Illustration by Olivia Holden, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
They say the English language is easy to learn but difficult to master. Unlike other languages we have a relatively simple grammar system — we don’t use any cases and we don’t gender our lamps, tables or chairs. As a result, it’s easy to learn the basics, but there is a downside to this simplicity: The rules we do have don’t really make any sense. This means it’s difficult to sound like a native speaker even if you’re really good at Harry Potter impressions.
But there’s another way to sound like a born-and-bred Brit that doesn’t involve auxiliaries, compounds or clauses. So next time you’re in the UK and struggling to tell your present perfect from your future continuous, just drop one of these phrases in the convo and you’ll more than make up for it.
1. ‘Do me a favour!’
This phrase has two meanings: The literal sense is asking someone to do something for you. This could be an act of kindness, something small like fetching gloves from the kitchen or even helping you carry a large piece of furniture down some stairs.
The second meaning is rhetorical: “Do me a favour!” said with an exclamation mark at the end means “I’m absolutely not going to do that.” When I was a teenager my mum often used this phrase to let me know how she felt about some of my requests.
- Me: “Mum, I need some new Nike Air Max’s and a Nokia 33:10. Can you give me the money?”
- Mum: “Do me a favour!!!”
2. ‘Out out’
It’s difficult to trace the origins of this phase, but at some point in the last 10 years the entirety of the British Isles has come to an agreement of what is meant by “out out.” It means you’re not just going out to a bar or a pub — you’re going on a big night out, one that will almost definitely involve a club and more than several drinks.
- “Are you going out tonight?”
- “Mate, I just finished my last exam for the year — I’m going out out.”
On one occasion I overheard a serious conversation on the London Underground where someone told their companion they planned to go “out out out.” I couldn’t believe my ears. As a personal recommendation: I do not recommend letting anyone you know go “out out out” — it will not end well.
3. ‘Fancy a brew?’
Here we have two words of equal importance to the collective vocabulary of this tiny island of tea lovers:
“Brew” is slang for a cup of tea — a closely related cousin to the also commonly used “cuppa.” The word comes from having to brew your teabag in hot water for two minutes. I’m not sure if this is written down in any English rule book anywhere, but this phrase is used exclusively for either English Breakfast or Earl Grey tea. None of that Fruits of the Forest, peppermint or green tea nonsense.
“Fancy” can be used when you feel like eating or drinking something and it’s also very commonly used when you find somebody attractive.
- “I really fancy a bit of cake.”
- “Have you seen that new Jake Gyllenhaal film? I really fancy him.”
4. ‘I can’t cope’
While this UK phrase has definitely spread to other English-speaking countries lately, you’ll most commonly hear this amongst English women. “I can’t cope” can be used to describe a situation that you simply cannot handle right now.
Example: “I can’t cope with the number of emails I’ve had today.”
But you’re more likely to hear this phrase when something good or side-splittingly funny has happened. For example, if someone you really fancy asks you out you can say to your friend “I’m so happy I literally can’t cope.”
5. Adding ‘-ed’ to nouns to convey drunkenness
Here we have another modern-day phenomenon of the British language. Although it hasn’t been written down in any rulebooks and the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mention it, if you add “-ed” to the end of any noun it will change its definition to mean “very, very drunk.” I know for a fact the current editor of the Oxford English Dictionary will know exactly what you mean when you say the following sentences to them:
- “I went out last night and got absolutely trolleyed.”
- “Did you see Damo on Saturday? Never seen anyone so curtained.”
- “He can’t handle his booze — he had two jaeger bombs and was completely elbowed.”
Get creative and try it out on any noun you like — it works every time.
6. ‘I’m absolutely gutted mate’
This is one of the few exceptions to the above rule. “Gutted” here doesn’t mean under the influence of alcohol, but rather that you are devastated and saddened. It’s a strong word that’s just as likely to be used in relation to a painful break-up as it is an embarrassing defeat in football.
Fair warning: This term has led to confusion in the past. The true meaning of the word “gutted” is to be emptied of important features. A house can be gutted or, in extreme cases, a human being. I once heard of an American lady complaining to a Scottish newspaper for the incredibly callous headline “Break-in at old peoples’ home. Residents gutted.”
7. ‘Chirpse’ / ‘chirpsing’
Commonly heard in London and its surrounding areas, “chirpsing” means to chat somebody up. I personally quite like this phrase — it reminds me of two lovebirds courting each other. The reality is more likely to involve being approached while trying to order a jaeger bomb at the bar of one of the UK’s terrible chain clubs with your feet sticking to the floor. Not quite as romantic as two lovebirds courting but definitely a modern British love story.