10 British Words for Illness
As befits a nation that is often blessed with inclement weather, the Brits have a fine array of slang terms for feeling unwell. The ones listed here are only those that don’t appear to have travelled too well across the globe, leaving aside such firm favorites as, well, under the weather.
The first and most important distinction is that the word sick is not often used as a state of being in Britain. One is not sick in a holistic sense, the more common adjective for illness would be ill, but when one is ill, one can be sick—ie throw up.
And that, gentle reader, is only the beginning of our woes…
Similar to cooties, in that it’s an undisclosed illness, probably of a viral nature, that it’s sometimes fun to mock friends for having when you’re a kid. There again, cooties sometimes appears to be a tool with which to mock children from poorer backgrounds, in a way that lurgy never is, so it’s not a precise equivalent.
What to say: “I can’t come out to play today, I’ve got the dreaded lurgy”
Derived from rhyming slang, where Tom Dick = sick. A dicky tummy is one that is suffering with the effects of food poisoning, whether that’s upwards or, y’know, down.
What to say: “I probably shouldn’t come to work today sir, I’ve still got a bit of a dicky tum from the weekend.”
A catch-all term for an injured limb, most commonly used when the injury is permanent or has lasted a long time. Soldiers returning from wars with shrapnel wounds might have a gammy leg, and that would excuse them from further service, or a job with too much time spent on your feet.
What to say: “How’s your gammy leg? Still giving you gyp?”
Speaking of which…
While American slang uses gyp to mean a swindle or unfair outcome, in British slang the pain is very real. It’s literally a descriptive word for long-term discomfort or even pain. Blisters and sprains give you gyp. Aches and pains that won’t go away give you gyp. Lumbago is the gyppiest pain of all.
A general sense of things not being well that can occur at the beginning or the end of a period of illness. Feeling iffy is either a sign of impending doom or an acknowledgement that the patient is not quite out of the woods yet.
What to say: “Hey, how are you doing? Still feeling a bit iffy?”
There are many fine British euphamisms for the act of throwing up—upswallow, pavement pizza, parking the tiger, driving the big white bus—but this one seems the most parochial. It’s an English person’s comparison of the kind of guttural white noise common to Welsh speech with the similarly throaty sounds of someone retching.
What to say: “I didn’t get a wink of sleep, Terry was up all night speaking Welsh”
As opposed to the American interpretation of off-color, meaning to say something explicit, profane or otherwise rude, feeling off-colour just means you’re not your usual healthy self. You’re a little green about the gills.
What to say: “I didn’t really fancy anything to eat. I’ve been off-colour since that dodgy kebab last night.”
Not a way to measure how badly a job has been performed, poorly in this context is simply a sweet way for a parent to ask a child if they’re feeling a bit peaky.
What to say: “What’s the matter, Polly, have you got a poorly tumkins?”
Same as dicky, iffy, off-colour and poorly, except possibly slightly more extreme. Ropey indicates that you’re still far too unwell to even attempt to get out of bed, much less put on a brave face and tele-conference your boss’s boss in Brazil.
What to say: “Sorry, Susan can’t come to the phone right now, she’s still feeling really ropey.”
And finally, the one that is not like the others:
A word that comes from illness—small, cow, chicken, take your pox–that has made its way into British slang from the Victorian era. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was particularly fond of this word, which is liberally applied to anything that promises to be of some use but can’t do the thing it is intended for. So your gammy leg can be poxy, but so can your filthy flat, your faulty kettle, your parlous financial state, or even your health. It’s a catch all term of disgust.
What to say: “I’m not going to that poxy pub: I’ve got no poxy money and my poxy shoes have split.”
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