffle’ 17th Century English which means to flap about.

“We were just faffing about.”


A cigarette.

“Could I pinch a fag, please?”


To “flog” means to sell something.

“I’m trying to flog my old sofa. Do you know anyone that might be interested?”

“Full Monty”

Most assume this came about after the ‘Full Monty’ movie released in 1997, where they strip now to nothing, so meaning you have no limits. The real origins of this are from an old English tailor called Sir Montague Burton where going to him for a full three-piece suit was referred to as ‘Full Monty’. It is also referred to when having a full dish of food for example.

“Our Christmas dinner had everything from sprouts to Yorkshire puddings. If you’re going to have a roast, have the full Monty!”

“Full of beans”

This describes someone full of energy, lively and enthusiastic.

“Goodness, you’re full of beans this morning!”


An informal word for “home.”

” We’ve got a party at our gaff if you fancy it?”


To go off and have some light-hearted fun.

“Off they go again, gallivanting.”


An old term to describe and well-dressed man, “suave” or “dapper,” and is often suited and booted.

“That man he’s a proper geezer.”

“Give me a tinkle on the blower”

This is about giving someone a call.

“Tinkle” refers to a phone’s ring, while “blower” is slang for telephone and refers to the device that predated phones on Naval ships. Sailors would blow down a pipe to their recipient, where a whistle at the end of the pipe would sound to spark attention.

“Give me a tinkle on the blower.”


Reference to being shocked and bewildered over something.

“I was gobsmacked!”


When someone is upset or disappointed about something not turning out the way they had hoped.

“I was absolutely gutted.”

“Hank Marvin”

“Hank Marvin” is Cockney rhyming slang for “starving.”

“I’m Hank Marvin” means “I’m hungry” or “I’m ravenous.”

“When are we going to eat? I’m Hank Marvin.”

“Hush your gums”

Often used to tell someone to be quiet and to stop talking rubbish.

“Hush you gums you’re getting on my nerves”.

“Leg it”

This refers to making a run for it as fast as you can, usually in the context of being caught doing something you shouldn’t.

“That’s when all of the lights came on, and so we legged it.”


This word originates from the British classic of the 1950′ The Goon Show. One of the characters couldn’t pronounce ‘allergy’ correctly and said ‘lurgy’ and boom a new confusing word joined the British language.

“She’s come down with the dreaded lurgy.”


Slightly irritated or annoyed at someone or about something.

“I was a bit miffed; I can’t lie.”


Refers to something unpleasant, it comes from Scottish slang word ‘ming’ which means feces.

“What’s in that sandwich? Is that ham and tuna? That’s minging.”


This refers to something of the highest caliber, meaning mint condition.

“Those shoes are mint!”


This slang came about from the ‘Geordie Shore’ TV show from 2011 and is Newcastle’s sociolet meaning drunk, highly intoxicated and sloppy about it.

“Did you see Adam last night? He was mortal.”


Double meaning which doesn’t help people with understanding what the hell Brits are on about. Nick is slang for stealing something, it is also used about a prison cell or police station.

“Did you just nick that?”

“Don’t get caught, or you’ll end up in the Nick!”

“On the pull”

Someone who has gone out intending to hook up with someone for the night.

“You look nice. Are you going on the pull?”


Rubbish; trash; garbage.

“That is pants.”

Pants is also used in reference to men’s underwear just to confuse the matter.


This is about a situation that has got out of control. It is thought to be old Royal Air Force slang to explain situations that have gone wrong.

“Well, this has all gone a bit pear-shaped.


London used to have choking smogs that settled caused by extreme air pollution. In the Victorian times, they were dense, yellow and black and could easily cause low visibility.

“Be careful when you’re driving — it’s a pea-souper out there.”


In the US when you hear someone is ‘pissed’ it usually refers to someone angry, however in the UK yes it means the same, but it can also mean someone who is drunk.

“Oh leave him alone, he’s pissed!”

“Pop your clogs”

To “pop your clogs” means to die.

“Did you hear what happened to Frank’s old man? He popped his clogs, didn’t he…”


To describe something that isn’t true.

This quintessentially British idiom derives from the Dutch “pap” and “kak,” which translate as “soft” and “dung.”

“What a load of poppycock!”

“Quids in”

Describes someone who has been fortunate in money.

“Quid” is British slang for “pounds,” eg, “ten quid” means £10.

“If it all works out as planned, he’ll be quids in.”


A disorganized mess.

“What’s happened here? This is a shambles!”


Someone short-tempered or irritated might be described as “shirty.”

“Don’t get shirty with me, mister.”


Something that is askew.

“Is it just me or is that painting a bit skew-whiff?”


“Skiving” is the act of avoiding work, often by pretending to be ill.

“Skive” is derived from the French “esquiver,” meaning “to slink away.”

“He skived off school so we could all go on a bender.”


Describes someone untrustworthy.

“Don’t trust him — he’s a smarmy geezer.”

“Sod’s law”

If something can go wrong it will go wrong, a bit like when Americans refer to something as ‘Murphy’s Law’.

“Of course my toast had to land on the floor butter-side-down. It’s Sod’s law.”

“Spend a penny”

This dates back to Victorian times when public toilets were first introduced and you needed to use a single penny to open the lock. It was considered a polite way of saying you needed to go to the toilet.

“I’m going to spend a penny.”

“Splash out”

This is a reference to spending a lot of money on an item or event as an example.

“Wow — you’ve really splashed out on this party!”


Someone who studies hard and is serious about their academic potential.

“I haven’t seen Guy since he started revising for his exams. He’s turned into such a swot!”

“Yeah, he’s been swotting like mad for his Spanish exam.”

“Take the biscuit”

This is where someone acts irritatingly and takes advantage and doesn’t give a thought to anyone else.

“I could just about deal with the dog barking at 5:30 a.m., but the lawnmower at 3 a.m. really takes the biscuit.”

“Take the Mickey”

To “take the Mickey” means to take liberties at the expense of others — and can be used in both a light-hearted and an irritated fashion.

“Take the Mickey” is an abbreviation of “taking the Mickey Bliss,” which is Cockney rhyming slang for “take the p***.”

“Hey! Don’t take the Mickey.”


This is a reference to something going well and is all in good order.

“Everything’s tickety-boo.”


This is about someone talking on a subject in a long-winded way, instead of being concise and to the point.

“I wish he’d stop waffling on.”

“What a load of waffle!”


Someone who is silly or incompetent and in general a bit of an idiot.

“Don’t turn off the light with wet hands, you wally!”


Getting something for nothing.

“I wangled some first-class seats by being nice to the cabin crew!”


To “whinge” means to moan, groan, and complain in an irritating or whiney fashion.

“Quit whinging.”

“Wind your neck in”

This is often used when someone is irritated by a person giving opinions on something that is nothing to do with them.

“Wind your neck in and stop being so nosy!”

“Wind-up merchant”

Often refers to someone who loves to cause friction and mayhem. They say something that will cause an argument and then sit back and watch the fireworks unfold.

“Stop being such a wind-up merchant and be serious for one second!”


Exhausted; tired.

“I was going to go out tonight but when I finished work, I was absolutely zonked.”