Say What?! British Slang and Phrases

Say What?! British Slang and Phrases

We’re probably all familiar with something being smashing at this point. (As in, this blog is smashing.)

The usage of slang words around the world can be very amusing to those not in the know. There’s something uncanny about hearing a phrase, profession, or object you’re familiar with being referred to in a new way.

In England, there’s an infamous Cockney Rhyming Slang that was invented by market traders and street merchants and was probably first used to disguise what was being said from passers-by. Cockney Slang uses language in one of the most interesting ways, by rhyming with what you mean but substituting different (and dissimilar) words. For example, “I’m Hank Marvin!” translates to “I’m starving” and apples and pears to stairs.

However, depending on where you are in England, colloquialisms or slang may differ, or be a completely different kettle of fish.  If you go as far north as Newcastle, you might hear someone call themselves clamming, for starving or refer to a set of stairs as dancers. 

Read on to find out how to use phrases like “This weather is pants” or what your British aunt means by telling you “It’s parky out there!” when she visits on her next holiday.

Don’t be such a wind-up merchant

Interpretation: I might be silly and a bit gullible, but please stop teasing me!

Don’t get shirty with me

Interpretation: The person you’re talking to is getting aggravated and you’re probably not happy about it. Think of sassy, bad-tempered, and a bit annoyed.

Play some footie

Interpretation: When you’re going to go play some soccer, as in football, as in soccer.

Having a good old chinwag

Interpretation: When you’re having a very good chat with friends, more than likely with some gossip involved.

To be an anorak

Interpretation: You’re such a geek or nerd. Breaking this one down a bit, it means a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps a bit obsessive, in niche subjects.


Interpretation: When you’re absolutely stunned or surprised and find yourself at a complete loss for words. This makes a bit more sense if you already know that the word gob is slang for mouth.  Then, take this as a reference to being shocked by a blow to the mouth, or to clapping your hand to your mouth in astonishment.

Everything has gone all pear-shaped!

Interpretation: All of those well-laid plans have gone terribly, terribly awry. Mostly, this means everything has gone wrong. Maybe the plans started as apple shaped?

I’m knackered

Interpretation: You’re so exhausted that you can’t do anything else. Actually, this one has a bit of a dark past as it derives from the slang word knacker which means to kill. So, when you’ve completely tired out or just can’t go on, you’re knackered!


Interpretation: Cockney Slang relating to Newton Heath, an area of Manchester, England. This phrase is one of those fun rhyming ones…can you guess? Okay, here’s a hint: What if we told our kiddos to, “Get up those apples and pears & brush your Newtons because you must be just knackered by now!”

I’m quids in

Interpretation: Finding yourself in a very favorable or advantageous position or when you stand to make a lot of money from a bet or business venture. If you won the lotto, you’d most definitely be quids in.


Interpretation: Contrary to being quids in you can also be skint which means to be broke or out of luck. You can also ask someone for some cash, let’s say if you forget your wallet, by asking them if they’ve got any dosh? (Quids in = flush with it, skint = broke, dosh = so broke you’re borrowing from your friends. )

It’s parky out

Interpretation: It’s very chilly out, put on a sweater.

A Bobby or Dibble 

Interpretation: Comparable to American slang words such as heat, fuzz, or gumshoe, these terms refer a person on the police force. Bobby is used as a nickname for Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the London police. Dibble can also refer to the police and comes from the cartoon Top Cat and Top Cat’s main foe Officer Dibble.

Nineteen to the dozen

Interpretation: To speak rapidly and energetically. Think of it this way, there are 12 in a dozen, 13 in a baker’s dozen, and 19 in someone’s dozen who is trying to get all of them to fit as fast as possible without realizing there are actually only 12 spots.

Give your ‘ead a wobble

Interpretation: To rethink something, or think it over. Maybe you could give your ‘ead a wobble over being shirty.

That’s Pants! 

Interpretation: Mostly this is used to describe something that isn’t very good, or maybe didn’t turn out how you thought it would. “That’s pants! I just washed my car and now it’s raining!” or “Maya’s PowerPoint party was pants”.

To throw (or put) a spanner into the works

Interpretation: A problem that prevents something from happening the way that it was planned, similar to the phrase throw a wrench in the plans. It could be a person that foils the plans or the lost wallet right before a road trip, regardless, it’s best to keep spanners out of the works. 

(10-1, bet you read those in a British accent.)

Arianna Ambrutis

Having spent much of her life as nomadically as possible, Ari found a home with GET. As far as her travels have taken her, she's worked on an archaeological dig in Israel, sailed around Greek isles, experienced a crazy sunburn in Turkey, adores tomatoes in Italy, and thinks Paris and New York are just the bee’s knees. With her degree in Cultural Anthropology, Ari loves exploring a culture’s traditions, colloquialisms, and (most importantly) cuisines.

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