10 British Phrases That Most Americans Will Not Understand
FYI: Some May Sound Strange, Funny or Ridiculous
I live in the state of New York and have spent most of my life living in the United States; however, I am originally from England. I was born on a US military base in the United Kingdom making me a dual citizen. My mother is British and my father, an American who she met when he was stationed overseas. I clearly remember being three years old when my father got out of the service moving us from the State of Virginia to settle in his home state of Massachusetts.
When I was a small child in first grade I can recall being put into speech classes. Apparently, I was not pronouncing certain words properly, or at least that is what my teachers in school told me. At the time I simply did not understand. My parents taught me basics at home so I listened yet in school I had to go to a special little room and work with a speech therapist because I was clearly saying certain words like “tomato”, “water” and "banana" incorrectly. Yes, this was quite confusing to me as a little girl since I was taking after my mother and how she pronounced things. I did not comprehend at the time that in American school systems this would not be acceptable.
The funny thing in all of this is that I would go to school and face correction then go home to be corrected once again. When I asked my parents who was right, my mother or the school, the answer: both! You can imagine how frustrating this must have been for a six-year-old but somehow I got through speech and still managed to go home switching my phrasing back to “Proper English!” Throughout my life, this has proven to be both comical and, nerve-wracking especially as I got older and began enjoying writing.
In the spirit of my British/ American roots, I thought it would be neat to touch on 10 British phrases that most Americans will not understand. Fair warning: some may sound strange, funny, or even ridiculous!
1. “Going for a fag”- I chose this one first because I have a humorous experience to tell. When I was 12 my family and I went to England on holiday (or vacation) and my uncle told my Mum he was going for a fag. My eyes were bulging out of my head in absolute mortification because the word “fag” was a naughty word that if I ever spoke it would land me in loads of trouble. My Mum noticed my despair and pulled me aside to tell me that my uncle was going to have a cigarette. Yes, fag is the British word for a cigarette and not meant as a derogatory word to call a gay person. I often reflect on this experience and laugh simply because this one word has such a drastic difference in meaning overseas.
2. “I am quite pissed”- In America, this term is spoken by someone who is feeling more than just a little bit agitated. Most of us say it when we are downright angry. If a British person tells you that they are feeling pissed then it means that they are actually intoxicated or drunk and perhaps it is time for them to get some water.
3. “I need to spend a penny. Where is the loo?”- You might be saying to yourself “What the heck is this chick talking about?” Do not worry. This has absolutely nothing to do with finding a place to spend any kind of money let alone a mere penny. I need to spend a penny means that the person speaking needs to use a toilet and the word “loo” is British for the restroom. Personally, I have always enjoyed this one.
4. “I’m quids in”/ “I’m squint”/”Have you got any dosh?”- I know these 3 phrases may have you baffled but allow me to clarify. In America “I’m quids in” will translate to a person who has come into a bit of money. “I’m squint” is another way of saying that you have no money or are broke. Perhaps you have guessed it by now but “have you got any dosh?” means that the speaker is asking for some cash.
5. “Having a good old chinwag”- This refers to having a long conversation but not about important matters. It suggests more of meaningless chatter pertaining to gossip. “Chinwag” means chin movement and is said to have roots in the Victorian era.
6. “Careful, he’s on the chunder bus!”- No, this has nothing to do with a bus or any kind of transportation whatsoever. In fact, this British phrase is a warning that a person is about to be sick or throw up! I know it sounds odd but perhaps an American saying they are about “to toss their cookies “sounds peculiar to a Brit.
7. “I am totally cack-handed"- This funny-sounding term means one is awkward or clumsy. According to Merriam Webster and American Heritage, the cack in cack-handed comes from the English dialect" Keck", meaning awkward, which comes from Old Norse" Keikir", meaning bent backward. Many British works of reference disagree with the previous statement saying association with" cack "is an old British term for excrement or dung. In ancient traditions, it was normal for right-handed people to reserve the left hand for cleaning up after themselves as with a bowel movement saving the right hand for everything else. People who were left-handed were thought to be cack-handed or backward.
8. “It’s brass monkeys out there!”- This is a humorous British phrase meaning that it is very cold outside. Coming from the original phrase “To freeze the balls off a brass monkey” and refers to the past when warships carried iron cannons requiring cannon balls nearby. The theory suggests that the cannonballs are placed in a pyramid shape with one resting on top, resting on four, resting on nine which rested on sixteen. In order to secure the balls and prevent them from rolling supposedly a brass plate called a “monkey” with sixteen indentations secured the balls from rolling away. When temperatures were frigid, the brass indentations would contract to cause the balls to escape deeming the phrase “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” Much of this idea has been disproven leaving behind a quirky tale and a funny saying.
9. “It’s all gone pear-shaped"- Is a saying that means something which has gone wrong. Its origins date in British English somewhere in the late 1940s or early 1950s and are related to training aircraft pilots. At some point in training, the trainees are required to make loops which are extremely difficult. Instead of perfecting the circular pattern, many of the trainee’s outlines were pear-shaped.
10. “Rumpo, “Rumpy- pumpy”, “Good rogering” or “how’s your father?”- All of these probably sound pretty crazy and the explanation may sound even insane to an American. These 3 phrases all pertain to sexual relations. “Rumpo” and the rhyming couplet became popular in the 1980s and the origin lies in the BBC ( British Broadcasting Corporation) radio series Round The Horne weekly 1965- 1968. A character in the show named Rambling Sid Rumpo would perform lewd songs filled with sexual innuendos so much so that his name penned the slang expressions for sexual intercourse.
“Good rogering” pertains to having sex with a woman and the word “roger” is an older term for penis. Rogering is said to be an upper-middle-class term pertaining to chambermaids who were obedient enough to allow the master of the house to have sex with them.
“How’s your father?” is an outdated term going back to the Second World War. Soldiers would solicit elderly French Madames, some of whom were old enough for intimacy during the First World War as well. The inference is that the son could go where the father has already been. Yes, absolutely disgusting!
As you can see, there are plenty of British phrases foreign to Americans yet both countries speak English. I had both the honor and pleasure of exposure to both worlds in my upbringing even though at times I stumbled in school with pronunciation and spelling. Today, as an adult, I am well-adjusted with proper American English but personally choose to embrace certain British words and phrases taking after my Mum. Sometimes people will stop me when I speak asking me where I am from and this does not bother me at all. I just go with the flow and do whatever comes naturally to me. I hope you have enjoyed this piece and until next time, I will not say goodbye simply because I never do. I prefer and always say toodle pip instead!
About the author
I am a seasoned hospitality professional and aspiring writer. I especially love poetry and experimenting with different styles. My inspiration comes from personal life events and I am known to root for the "underdog." I am 49 years young.