Using British English - 20 Words You Thought You Knew

A Guide for Americans Visiting Britain

Fanny Pack
Bum Bag or Fanny Pack? What you call this could get you in a lot of trouble - or a spot of bother as we say in the UK. Getty Images

It's true, Americans and the British speak the same language but very often don't understand each other at all. If you'll be using British English for the first time, start collecting words and expressions before you leave home. Otherwise, you may find yourself being shocked by local expressions that mean something completely different from what they mean at home.

Here are 20 words and expressions that you probably think you already know the meaning of.

Maybe not.

  1. All right? Even though this sounds like a question, it's just a way of saying, Hi, how are you? as a greeting. It's common in informal situations in London and the southeast. The correct answer to "All right?" is, as a matter of fact, "All right." Using it is a bit like using the French expression "Ca ​va?", which roughly translated means How's it going? to which the answer is "Ca va" - It's going.
  2. Any road Northerners sometimes say this instead of anyway or anyhow - it means the same thing,
  3. Belt up If someone says this to you, they are being rude. It means Shut up. It's most often used by irritated parents telling off their kids.
  4. Biscuits If you expect a nice thick bready thing that's good with gravy or butter and jam, you are going to be disappointed. In the UK a biscuit is what Americans call a cookie.
  5. Bollocks There's no getting around the fact that bollocks are testicles. It's used in exclamations the way Americans might say "Balls!" Usually it means nonsense. Here's an exchange that might help you understand how to use it properly:
    "I heard that Marilyn Monroe is still alive and living in a nunnery."
    "That's just bollocks," or "Now you're talking bollocks."
  1. Bugger This has a variety of meanings, depending upon what word it's combined with. If you just say "Bugger!", it's a mild exclamation of frustration, similar to the way Americans use damn, hell or even darn. "Bugger all," means nothing as in, "I returned the wallet I found and I got bugger all for my trouble." And, if you made a mess of tuning the television, or the computer was just not behaving the way it should, you might say it was "all buggered up."
  1. Bum bag What Americans call a fanny pack. But in the UK a fanny is what a British child might call a lady's "front bottom". Don't say it unless you want funny looks and snide remarks.
  2. Butchers A jokey way of saying a "look" or a "peek" at something. It comes from Cockney rhyming slang - butchers hook = look. It's not commonly used but people do occasionally throw it into informal conversation. Instead of "Let me see that," you might hear, "Let's have a butchers at that."
  3. Chat up Flirting with the aim of picking someone up. Pick up lines are called chat up lines in the UK.
  4. Chuffed When you are really pleased, proud and embarrassed at the same time, you're chuffed. You might be chuffed at receiving an unexpected gift, or at seeing your child win a prize. People usually say that they are really chuffed.
  5. Dogs dinner A mess. It can be used as an unflattering way to describe the way someone looks - "Don't wear that combination. You look like a dogs dinner." Or it can be used to describe any unfortunate mixtures of styles - "With those Tudor windows and the modern glass addition, that house looks like a dogs dinner."
  6. Easy peasy A snap or a cinch. A common expression to describe something very easy, something you could do blindfolded.
  1. Flog No it doesn't mean whipping nowadays - though it can. It means selling. When someone tells you they are going to "Flog the TV on ebay," they are not suggesting a weird practice, but a way of putting something up for sale.
  2. Full stop A period in grammar. British people never use the word period to mean a punctuation mark. Full stop is also used in the same way that period is used, for emphasis - "Belt up. I will not listen to another of your stupid stories, Full Stop!"
  3. Pants Aha, you thought you already cleverly knew that pants only means underpants in Britain and that you should say trousers when you mean clothing seen in public. Well, Gotcha! First off, some people in the north do say pants when they are talking about trousers.
    But recently pants has become an expression for anything that's rubbish, second rate or terrible, as in:
    "What did you think of the show?"
    "It was pants!"
    It's not terribly clear where this usage comes from, but it may be related to a British public school expression, a pile of old pants, meaning something smelly and useless. A few years ago a British government minister (who probably went to a British public school) described someone's application for asylum as a pile of pants and then had to apologize for it.
  1. Pissed Drunk. You can be pissed or get pissed and it has nothing to do with being angry. A related term, piss up is a party that involves a lot of alcohol. And someone who is badly organized and clueless is said to be a person who "couldn't organize a piss up in a brewery."
  2. Quite Be careful how you use this or you might insult someone. It's a modifier that reduces the power of the word it moderates. I once told a British acquaintance that I thought his girlfriend was "quite pretty", meaning it in the American way, ie very pretty. But what I'd actually said was that she was so-so or sort of pretty.
  3. Table To put up for immediate consideration. This is just the opposite of the American meaning. At meetings in the US if something is tabled it is put aside for consideration at some unspecified time in the future. If it is tabled in the UK it is put on the table for discussion now. If you are visiting the UK for a business meeting, it is worth knowing this usage.
  4. Welly Yes, you probably know that a welly is a rubber or Wellington boot. But if someone tells you to "put some welly into it" they are telling you to give it a bit more physical effort, to try harder. It's like being told to put some elbow grease into a job.
  5. Whinge The British way of saying whine. And just like in America, nobody likes a whinger. If you are moaning and groaning about doing those ten more push ups, your trainer might say, "Stop whinging and get on with it."