The most common British words or British English terms used when talking about other people.
agony aunt: n advice columnist – a newspaper or magazine employee who responds publicly to readers’ impassioned pleas for help on a wide range of issues, but most commonly sex. Read by a large sector of the population, each of whom hopes to find a vicarious solution to their own dark sexual inadequacies.
all mouth and no trousers: n all talk and no action: Judith’s husband keeps telling us he’s going to build that racing car but, between you and me, I’d say he’s all mouth and no trousers.
ASBO: n Anti-Social Behaviour Order – a restraining order awarded to miscreants specifically barring them from doing certain naughty things again (spray-painting bridges, beating up pensioners, that sort of thing). Whilst the ASBO itself does not go on the offender’s criminal record, any breach of it does - it’s intended to be a warning shot across the bows for errant youths.
bairn: n Scottish baby. Possibly derived from the old Norse word “barn,” which means both “child” and “children.”
barrister: n sort of lawyer. Barristers are different from solicitors in such a convoluted way it took a barrister a whole page of ball-bouncingly dull prose to explain it to me.
big girl’s blouse: n chicken (as in person who is afraid, not as in bird). Exclusively applied to men: After we’d had a couple of beers we all jumped off the bridge into the lake, except Andy, who turned out to be a big girl’s blouse.
bird: pron. “beud” (London); “burd” (Scotland) n woman. Well, not really. Bird is used by blokes looking upon the fairer sex with a slightly more carnal eye. It’s not quite at the stage of treating women as objects but the implication is certainly there: I shagged some random bird last night (a popular usage), or: Hey, Andy, I think those birds over there are looking at us. You’d never describe your grandmother as a bird. It’s popular in Scotland to refer to one’s girlfriend as “ma burd” — but do it in front of her and you’ll be choking teeth. About the only thing worse would be to call her “ma bint,” which will warrant a foot in the testicles and a loose tongue concerning your sexual prowess. The word itself is derived from the Old Norse word for “woman,” and the closest American English equivalent would probably be “chick.”
bloke: n guy. A bloke is a Joe Public, a random punter — any old fellow off the street. Unlike “guy,” however, it can’t apply to your friends. You can’t walk up to a group of your mates and say “Hi blokes, what’s up?” as they’d all peer at you as if you’d been reading some ill-informed, cheap dictionary. Without question, the most common usage of the word is in the phrase “some bloke in the pub.”
bobbie: n police officer. After Robert Peel, who was instrumental in creating the British police force. It’s a little antiquated these days.
boffin: n wonk. Someone who is particularly knowledgeable about his/her subject. It doesn’t quite carry the respect implied in “expert” — calling someone a “boffin” suggests that he has body odour and is a virgin. Boffins are invariably male.
boiler: n unattractive woman. The word was mentioned in Deborah Curtis’ book Touching from a Distance, her memoir of life with Ian Curtis of Joy Division. While their marriage was breaking down, Ian was having an affair with a European woman whom the rest of the band supposedly referred to as “the Belgian boiler.”
bolshie: adj rebellious; a bit of an upstart; a force to be reckoned with. From “Bolshevik”, the early twentieth century Russian socialist party, who ran around encouraging trade unions and upsetting the establishment.
bottle: n nerve. To “lose one’s bottle” is to chicken out of something — often just described as “bottling it.” It may be derived from Cockney rhyming slang, where “bottle” = “bottle and glass” = “arse.” Losing one’s bottle appears therefore to refer to losing the contents of one’s bowel.
bounder: n person who is generally no good, a bad egg. It’s very old-fashioned — even Rudyard Kipling would probably have used it in jest. One rather dubious etymology is that it was applied pre–Great War to golfers who used new American golf balls (similar to modern golf balls) instead of the more traditional leather-covered ones. They had a more enthusiastic bounce and the use of such balls was not banned by the rules but was considered bad sportsmanship, perhaps even a little underhanded. The term was originally applied to the ball itself, and only later to the user of such a ball.
brick: n dependable person; rock. Someone who will stand tall in the face of adversity. A largely upper-class term, it is hardly in use nowadays.
bubtion: pron. “bub-shun” n Scottish baby. From the German “bubchen”, meaning a young boy. Has a cosy, affable connotation. You’d never refer to your baby as a bubtion if it had lately been sick on your three-piece suit and drooled in your cornflakes.
camp: adj effeminate and homosexual. If you have heard of an Englishman (and latterly New Yorker) named Quentin Crisp, he was the very epitome of camp. And even if you haven’t heard of him, he still was. Americans will say “flaming” or “swishy” to mean much the same thing, though interestingly some Americans do use “campy” to describe old-fashioned or preposterous humour.
casual: n Scottish bad egg, nogoodnik. Pretty close Scottish equivalent to “yob,” with the notable exception that casuals will actually refer to themselves as such while yobs certainly would not. Dotted around Edinburgh is graffiti advertising the services of the “Craiglockart Casual Squad.” Craiglockart isn’t one of the worst areas of Edinburgh, so perhaps their modus operandi is to turn up and insult your intelligence, or throw truffles through your windows.
chancer: n risk-taker, someone who tends to take the kind of chances that involve things on the greyer side of society — the sort of person who buys random domain names in the hope someone will offer them a pile of money for them, or puts all their money on the rank outsider in the 12:45 at Chepstow.
chap: n upper-crust equivalent of “bloke.” Nowadays only really seen in a tongue-in-cheek way or in 1950s Enid Blyton children’s books. It would read something along the lines of: I say chaps, let’s go and visit that strange old man with the raincoat at Bog End Cottage and see if he has any more special surprises for us! Jolly hockeysticks.
clap: n applaud. In the U.K., to “give someone a clap” means to applaud them. Analogous to U.S. English’s “give someone a hand.” Not to be confused with giving someone “the clap,” which means the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cockney: n person from the East End of London. Strictly speaking, someone “born within the sound of the bells of Bow Church.” A more modern definition might be “born within the sound of a racist beating,” “born in the back of a stolen Mercedes” or perhaps “born within the range of a Glock semi-automatic.” Cockneys have a distinctive accent, which other Brits are all convinced that they can mimic after a few pints.
colleague: n co-worker. In here because Brits do not use the term “co-worker.” Of no relevance at all is the fact that Brits also do not refer to the hosts of television news programmes as “anchors,” which caused my British boss some confusion when he became convinced that the CNN presenter had handed over to her “co-wanker.”
copper: n policeman. May come from the copper buttons policemen originally wore on their uniforms; may also be derived from the Latin “capere,” which means “to capture.” In turn, the American word “cop” may be derived from copper, although may equally easily be an abbreviation for “Constable on Patrol” or “Constable of the Police.” There. I don’t think I committed to anything.
cowboy: n dishonest and incompetent tradesman: I’m not surprised it exploded, it was installed by a bunch of cowboys!
daft: adj not in possession of, well, “the full shilling.” Daft can range from the absent-minded: You’ve forgotten to put petrol in it, daft woman! to the criminally insane: Well, once we let him out of the car boot he went completely daft!
dogsbody: n lowly servant; gopher. Your dogsbody would be the person who polished your shoes, emptied your bins and cleaned your loo. That is, if you were lucky enough to have someone like that. The term may originate from a dried pea-based foodstuff used in the Royal Navy, which sailors called “dog’s body”. Perhaps the first person to be called a dogsbody closely resembled a dried pea.
doss: v sit about not doing much. You might describe one of your less-productive colleagues as a dosser, because he (or she, I suppose — laziness is not quite confined to males) sits around dossing all the time instead of working.
double-barrelled: adj surname which consists of two hyphenated names, such as “Rhys-Jones” or “Fox-Kelton.”
dustman: n garbage man, trash collector. I presume “dustwoman” is also appropriate in these heady days of sexual equality.
Dux: n “best student” of a class year. Fairly old-fashioned, this is now only used in private schools. I’m told that Americans have “valedictorians” instead, which somehow sounds much grander.
estate agent: n real estate agent, realtor — the person who carefully listens to all your whims and fancies about the sort of home you’d like, and then takes you to see one that doesn’t fulfil any of those criteria but they’re having trouble selling.
filth: n police force. Slightly-less-than-complimentary. I ought to mention at this juncture that just because words are in this fine tome doesn’t mean to say that I use them regularly.
flatmate: n roommates.
gaffer: n bloke in charge. Originally the foreman of a construction site, but can be used universally. In the film industry, the gaffer is the set’s chief electrician, in charge of pretty much anything with wires attached to it. This may or may not be relevant.
geezer: n dude. While Americans use geezer too, it implies someone much older and with much less street-cred than the British version: Is that yours? / Sort of, I just bought it off some geezer in the pub. / Was it always that colour? / I think it might be dead.
Geordie: n person from Newcastle, or thereabouts.
grass: 1 n snitch; informer. 2 v inform. Normally used in the context of criminals grassing on each other to the police, but I certainly remember being grassed up at school for going to McDonalds instead of Modern Studies. If I could remember who it was who squealed, I’d name and shame him but right at this very minute I can’t recall. 3 marijuana (universal).
guv’nor: n London the boss. While I’ve no doubt this derives from the word “governor,” I can guarantee that you’ll never hear the missing letters being pronounced or even written.
hard: adj tough. A “hard man” is a tough guy, someone who won’t take any flack. This amuses Americans, for obvious reasons.
head boy: n highest-achieving pupil - synonymous with Dux.
Kiwi: n New Zealander: We tried this other bar but it was full of drunk Kiwis. Also an abbreviated name for a Kiwifruit.
lad: n 1 young boy. 2 bloke doing blokey things, generally including but not limited to getting pissed (in the U.K. sense); trying to pull birds; making a lot of noise and causing some good wholesome criminal damage. Various derivations have sprung up, with “laddish” covering this type of behaviour and “laddettes” being girls doing much the same thing.
lairy: adj noisy, and perhaps a bit abusive: It was all going fine until Ian’s cousin had a couple of drinks too many and started getting lairy. As usual when it comes to Brits being noisy, it generally involves drinking. They’re pretty quiet the rest of the time.
lodger: n renter. A person who rents a room in your home. They help pay the bills, provide a little human company on those long, lonely evenings and are a perfect vehicle for your perverted sexual fantasies. A bit like a flatmate but on a less equal footing ownership-wise.
luv: n honey; darlin’. A term of endearing address used predominantly by shop staff. You’d hear “that’ll be four fifty, luv” in very similar circumstances to those in which you’d hear “that’ll be four fifty, honey” in the U.S. It doesn’t mean they love you, in either case.
luvvie: n rather over exuberant (and almost invariably gay) thespian. Referring to actors as “luvvies” or “luvvie darlings” is rather scornful and demeaning - it’s true, though, that a few of the older, camper actors do indeed refer to each other as “luvvie.”
mad: adj crazy. Brits do not use the term “mad” to refer to people who are pissed off. Describing something as mad (a party, or a weekend away or something) generally means it was riotous fun.
mate: n good friend; buddy. It’s in very common use in the U.K. and doesn’t have any implication that you might want to mate with the person in question. It is derived from “shipmate.”
mean: adj cheap; tight; stingy with money. Brits do not use the word to mean “nasty.” So when a Brit talks about his auntie Enid being “mean,” he’s more likely to mean mean mean what a useful word this is that she’s sitting on a million pounds under her mattress rather than she tweaks his ears every time he goes to visit.
mental: adj insane; crazy: It was kind of romantic to start with, but as soon as I turned on the electric toothbrush he went mental.
mince: n ground beef.
molly-coddled: adj overly looked-after. Spoiled in a sort of possessive way: He seemed very nice to start with but I think he’s been rather molly-coddled by his mother.
moose: n unattractive woman. Most often heard in post-drinking assessments: Yeah, was a great night - we all got completely pissed and Bob ended up snogging a complete moose!
mum: n mom. Brits do also use the word in the American sense of “quiet” (as in “keep mum about that”) though maybe not as much in everyday speech as Americans. They’d probably say “schtum” instead.
narked: adj a bit annoyed; peeved. Brits do not use the word to refer to the act of reporting someone to the narcotics authorities.
navvy: n manual worker on roads or railways. It comes from the word “navigator,” which was used to refer to people who dug canals, which were once called “navigations.”
ned: n Scottish unruly layabout youth. It is most likely derived from an acronym, “non-educated delinquent.”
nippy: adj 1 irritating and irritable. Very similar to “stroppy.” 2 cold. In a similar sort of a way to the word “chilly.” 3 fast. Particularly in relation to cars. You might test-drive a car and relate back to your chums how nippy it was. Of course, if the salesman was a bit nippy you’d probably not drive it at all, or if it was a convertible and it was nippy outside.
nonce: n child-molester. The term may originate from when sex offenders were admitted as “non-specified offenders” (thereby “non-specified” and thence “nonce”) in the hope that they might not get the harsh treatment metered out to such convicts. It may also stand for “Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise” (meaning prisoners intended to keep separate from the rest). Either way, it featured prominently in the fine “Brasseye” spoof TV news programme where popular celebrities were duped into wearing T-shirts advocating “nonce-sense.”
one: n I. Rather antiquated and very British. You’d more likely hear your grandmother say “in my day, one didn’t spit in the street” than your local crack dealer say “since Dave the Train got knocked off, one’s had to raise one’s prices.”
P.A.: 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!”
pasty: 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.
pensioner: 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.”
physiotherapist: 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.
Plod: 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.
ponce: 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.
posh: 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 originates from the acronym “Port Out, Starboard Home,” which referred to customers travelling on boats between the U.K. and India who had chosen to have the more expensive shaded berths on both the outward and return journeys. posh wank masturbation performed whilst wearing a condom (male-specific, one would imagine).
postgraduate: 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.
potty: 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.
prefect: 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?
presenter: 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.”
punter: 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”).
row: n pron. like “cow,” rather than “sew” an argument. More likely a domestic argument than a fight outside a pub. Unless you have an unusually vicious spouse or a girly pub.
rozzer: n policeman. Even more esoteric than the good old English “bobby,” most British people will never have heard of this term. It may come from a P. G. Wodehouse book, and is certainly mentioned in the Paul McCartney song “London Town.”
Sassenach: n Scottish English person. Gaelic, ultimately derived from Latin “Saxones”, meaning “floppy haired twat with silly accent”.
scouser: n someone from Liverpool. Perhaps more accurately someone with a Liverpool accent. The word comes from “lobscouse,” which was a dish sailors ate, much like Irish Stew - sailors were known as “lobscousers” and the port of Liverpool ended up tagged with the same word. Further back still, the original word may have come from Norway, where today “Lapp Skews” are stewed strips of reindeer meat. Or perhaps it comes from Bangladesh, where “Lump Scouts” is a rare dish made from boy-scouts and served at Christmas. Or from a parallel universe, almost identical to ours, where scousers are people from Birmingham.
scrote: n scum. Someone generally about as low in one’s esteem as a person could be. It may be an abbreviation of “scrotum” which, now I think about it, could perhaps be the derivation of “scum.” I have a small pain in my sc’um, m’lord.
septic: n American: Hey, did you hear Bob had moved to New York and married a septic? From Cockney rhyming slang “septic tank” / “yank,” where “yank” is in turn used in the U.K. to mean “American.” If you don’t believe me, look it up, but I have to warn you that I also wrote that definition. The Australians use the same term and have further abbreviated septic to “seppo.”
shirt-lifter: n homosexual man. A slightly archaic term. It may come from a time when shirts had longer tails and, well, posterial access required some lifting. Don’t pretend to me you don’t know what I’m talking about.
sick: n vomit. Brits call the act of vomiting being sick, and vomit itself sick: Gah! There’s sick all down the back of my shirt! Like Americans they do use the noun to also mean “unwell,” so saying “I am sick” does not translate to “I am vomit.”
skallywag: n rascal. A young tearaway. A bit of an antiquated term.
Sloane Ranger: n directionless young upper class twit. Financed only by a trust fund, Sloane Rangers spend their time driving around the affluent areas of London talking about horses, or appearing at the birthday parties of C-list celebrities. The term originates from Sloane Square, an expensive area to live in London. And also from the Lone Ranger, but I suspect you knew that unless you are from the fortieth century and this book was somehow the only thing that survived nuclear Armageddon. Even if you are in that very situation, you’re going to have a hard time working out what the Lone Ranger was without a little more context, so I doubt I’ve helped much. Go on, have a guess.
sod: 1 n, v, adj generic word signifying displeasure. Attached to any word or phrase it has the immediate effect of making it derogatory. Sod off get lost. sod you bite me. sod it damn it; forget it. old sod old git, etc, etc. Use at will - it has a friendly tone to it and is unlikely to get you into trouble. 2 n a lump of turf (universal).
solicitor: n lawyer. In the U.K. it has nothing (well, on one level at least) to do with prostitutes or door-to-door salesmen.
sprog: n small child. My father used to refer to myself and my brothers as “Sprog One,” “Sprog Two” and “Sprog Three.” Perhaps that says more about my family than the English language. At least I got to be Sprog One. Were my father Australian he might have chosen some different phrasing as to an Aussie “sprog” is what the rest of the world calls semen.
stroppy: adj unreasonable; unfairly grumpy. Stroppy people shout at shop assistants who don’t know where the tomato puree is and, because they’re being paid £2/hr, ought not to be expected to.
swot: n one who studies particularly hard, usually at school. swotting cramming. The art of learning your complete course in one evening.
tea leaf: n thief: When I got to the car park I realised some tea leaf had nicked my hub caps! Cockney rhyming slang – unlikely most other Cockney rhyming slang terms, you cannot use simply “tea” to refer to a thief.
tetchy: adj touchy; irritable.
ticket tout: n scalper. The people that hang around outside concert venues trying to sell second-hand tickets at vastly inflated prices. Everyone love to hate them, until they need them. To my mind, they perform two useful functions. First off, they create liquidity in the second-hand ticket market. And secondly, they give the rest of us someone to feel superior to in a kind of minor, petty way. It’s win-win.
toe-rag: n scumbag. Someone worthy of contempt - scoundrel, rotter, that sort of thing. A rather antiquated word. I am reliably informed that the term derives from weaving, where “tow” refers to short bits of fibre left over after combing the longer flax (“line”). Tow can be used as-is for cleaning guns, lighting fires or strangling small children, or it can be made into “tow cloth”; cheap clothing worn by manual labourers. A “tow rag” is a piece of tow cloth which has finished its useful clothing life and is now being used to stop oil dripping out of the car or such like. I can’t help wondering whether “toe-rag” is the Victorian equivalent of “douchebag”.
toff: n member of the upper classes - someone born with a silver spoon in their mouth, you might say. A rather esoteric working-class term.
train-spotter: 1 n a person whose hobby is to, well, spot trains. They stand in railway stations or on bridges and note down the types and serial numbers of any trains that go past. I was fortunate enough to be in Reading Station one afternoon while a train-spotting convention was in town; the place was a sea of bright yellow reflective jackets and they had video cameras set up on each platform. Perhaps it’s a social thing. Anyway, the term was made a household one by Irvine Welsh’s excellent book, Trainspotting, which is not about spotting trains. 2 n nerd. Stemming directly from the prior definition, this word has come to mean anyone who is a little too engrossed in one particular none-too-interesting subject, and probably a virgin.
tramp: n bum; homeless person. Brits don’t use the term “bum” in this context.
trolley dolly: n air stewardess. I’m sure you’ll work it out.
trouble and strife: n wife. Cockney rhyming slang: Phil’s gone home to try and cheer up the trouble and strife after that whole embarrassing business with the surprise birthday party.
twit: n twerp; nitwit. Made famous by Roald Dahl’s book The Twits, about a rather obnoxious couple of them.
twonk: n idiot. There seem to be more ways of politely describing your friends as mentally deficient in British English than anything else.
waster: n someone who just sits around watching television and spending their income support on dope. Presumably derived in some way from “time-waster.”
wean: n Scottish child. Derived from the colloquial Scots “wee ‘un” (little one).
wobbler: n fit of anger. throwing a - same sort of thing.
woofter: n homosexual. Yet another term for a homosexual, in case the Brits needed some more.
Yank: n, adj American. To a Brit, a Yank is anyone of American descent. It’s not altogether complimentary and conjures up an image of Stetsons, oil wells, Cadillacs and overweight children. The word comes from “Yankee” - after receiving and trying to synopsize nearly a million different explanations for where that word came from, I realised that I was drifting wildly off topic and so I’ve scrubbed them all. Go and look it up elsewhere. yank tank American car. A description one might regard as unfair to the humble tank.
Yardies: n a specific London criminal gang. The term was originally used to describe a native Jamaican - “yard” is used in Jamaica to mean “home”.
yobbo: n hooligan; rabble-rouser. Usually seen in the context of upper-middle-class people referring to the working-classes: Well, yes, Mildred - my Jeremy used to be such a sensible boy but now he’s got mixed up with this awful crowd of yobbos! The derivation of the word is apparently modified back-slang - the moniker “boyo” became “yobbo.” Amusingly, in New York City slang, “yobbos” are breasts. Not in the U.K.