10 British Insults Americans Won’t Understand

This will get people’s attention when thinking about littering. (Penrith City Council)

While the big, punchy swears are the same all over the English-speaking world, some of our milder, more idiosyncratic slights will leave the uninitiated scratching their heads.

1. A two-fingered salute
This has come up before on MTG, but just to reiterate: stick two fingers up at an American and they’ll be no more affronted than if you’d waved hello or nodded. Should you feel compelled to use your hands to offend in the U.S., stick to the universally recognized raised middle finger.

2. Minger
Popularized by the late, great and hilariously foul-mouthed Big Brother contestant Jade Goody over a decade ago, the term meaning unattractive female is still fair game in Britain. If you’re looking for a way to insult an American woman without her realizing, this is ideal.

3. Pillock
To American ears, this might sound like some kind of unadventurous English fish. Alas, it’s merely one of many hundred words we’ve evolved to refer to a somewhat idiotic, oafish individual.

4. Twit
American Roald Dahl fans might be familiar with this one from reading The Twits – a wonderfully vile tale of a dysfunctional married couple who keep pet monkeys and systematically abuse each other. Curiously, however, the book doesn’t shed much light on what it actually means to be a twit. It’s one of those semi-affectionate insults we might throw at a family member or friend who’s behaving in a less than cerebral manner. Synonyms include: wally, berk, prat, numpty, knob-head, nincompoop and tit.

5. Twat
This is one of the harsher terms on the list, perhaps because of its literal meaning: lady parts. Still, it’s a less offensive version of the other single syllable word that means the same thing. Brits are want to precede either word with “you daft…” or  “you utter…” I’ve used “twat” around Americans and who think it’s got a satisfying ring to it. Could be one to watch over here.

6. Billy no-mates
It’s mild and reassuringly vintage but roam a UK school playground on your own looking miserable and you might still have this barked at you from across the tarmac. Shout this at an American loner kid, however, and he’ll assume you’re a lunatic.

7. Chav or pikey
These unpleasant slang terms, originally used to refer to Irish or Romani gypsies, have evolved to mean a certain type of flashy working class kid clad in designer sportswear and gold jewelry. The closest U.S. equivalent would probably be trailer trash.

8. Muppet
When a British Goldman Sacs employee resigned last year in an open letter and said that some colleagues in London had called their clients “muppets”, Americans at the firm were left wondering what he meant. Brits have borrowed Jim Henson’s name for furry, be-stringed critters and tweaked it to mean someone who’s stupid, gullible and incapable of independent thought. Let’s not mention this to Miss Piggy.

9. Slapper or slag
In the UK, we’re unhealthily attached to nasty words that describe a “loose woman”. These two clangers are the most commonly used, yet they’re insults only the most dedicated American anglophile or British gangster movie aficionado will have encountered. In the U.S., “whore” and “slut” mean much the same thing.

10. Tosser
This term, meaning one who engages in self, erm, stimulation, is a milder version of w**ker, which – perhaps you’ve noticed this too – Americans have recently adopted but serially misuse. They seem to think it’s one of those British slurs that doubles as a term of endearment. It’s not.

Which term do you throw around the most? Ever get funny looks! 

We’re chatting British and American language differences in our #MindTheChat Friday, August 9 at 1 pm/et. Follow us on Twitter and join in using #MindTheChat.

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • gn


    It’s the name of a widely used software package. No-one titters.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      Not that I say “git” in British English, but I never knew that.

    • Aurelas

      I use “git” a lot too! So much fun 😀

  • Marks Smith

    As an American, the British definition of Muppet sounds like a perfect term for anyone who voted for Obama.

    • Annunaki.

      You’re the very definition of a muppet. A cool article hijacked with your political “opinions”..?

      Yeah…you’re a huge muppet, mush.

    • gn

      As an expat Brit and proud naturalized American, I suggest that you take your political opinions somewhere where they will be more welcome.

      This forum is not about politics, and you are acting like a bit of a wanker by trying to make it so. There’s some Brit slang for you.

  • Angela

    As an American Anglophile, I’m happy to say I use all of these terms. I would say life just isn’t quite as fulfilling without a nice, ‘Are you calling my mum a pikey?!’ once in a while.

    Plus, everyone here thinks the 2 fingers are just a backwards peace sign.

    • Mike K

      dont forget a victory sign

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    I use quite a lot of these but I think Americans should be careful when thinking about employing #5 or #10. They’re a little bit less family-friendly than the others IMO.

  • Christian Lopez

    As an American Anglophile myself, I too am familiar with most of these terms. Except for “slapper”, that is. That one was new for me. That being said I have to add that my favorite term to use among my unsuspecting fellow Americans is “bugger off”. Which I would also kindly direct to Mr. Marks Smith for his senseless comment.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    The word that I really love, although it isn’t quite an insult, is “sodding” which can be used instead of “bloody” in most sentences. Just doesn’t have the same impact when no one knows what you mean though.

  • JC

    You censor ‘wanker’ and awkwardly describe it, yet you proudly pronounce every other slur. Brilliant!

  • sergiogeorgini

    The American equivalent (or nearest equivalent, anyway) to chav/pikey isn’t really “trailer trash.” Trailer trash wear dirty white cotton vests whilst mucking about the yard or their finest elasticated waist garments to WalMart, and yell at their children in public. I’m not entirely sure the equivalent exists in the States. There’s a sort of racist concept of ghetto fabulous – if you were to mash that up with trailer trash you’d probably come close.

    • Polly

      Euro trash

    • Madison

      I suppose, from the description of chav/pikey, the word we use where I’m from in the States to describe that is “douchebag.”

  • jonny

    who doesn’t know what twit means?

  • Daktari

    As a lover of all things british, I have to say I don’t use any of these terms. No one in the world can say any of them with the aplomb of a true british English speaker. My favorite british denigrator is the word “cow”. Nothing brings a smile to my heart than hearing a brit say that someone is “a silly cow” it is a phrase that lends itself to so many inflections and pronounciations. I just love it

  • YourAGrannyGashGobbler

    I’m in American and we use like ALMOST ALL of the ones listed here. I didn’t know Chav meant Irish though, i thought it was just like you know, a chav hahaha the jumpsuits and the rings and the talk lol

    • jemblue

      Have to disagree . . . “twit” is about the only one I’ve heard (and here it’s pretty mild). I’m vaguely familiar with some of the others, but only because I’ve heard British people say them, not American.

  • Kat

    I have often found myself calling senseless Americans a slag which does in fact leave them clueless