10 Common British Expressions That Baffle Americans

This guy's really got the hump. (Photo: Denise Chan/ Creative Commons)

This guy’s really got the hump. (Photo: Denise Chan/ Creative Commons)

We may technically speak the same language, but use one of our multitude of bizarre idioms in conversation with a person born and raised in the U.S. and you’ll be met with a, “Huh?” or a, “Sorry, could you repeat that?” These are some British phrases guaranteed to make Americans Google what you just said.

“Bob’s your uncle”
This silly slice of British slang is impenetrable to the uninitiated. In essence, it’s a tongue-in-cheek fanfare used to draw attention to something notable that has happened. Translation: “Ta-da!” Curiously, its use is in no way dependant on you the recipient having an uncle, or any other relative, named Bob.

“Knees up”
Synonymous with “party” and sometimes prefixed with “Right ol’,” this turn of phrase is, I suspect, nodding at what revelers do with their knees when they dance. Quite possibly “Shindig”, another leg-centric British expression meaning merrymaking event, was coined in response to all that uncoordinated Anglo foot flailing.

“Chin wag”
Meaning to talk to someone in an intense, gossipy manner, this expression alludes to the involuntary chin wiggling that can accompany full-on yakking. I ran this one past an American friend the other day and she said it made her picture a dog’s tale coming out of a human chin. Ten out of 10 on the baffle-ometer, Brits!

“Get stuffed”
If we’re annoyed with someone, but not quite annoyed enough to tell them to f*** off, we might suggested they do this instead. It’s unclear who should perform the stuffing or what materials they should use. Still, it sounds unpleasant enough for the person on the receiving end to get the idea. Americans would be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of turkey-related jab, especially at this time of year.

“A total cock up”
If we Brits perform a job badly, this is the go-to phrase to describe our efforts. It has nothing to do with boy chickens (unless your badly executed task was somehow poultry related) or, erm, anything else male. To American ears, however, this sounds like the title of a DVD you’d hide under the mattress.

“Nice one”
Do something to my satisfaction and I might offer up this underwhelming compliment in return. When Brits says something is “nice”, we generally mean, “It is good.” Use it on an American and they’ll react like they do when you say “cheers” instead of “bye. ”

“I’m chuffed to bits”
Read: “I am pleased with what’s happened”. As far as I’m aware, the word “chuffed” doesn’t exist in American vernacular. But it onomatopoeically suggests the release of trapped air, so will likely lead Americans to think you’re confessing to a recent gassy episode. Fittingly, “chuffed” is also British slang for “farted.”

“I’m not being funny but…”
The “funny” here means peculiar rather than hilarious. We Brits use this phrase to soften the complaint or insult that will inevitably come after it.

“I’ve got the hump”
This beauty is probably the most stupendously British phrase in existence. It says so much about us as a people. Rather than tell people outright, “I’m mildly annoyed,” we cloak our feelings in silliness. Still, what a criminally underused and funny word “hump” is. If you like, America, we’ll lend it to you.

“The dog’s bollocks”
By now Americans have caught up with what it is exactly Brits are referring to when we use the “B” word. So it must be alarming to learn that we regularly take the term, metaphorically attach it to a mutt, and expect them to know that it means we think something is the absolute best.

We’ll be discussing British vs. American language quirks in our #MindTheChat this Wednesday (December 4) at 2 pm ET. Follow @MindTheGap_BBCA to join in using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

See more:
10 Common American Expressions That Baffle Brits
8 American Sports Idioms Brits Won’t Understand
Football vs. ‘Soccer’: A Translation Guide for Brits and Americans

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.
  • Eamonn

    Neither “shindig”, “get stuffed”, nor “nice one” would make an American bat an eye. They’re all common expressions (although you’d only say shindig if you wanted to sound folksy). “Bob’s your uncle” is unusual but it shows up in old American movies. You want to confuse an American tell them it’s black over Bill’s mother’s.

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

      What does that mean?

      • Eamonn

        It means it looks like rain. Apparently it’s a saying from around Birmingham. England not Alabama, as that’s a whole other set of sayings. And I still don’t know who Bill or his mother are.

        • Jay Jay

          that’s like ‘Annie off the pickle boat’ I really have no idea who Annie is but she seems to be very disheveled when she gets off the pickle boat.

          • dave_f_jones

            Kinda like “Rode hard and hung up wet” ….. .

      • GoldenGirl

        Where I live ‘shindig’ means a party.

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

          No, I meant the Bill phrase. Never heard it before.

          • GoldenGirl

            Sorry I thought you were replying to Kalyov. Me neither.

    • Kalyov

      Shindig is common around these parts (the Midwest…Missouri!)

    • John Bint

      my dad would always say if we were about to have a thunder storm { its black over WILL”S mothers

  • Chris

    Farting is guffed not chuffed. Dog’s bollocks could be translated as “outstanding” as that is what a dog’s bollocks do (unless the dig is a bitch),

    • KatieM

      “Chuffed” most certainly meant farted where I grew up! :-) But guffed works too. Ha!

  • Laurie Cubbison

    Someday you should do an entry or two on ‘What to ask for when you need ____’ I once fell on a cobblestone street in Cardiff. I limped with my bleeding knees to a nearby coffee shop, but could not for the life of me pull ‘I need a sticking plaster’ out of my mind. I could only default to Band-aid, which I knew wasn’t right.

    • bigfatcrimsonpanda

      Its just plaster, but if you said band-aid we would know what you mean. Just because we don’t use it doesn’t mean we don’t understand 😉

    • dave_f_jones

      Yep “sticking plaster” is dead, for Brits in US ….. I’ve defaulted to “Band-aid” a long time ago …. lol

  • Matthew O’Moher

    I love this is Brits trying to explain stuff…in Brit. Not many of these explanations were very clear except the ones already occasionally used in the US.

    • beccablez

      I thought it made perfect sense! – An American

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

      Let’s not forget, the site is for Brits in America so it’s got to be understood by Brits.

  • Cyn Bailey

    Another great resource for those of us on the West side of The Pond is http://www.effingpot.com. If you read the story behind the name, do not assume all Americans are that absolutely clueless. Also… I think you need to know that Americans use “hump” in slang here already, but it means something ENTIRELY different in American slang.

    • Kathryn Waddell Jetter

      It means Wednesday

      • erincinco

        I think I can use “nice one!” here, lol :)

      • John Airey

        I think ithat’s true only if followed by the word “day” – “hump day” in England has sexual connotations however…

      • maggie

        No, the phrase “hump day” means Wednesday. The word “hump” means to Americans what the word “shag” means to Brits.

      • BRossow

        I think those feeling the need to “correct” you missed the joke. Subtle humor is lost on many Americans.

        • dave_f_jones

          Ya got that right ….. :-)

        • AnastasiaSoon2BCarter

          And this is why I love British comedies.

        • Petrichor

          Humor and condescension are not the same thing.

    • TheLuLz

      lol. Just like the whole fanny debacle.

  • Jessica

    “I’m not being funny but..” would be the same thing as Americans saying “No offense, but..” And we would say tickled instead of chuffed, and pieces usually instead of bits. “I’m tickled to pieces”. At least that’s what we say if I’m understanding your explanations correctly. I agree with George, it’s a little hard to understand a Brit trying to explain brit terms.

    • dave_f_jones

      Hey ….. I even have problems ordering food from concession stands @ High-School sporting events …… Nobody seems to understand me …. lol

  • chocoshatner

    Well.. I think anyone that watches BBCAmerica with any regularity would recognize most of those. BTW, “chuffed” does appear in American English, but as with “shindig”, it’s a more retro term.

  • Ted Govostis

    I love the origin of the phrase “the dog’s bollocks”. Apparently it came about due to the assumption that dogs spend so much time licking them, they must be absolutely amazing.

    • beccablez

      I hope that’s true, because it’s brilliant.

    • dave_f_jones

      That’s what I also heard …. The dog takes good care of his “bollocks”. Not sure what the term would be if talkin’ about a female dog ??

  • Dave in New York

    As a “Yank,” I’d understand “the dog’s bollocks” to mean that the item in question is “tha sh*t” in American vernacular: a similarly unexpected twist in meaning.

    • bigfatcrimsonpanda

      Nope, the opposite, it means something is really good :)

      • evil_genius_42

        Usually, when the expression “it’s/that’s the sh*t” is used it’s taken to mean that something is good, unless the tone indicates differently.

        • lbCharmed1

          In American vernacular, typically if you say “that’s sh*t” it means not good. Conversely if you say “that’s THE sh*t” then it’s the best or awesome. That one added word changes the meaning.

          • GoldenGirl

            But if you read Dave’s comment again he is saying “it’s the sh*t” because he wrote “the item in question is tha sh*t” therefore evil_genious_42 is correct.

      • GoldenGirl

        The way Dave explained it is correct. You’re misunderstanding what is meant by “tha sh*t.”

    • dave_f_jones

      No …. totally different in “Britishese” “The dogs bollocks” means the ABSOLUTE BEST … Kinda like havin’ a Blackberry, or, an I-Phone, you’d say that “you have the “dog’s bollocks of phones””

  • BRossow

    “a dog’s tale”??

  • Guest

    “Keep your pecker up” is another one, with pecker meaning nose.

    • Jwb52z

      Pecker does not mean nose.

      • Guest

        According to my 63 British Marine friends it does. So fuck you.

        • Jwb52z

          Being rude is unnecessary and does no one any good.

          • Guest

            It’s ok, I’m French.

          • Guest

            No I’m not. I lied. Pecker does mean nose. The article is about UK slang.

      • dave_f_jones

        “Pecker” means penis …….

  • bigfatcrimsonpanda

    I have never heard a Brit say shindig…

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

      What? It’s almost in the dictionary.

    • GoldenGirl

      Neither have I.

  • Whiskey Sam

    Chin wagging isn’t unusual at all. It’s used a lot in the US in a gossip context such as, “He did something that set chins wagging.”

    • GoldenGirl

      That’s true Whiskey Sam. I had forgotten about that.

    • Dalai


    • WatchingFromOverThere

      I’m from Minnesota, and I’ve heard my older relatives (none of them British) use “chin wag” in conversation. In fact, my college’s coffee shop was called the Chin Wag.

  • http://sambot22.tk/ Sam

    Get up that wooden hill Jack cor it’s a bit parky down here innit. Oh well I’m blowed it’s like a pit full of viper and a snow leopard at 26,000 feet. Put a sock in it Fred you still owe me a pound of flesh now don’t be so soft. Oh bog off Jack Gordon Bennit shut yer gob. I’m gonna get on the blower to the old bill Fred you’ve done this three days on the trot. Oh Jack your one over the eight

    • BRossow

      Love it! My English wife (now in the US with me, the Yank) was born and raised in London and I can’t get enough of this when she breaks it out on occasion!

    • AnastasiaSoon2BCarter

      I have no idea what you said but it was awesome! LOL

  • Guest

    Get up that wooden hill Jack cor it’s a bit
    parky down here innit. Oh well I’m blowed it’s like a pit full of viper and a
    snow leopard at 26,000 feet. Put a sock in it Fred you still owe me a pound of
    flesh now don’t be so soft. Oh bog off Jack Gordon Bennit shut yer gob. I’m
    gonna get on the blower to the old bill Fred you’ve done this three days on the trot. Oh Jack your one over the eight.

  • Kulnobin

    “The Dogs Bollocks” Also known more readily as “The Mutts Nuts”. and the wooden hill, ‘staircase’ normally where i originate from would be Apples And Pairs = Stairs. the other awesome word amonset others is “Butchus” any ideas on that on lol.

    • Tabitha Frazer Blanks

      Butchus is really butchers as in butchers hook = take a look. You would say “let’s have a butcher’s then” (let me see) or “I’m gonna go up there and take a quick butcher’s” (I’m going to have a look)

  • tim the enchanter

    Bobs your uncle goes back to when Prime Minister Robert Balfour named his ne’er do well nephew as the home secretary for Northern Ireland instead of a qualified diplomat

    • dave_f_jones

      Regarding Northern Ireland ….. Has there ever been a “qualified diplomat” ever employed to that office … ???

  • Kim

    I’ve often wondered why the word “bloody” is considered cursing in Britain, and what it means in that connotation.

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

      It’s origin is “By Our Lady” and therefore was considered blasphemy.

  • cw

    One phrase that’s always puzzled me is “she fell pregnant.” I know how pregnancy happens but I’ve never fallen into it. Will someone explain please?

    • Jwb52z

      It’s the same idea as to “fall ill”. It comes from the time in history when many women died in pregnancy or were very ill during it.

  • mh

    I’ve always wondered about the origin of “Sixes and sevens”. I know it means confusion.

  • MeMumsaBrit

    Being born in the USA to a very British woman, I have to say these are missing:
    “I’ll knock you up in the morning” – a frightening prospect for an American girl, especially when your Uncle says it.
    “I was bloody pissed” – this is usually followed by “and I fell down the stairs” or some other embarrassing moment where I wondered why the feeling of utter rage would make one drop his trousers.
    As a side note, my cousins giggled when I referred to my pants.

  • Cheryl Dymond

    how about ‘crackers’, said so enthusiastically that i’m guessing it has something to do with the christmas things you brits crack and not saltines!

  • xgirl360

    I’ve used/heard “Nice One” (in the same context) here in the colonies, don’t know why that one is on the list.

  • dave_f_jones

    Another word, used mostly by British soldiers in British Armed Forces, is the word “bone”, which means something that’s really bad, for instance, like a bad shirt, or, other article of clothing, you’d say “OMG that’s a “bone” shirt you’re wearin'””

  • dave_f_jones

    Along with the term “Bob’s your Uncle”, goes the term “Fanny’s your Aunt”. Used mostly by Scousers (people from Liverpool)

  • dave_f_jones

    Years ago, whilst still iving in UK, I read a small paperback book, called “Teach Yerself Scouse”. Even for me, a “Scouser” it was ABSOLUTLEY HILARIOUS. Not been able to find the original anywhere, even on-line. I was thinkin’ that maybe, we Ex-pat Brits should get together and compile a similar book, for the benefit of Americans and try try get it published, it would be great fun to do so, because, there’re so many words and phrases/expressions, from all different parts of Britain. We could categorize them into regions, from around Britain. I’m sure that American would appreciate British humour more, if they had more “insight” into the REAL ENGLISH LANGUAGE, as spoken around different regions of Britain. How ’bout it Brits …. ???

  • dave_f_jones

    We don’t hear the word “Muppet” used in US, other than to refer to the puppet show of the same name “The Muppets”, but, in British Army parlance, if you call someone a “Muppet” it’s usually and insult, meaning that one has no brain eg. “That new recruit is a muppet”.

  • dave_f_jones

    How ’bout this phrase “He’s got the brains of a rockin’ horse”. Anyone familiar with that one … ???

  • Ladynite

    “I’ve got the hump” LMAO Yeah that sounds funny to this American HAHAHA xP

    However ‘nice one’ I use a lot myself. :3

  • HenryLoose

    “Knees up” may come from the music hall song, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” popular around 1918.

  • Destiny Jackson

    God, yes! The British word “Chuffed” when I first heard it I was wondering if the man ahead of me in line was sick or if he was going to throw up or something. But the way he used it in a sentence didn’t seem like he meant that and his family didn’t seem concerned.

  • Petrichor

    Ruth Margolis is the most condescending writer on this site. It’s rather irritating.

  • ethel

    “Hump” is childish sexual slang. You don’t at all sound like what you mean there.

  • Matt Boyd

    I have used all of these at some point in my life. Though I am not a typical American.

  • Rebah Rose

    I once told someone to give me a tinkle on the blower, and I got “EXCUSE ME?” as a response. I definitely think that’s the oddest British phrase, but “the hump”might slide to the top of the list.