Illustration by Adelaide Laureau
Ahh good ol’ Blighty*, the little island anchored in the North Atlantic that is renowned for its great comedy and rich tapestry of accents. British English is much like the people of Britain themselves: down-to-earth and full of character. And nothing shows off the country’s character better than the kooky phrases which can be heard all across the land.
To give you a flavour of how Brits genuinely speak, I’ve collected some phrases that visitors to British shores should first learn in order to understand the locals (and win their hearts in the process). These phrases aren’t just handy for holding a conversation though — they’ll also give you an insight into just how the Brits tick!
*(In case you’re wondering, that’s British English for “Britain”)
1. “Fancy a cuppa?”
meaning: “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Everyone knows that Brits love tea, but nothing can prepare you for the ferocity of their addiction to the drink. Tea is more than a beverage. It’s a way of life. Whether you’re at work, visiting friends or simply spending a relaxing day at home, if a British person is around, it won’t take long until you’re posed the question: “Fancy a cuppa?”
The act of brewing and drinking tea brings British people together, and they like nothing more than to pop the kettle on and enjoy a nice “cuppa” (a cup of) tea while putting the world to rights or sharing some juicy gossip. Brits like to think that tea possesses magical qualities that can help solve any problem. No matter how grave the situation, anything can be conquered with a cup of tea in hand!
meaning: “Hey, how are you?”
Sure, Shakespeare was British, but modern-day Brits are decidedly less wordy. Long gone are the days where we would greet each other in the street with a formal “How do you do, Sir?” (while tipping our hats and waving our handkerchiefs in the air). Nowadays, your average Brit under the age of 40 is far more likely to greet their friends or loved ones with a curt “Alright?”
But don’t get your knickers in a twist. This greeting is simply an expeditious, modern version of “Hello!” The greeter is not asking you for an in-depth explanation of your well-being. An authentic “Alright?” can only truly be achieved if the greeter gives a slight nod of the head, while the word itself is to be voiced as a short groan — none of this “top-of-the-morning” chirpiness!
Not sure how to pronounce it yourself? Then listen to the master: Karl Pilkington.
3. “I’m knackered!”
meaning: “I’m tired.”
This is a great one to break out when you’re catching your breath after a serious amount of physical exercise. Nothing could be more British than running for the bus while holding multiple bags of shopping in your hands. Once you’ve made it aboard, sit down next to the little old Granny in the front row, exhale loudly, turn to her, roll your eyes and exclaim, “I’m knackered!”
meaning: playful; mischievous
Brits are famous for their sense of humour, and we like to take life a little less seriously than other nations do. We take pleasure in being playful, so we often use the word “cheeky” to describe small, fun, frivolous activities that make us smile.
- British person: “Do you want to join us for a cheeky pint?”
- Translation: “Would you like to come to the pub to have a pint of beer with us?”
“Cheeky” can also be used as an adjective, of course, and as Brits are always trying to inject our upbeat outlook on everything we do, you’ll often hear optimistic individuals described as “cheeky,” or “having a cheeky smile” that suggests they’re up to a bit of mischief.
5. “I’m chuffed to bits!”
meaning “I’m very pleased.”
This is the perfect phrase to use when describing a great deal of pleasure about something, or displaying immense pride in one’s own efforts. For example, if you’re about to tuck into a delicious full English breakfast, then you could say that you’re feeling “chuffed to bits.” Or, perhaps you’ve just won over someone’s heart by introducing them to your favorite cider. Boom! You could now say that you’re “chuffed to bits with yourself.”
There are no two ways about it: If you want to sound quintessentially British while emphasising a certain characteristic or quality of an object, location or person, then you have got to use the word “bloody.” Have you just finished eating an exquisite portion of Fish n’ Chips? Then smack your lips and exclaim that they were “bloody delicious!” Have you just had the misfortune of seeing a terrible performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Then you’ll have to turn to your fellow theatre aficionado, tut loudly, and say, “Well that was bloody awful, wasn’t it?”
7. To bodge something
meaning: to mend, or repair something clumsily
In the past, Britain bequeathed onto the world the steam train, the telephone and, most importantly, the chocolate bar. So it’s fair to say that modern-day Brits have got a pretty impressive standard to live up to when it comes to the world of inventions and mechanics. Most Brits are therefore mortified by the thought of hiring an expensive expert to mend an item in need of repair, and we take pride in giving the repair job a go ourselves. But what if this repair job is of a low-quality, and doesn’t really get the job done? That’s what we call “to bodge something.”
This verb perfectly describes the clumsy and invariably futile attempt to mend a broken item. For example, if the tape has come off the handlebars on your bike, don’t go to a professional bike repair shop and pay through the nose for the application of expensive “bike tape” by a man who knows what he’s doing — perish the thought! Instead, grab some cheap sellotape from the newsagent’s and affix it to your handlebars yourself! Who cares if the end bits continue to flap in the wind? You’ve just perfected the British art of “bodging it,” and that’s far more important right now.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be proud of your inventiveness.
8. “I’m pissed.”
meaning: “I’m drunk.”
This one isn’t just confusing for non-native English speakers — it regularly trips up Americans too! In American English “to be pissed” means to be extremely angry about something. In British English, the phrase is used to describe the feeling of having had a few too many lagers down the pub, and the resulting struggle to walk in a straight line.
meaning: beautiful; attractive
Spend more than five minutes around any British woman over the age of 40, and you are very likely to hear the word “lovely.” This extremely popular word conveys a feeling of affection or approval on behalf of the speaker towards an object or person, and it’s perhaps best summed up in the phrase, “that’s a lovely cup of tea.” However, the word is more popular amongst older generations, and even more so amongst older women. For instance, the following exchange is definitely happening right now on the streets of Oxford:
- Woman #1: “Ohhh look at that lovely young man by the bus stop!”
- Woman #2: “Right! And look how lovely his shoes are!”
- Woman #1: “Yes! They’re lovely!”
However, be careful because British people are famously over-polite, and the innate fear of being rude is so ingrained within our national psyche that most Brits are terribly afraid of registering their dislike at anything. So whether it’s bad service, undercooked food or crap weather, if we want to keep up appearances and not offend the company we’re with, then rather than expressing our disappointment or disgust at something we’re far more likely to say “Oh it’s lovely!” when asked for our opinion. If you want to blend in and “do as the British do,” then you’ve also got to master the art of hiding your disappointment like a true Brit.
- Excited child returning home from school: “Look mummy, I drew a picture of the family!”
- Mum: “Oh that’s lovely dear. Let’s hang it on the fridge right away.”
Brits are always thought of as being formal and stiff, but modern-day Brits are casual, cheery and honest folk who will stick by those they hold dear. Take for instance the word “mate.” Yes, you could use the word “friend” to describe someone you’re close to, but the British word “mate” suggests a more nuanced relationship shaped by trust, loyalty and lots of laughs.
Yup, Brits are far more likely to describe friends as “mates” because the word “friend” seems… a bit naff (tacky). A “mate” will share a pint with you down the pub, help you move flats, tell you if your bum’s too big for that pair of jeans and definitely give you an earful when you make the silly decision go back to your old ex for what must be the sixth time already. Seriously mate, stop doing this to yourself!
11. “That’s rubbish!”
meaning: “I don’t believe you!”
“Rubbish” is the British word for “garbage,” so if you want to point out that an idea or suggestion has no quality or is blatantly false, this is the British phrase you’ll need. You’ve just heard someone describe Oasis as “the greatest band who ever walked this Earth”? There’s only one recourse for you: Stop them dead in their tracks by exclaiming, “That’s rubbish!”
Want to learn more about British English? Then check out this episode of the Chatty con Leche podcast!