n personal assistant. There is something of a new vogue in the U.K. for calling secretaries “personal assistants”: “Mr McDonald’s secretary? No I certainly am not. Mr McDonald doesn’t have a secretary. I am his pee-ay, thank you very much!”
n mix-up; cluster. A confusion that arose from something that probably ought to have been simpler: I thought it was going to take ten minutes to renew my passport when I came out of prison but… boy, what a palava.
n light-hearted play, usually performed at Christmas and aimed at children. Pantomimes traditionally feature a man playing one of the lead female parts (the “pantomime dame”). There is a certain repertory of standard pantomimes (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Aladdin to name a few) and often reparatory groups will make up their own ones, either off the top of their thespian heads or based on other plays. The lead parts are usually played by second-rate soap-opera actors or half-dead theatrical-types. The whole genre is pretty crap, and essentially only exists so that children with special needs can feel normal.
1 n underpants. What Americans call “pants,” Brits call “trousers.” 2 interj crap. A general derogatory word: We went to see Andy playing in his band but to be honest they were pants.
n Kerosene. The fuel used in some lamps, greenhouse heaters and such like. To confuse matters somewhat further, Americans call candle-wax “paraffin.”
1 adj cold; chilly; nippy. 2 n an abbreviation for Park-keeper. Despite my cavernous capacity for humour, try as I might I couldn’t find any way to tie these in together.
n a small candy. I don’t know enough about candy to be more specific. A while ago the word was used to refer to cough drops, but now Brits largely call those “lozenges” or “throat sweets.” The main use of the word now is in the branded chewy sweets made by Rowntree called Fruit Pastilles.
n pron. with a short “a,” as in “hat” meat or vegetable-filled pastries. Not to be confused with “pasties” (long “a,” as in “face”), which in the U.S. are a flat pad designed to be put over the nipple to avoid it being too prominent. Or attach tassels to, depending on your fancy.
n Solitaire. A card game played alone. I once wrote that the Brits would no doubt start calling it “solitaire” eventually, and some bastard half my age wrote to me to tell me that “mainly older people” call it “patience.” So, sadly, I have to add here that this term is used by “mainly older people.” This reminds me of the time my mother came home in tears when a boy scout had tried to help her across the road. Rather oddly, we Brits also call another game “Solitaire.” Just go and look it up like a man.
n sidewalk. Brits call the part that cars drive on “Tarmac.” I wonder how many holidaymakers have been run over as a result of this confusion. Well, probably none really. I digress. Historically, “sidewalk” is in fact an old, now-unused British English word meaning exactly what the Americans take it to mean.
n raise: Do you think they took it as a joke? / Well, some people were laughing at the start but, as the ice cream melted, Ian started to get really uncomfortable and I don’t think anyone really thought it was very funny. I doubt I’ll get the sack, but I certainly won’t be getting a pay rise.
adj gone wrong. Usually it’s meant in a rather jovial sense, in a similar way to the American expression “out of kilter” or “off kilter”: Well, I was supposed to have a civilised dinner with my mates but we had a few drinks and it all went a bit pear-shaped. You would be less likely to see: Well, she went in for the operation but the transplant organ’s been rejected and the doctor says it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped. Possible derivations involve glass-blowing or hot-air ballooning. Separately.
n penis. A common misconception is that, to Brits, this means “chin” – hence the phrase “keep your pecker up.” Sorry folks, but in the U.K. “pecker” means exactly the same thing as it does in the U.S. The phrase “keep your pecker up” is probably derived from a time when a “pecker” was simply a reference to a bird’s beak and encouraged keeping your head held high. I understand that the word became a euphemism for “penis” after the poet Catullus used it to refer to his love Lesbia’s pet sparrow in a rather suggestive poem which drew some fairly blatant parallels.
adj hungry. Absolutely nothing to do with “pecker.” Only a little hungry, mind, not ravenous – you wouldn’t hear people on the news talking about refugees who’d tramped across mountains for two weeks and were as a result a little peckish.
adj unique: These street signs are peculiar to Birmingham. Because Brits also share the more conventional meaning (“unusual”), it does slightly imply that. If street signs can really be that unusual. Also applies to things other than street signs.
n pedestrian crossing. An area of the road, marked with black and white stripes, where traffic lights stop cars so that pedestrians can cross. A contraction of “PEdestrian LIght CONtrolled crossing.” Yes, I know that would be “pelicon.” People were stupid back then.
n pocket knife. A small retractable knife, often with several handy fold-out accoutrements for getting into alcoholic beverages and removing girl scouts from horses’ hooves.
n senior. Quite simply someone who is drawing their pension, i.e. over the age of 65. Brits also use the acronym OAP, meaning “Old-Aged Pensioner.”
n Plexiglas. A sort of plastic equivalent of glass. Perspex is a brand name of the acrylic company Lucite. Their advertising literature probably has all sorts of fancy terms in it about covalent bonds and stress ratings, and perhaps doesn’t even use the phrase “a sort of plastic equivalent of glass.” Unless maybe they have a layman’s FAQ at the end.
n gas. An abbreviation of “petroleum,” much like “gas” is an abbreviation of “gasoline.”
n phone booth. One of those boxes with a telephone in it that used to be commonplace but are dying out somewhat now that everyone has a mobile phone. The government still erect a few to give errant youths have something to vandalise in the long winter evenings and prostitutes somewhere to advertise. Of course, they all do that via email now.
adj pron. “fuht” gone- Something which has breathed its last, expired. It is an ex-something: We ended up stuck watching BBC2 because the television remote control had gone phut.
n physical therapist. The people you go to when you have a mysteriously sore limb that isn’t obviously broken. They pull it around the place until it is excruciatingly painful, explain to you that all you really need is some more exercise and then bill you. Then you go back next week. Often, they are very attractive.
n 1 a sort of brown, strongly flavoured blobby mass that people put in sandwiches. I’m really not very sure what it’s made of. Pickled something, one can only hope. 2 any sort of pickled cucumber or gherkin (universal).
n Scottish packed lunch. Quintessentially Scottish: Will ye be coming for lunch, Willie? / Nah, ah’ve brought ma piece.
n a mess; a poor job: We paid the guy from down the road to come and finish painting the fence, but he made a complete pig’s ear of it. Probably comes from the phrase “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”
n adj white trash. It’s an old English word meaning “gipsy,” but nowadays pikey is also applied to people in possession of track suits, Citroen Saxos with eighteen-inch wheels and under-car lighting, and pregnant fifteen-year-old girlfriends.
n idiot. You could almost decide having read this dictionary that any unknown British word is most likely to mean “idiot.” And you could almost be right. The Brits have so many because different ones sound better in different sentences. Pillock is likely a contraction of the 16th century word “pillicock,” which was used to refer to the male member.
v steal. A contributor of mine told me that her father got anything but the reaction he expected when in New Orleans he asked a friend if he could pinch their date for a dance. The Brits do not share the American usage of “pinch,” to mean arresting someone.
n legs. Always used in the complementary phrase “nice pins!”. You would never hear “my grandmother fell the other day and broke both her pins”.
n the standard U.K. measure of beer – equivalent to 0.568 litres in new money or twenty ounces in American money. It is normally possible to buy a half-pint instead of a pint, but doing so will mar you for life in the eyes of your peers. Drinking half-pints of beer is generally seen as the liquid equivalent of painting your fingernails and mincing. At some point in history (no idea when) a British king (not sure which one) elected to raise tax on beer but upon discovering that he needed an act of parliament to change the tax, he instead changed the size of the pint (which only required a royal edict). The smaller sixteen-ounce American pint, therefore actually represents the original size of the British pint. As you can see I’ve not researched this at all. I just wrote down what someone told me. There are many times in my life when I’m forced to make a simple choice between the real truth and a funny story.
n seeds. The little seeds in the middle of fruit guaranteed to get stuck in your teeth.
n, v Scottish piss. It can be used not only to refer to urine/urination, but also as a mild sort of swear word, similar to “crap.”
n useless drunk. The .com must have gone, but I’m too scared to check. Have you ever played that game where you pick a .com and bet amongst your friends as to whether it’s a porn site or not? I bet you’re sitting there thinking that sounds like a stupid game, but let me get you started. turkishdelight.com? You’re wondering, aren’t you?
adj drunk. Brits do not use it alone as a contraction of “pissed off,” which means that Americans saying things like “I was really pissed with my boss at work today” leaves Brits wide-eyed. go out on the – venture out drinking. taking the – poking fun at someone. May well be a throwback to the U.S. use of the word.
n an area of land. Almost exclusively used in reference to a playing field (Brits say “football pitch” rather than “football field”), but can also mean an area allocated to a trader, e.g. in a market.
n Band-Aid. sticking – a more old-fashioned word meaning the same. Both British and American English share the term plastered to mean that you are wildly under the influence of alcohol.
n modeling clay. It’s a particular brand in the U.K. but no Brit will ever have heard of any others.
n light canvas shoes with rubber soles. A rather antiquated shoe, and therefore an equally antiquated word. Your grandmother may refer to your trainers as plimsolls, but that doesn’t mean you should too.
n the Police: You climb over the fence and I’ll keep an eye out for Plod. The word derives from a character in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books named PC Plod.
adj idiot. I’m tempted to write a Dictionary of British Insults. Also (rarely) used to refer to one’s penis. Or someone else’s, if you don’t have one. Or if you do have one, but you’re trying to refer to someone else’s and not your own. I’m tempted to also write a Dictionary of British Words For Penis. A future bestseller; keep an eye out. Not that eye.
n an awful item of clothing which consists of sort-of-dungarees which stop at the knee. Whilst popular in pre-World-War Britain, plus-fours these days are firmly in the realms of brightly-colours golfers or inbreds.
adj glum; long-faced: I bumped into Sheena in the newsagent this afternoon – she looked mighty po-faced about something. As well as being a useful word for people who want to win at Scrabble by memorising stupid goddamned two-letter words and then sitting there looking all smug about them even thought they don’t know what they mean, “Po” is an abbreviation for “chamber pot” (an old-fashioned bed-pan).
n, adj turtle-neck. A style of sweater in which the neck runs right up to the chin; far enough up to cover even the most adventurous of love-bites.
1 n man who is pretentious in an effeminate manner. “Ponces” (quite often referred to using the phrase perfume ponce) tend to grown their hair quite long and talk loudly into their mobile phones while sitting at the traffic lights in their convertible Porsche. Describing a place as poncy would imply that these sorts of punters made up the bulk of its clientele. 2 v scrounge: Can I ponce a fag off you? Apparently the word originally meant living off the earnings of prostitution. Please look up “fag” now, before I cause some sort of ghastly mistake.
n bad smell. My maths teacher at school, Mr Benzies, also taught my uncle, who was fifteen or so years older than me. My uncle told me that in his day Mr Benzies was known unanimously as “Pongo Benzies” because “wherever he goes, the pong goes.” If you’re reading this, Mr Benzies, please remember that I’m just relating what my uncle said, and I didn’t necessarily actually call you that, or try and get the rest of the year to call you it too.
n homosexual. A mildly derogatory term for a homosexual – mild in the sense that homosexuals might use it themselves. Although based upon that I could easily say that “nigger” was a mildly derogatory term for an African American. poofy effeminate. An episode of Magnum PI, the U.S. detective show, features Magnum himself describing Zeus and Hercules as “poofy names for attack dogs.” Whilst in the U.S. this is taken to mean “fancy,” in the U.K. it would quite definitely mean “homosexual.”
v fart; trump. Used more by children than adults: Eww! I think Roger’s mum popped off in the kitchen!
n a sort of prefabricated hut, most often used as temporary offices on a building-site. A portable cabin, if you will. Portakabin is a U.K. trademark.
adj upper-class. Your aunt Mabel might be posh because she lives in a large country house, or your dad’s new Mercedes might have seemed a little bit too posh for him. It’s not rude, but it’s not really particularly complimentary either. The term probably comes from the Romani word, “posh”, meaning “half” (and used to refer to half a crown, a substantial sum of money at one point). posh wank masturbation performed whilst wearing a condom (male-specific, one would imagine).
n, v mail. Brits don’t mail things, they post them. Their mail is delivered by a postman (one word). And, umm, he works for an organisation called the Royal Mail. It’s pretty much the reverse of how these two words are used in America.
n grad student. Someone who’s finished their university degree and, on the sudden realisation that they might have to actually get a job, has instead leapt enthusiastically into a PhD, a Masters, or some such other form of extended lunch-break.
n Cup-o-Noodle. Little pots of noodles, upon which you simply pour boiling water to the “fill level” and lo, all of a sudden you have a perfectly delicious and nutritious meal for one. One student, one overworked employee or one neglected pensioner, normally. I don’t think it mentions that on the pot.
n House plant. Plants that one has around the house, for decoration, in pots. Because “pot” is one of the commoner worldwide terms for cannabis. it is generally only older people who can use the term pot plant without giggling.
n caving; spelunking. The sport that involves leaping down holes in the ground. I’m sure that, in a special way, it’s fun. Brits do still refer to chunks that are missing from the road as potholes, in the same way as Americans.
n plant in a pot. Not a cannabis plant. Well, it could be, but more than likely it isn’t.
adj loopy; nuts. A fairly light-hearted term for someone who’s losing their marbles a bit. Brits do also share the American meaning, where it refers to a plastic child’s toilet bowl. Not that plastic children probably ever need the toilet.
adj crappy; third-rate. Presumably derived in some way from when horrible things were described as being ridden with a pox.
n baby carriage. An abbreviation for the rather Victorian and now largely unused term “perambulator.”
n fender-bender. An event towards the more sedate end of car accidents – you’re unlikely to hear on the news that fourteen people were killed in a multi-car prang and ensuing fireball on Wednesday evening.
n idiot: I met my sister’s boyfriend the other day and he seems like a complete prat. Derived from a time when the word was slang for your posterior (in a similar way to the more contemporaneous “arse”) from whence, interestingly, came the peculiarly American word “pratfall” (a fall on one’s behind).
n a school-child who, having done particularly well academically or on the sports field, is allowed to perform such glorious tasks as making sure everyone behaves properly in the lunch queue, tidying up after school events and showing new pupils around at the weekends. As you may have guessed, I was never a prefect. Bitter? Me?
n anchor (the person, not the nautical device). In the U.K., presenters of news programmes are known as presenters rather than “anchors.” Likewise, the Brits have co-presenters instead of “co-anchors,” a term which almost caused my boss to regurgitate his drink during a U.S. business trip when he heard it as “co-wanker.”
n bar. An abbreviation for “public house.” However, in my experience, British pubs are generally far more sociable than American bars. While you would go into a pub to have a pleasant lunch with your family or one or two sociable beers with a couple of friends, you’d only go into a bar in order to get blind drunk and then start a fight or have sex with something.
n I wrote a whole chapter about this earlier on, and I’m not writing it again. It begins on page 21.
n dessert: If you keep spitting at your grandfather like that you’re going to bed without any pudding! Brits do also use the word in the same sense as Americans do (Christmas pudding, rice pudding, etc). The word “dessert” is used in the U.K. but really only in restaurants, never in the home. To complicate things further, the Brits have main meal dishes which are described as pudding – black pudding and white pudding. These are revolting subsistence foods from the dark ages made with offal, ground oatmeal, dried pork and rubbish from the kitchen floor. The difference between the black and white puddings is that the black one contains substantial quantities of blood. This, much like haggis, is one of those foodstuffs that modern life has saved us from but that people insist on dredging up because it’s a part of their “cultural heritage.” Bathing once a year and shitting in a bucket was a part of your cultural heritage too, you know. At least be consistent.
interj the genuine article; good stuff: I was a bit dubious when they were selling Levis for twenty quid, but I reckon they’re pukka. It is derived from the Hindi word “pakka,” meaning “substantial,” and made it to the U.K. via the Colonies.
v hook up. The art of attracting the opposite sex: You’re not going to pull with breath smelling like that. on the pull a less proactive version of “sharking.” Single males and females are almost all on the pull but will deny it fervently and pretend to be terribly surprised when eventually it pays off.
n gym shoes. A rather antiquated term. The confusion arises because in the U.S., it means high heels or stilettos.
1 n flat tire. In the U.K., puncture is used to describe the offending tire itself rather than just the hole in it: We had to pull over because we got a puncture. 2 infraction (universal).
n guy. A punter is usually a customer of some sort (the word originally meant someone who was placing bets at a racecourse), but this need not be the case. Because of the word’s gambling roots, punters are regarded slightly warily and shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value: When I came out of the tube station there was some punter there saying his car had broken down and he needed five quid to put petrol in it. Because American Football isn’t very popular in the U.K., Brits are unaware of the role of a punter on a football team (though they do share the everyday definition of the word “punt”).
n money-purse. A little bag that women generally keep money in. Brits call anything larger than a money-purse a “handbag.”
n baby buggy; stroller. A device in which a small child is pushed along by an obliging parent. The American term “buggy” is squeezing its way into everyday use in the U.K.