8 British Inside Jokes Americans Will Never Understand

"What are you doing today?"  "Train-spotting" "No, really?"   (AP Photo/Christine Nesbitt)

It’s nice day for some train-spotting. (Christine Nesbitt/AP)

We Brits rarely blow our own national trumpet. But if pushed we will admit to having a wicked sense of humor. Foreigners have every right to be perplexed by the stuff we riff on—from gingers to horse meat.

Train-spotters
The term refers to the anorak-wearing British men folk (and it is nearly always males) who chose to spend their free time standing by the side of railway tracks waiting for trains to go by. When this happens, they scribble down the engine’s make and model number in a little book. It’s thrilling stuff. Anyhow, in Britain the term “train-spotter” has evolved to mean “super-nerd” and we use it liberally.

Essex
Some Americans will know this one because they watch The Only Way is Essex, a.k.a. TOWIE, on Hulu. But anyone else will need it explaining why, exactly, Brits give the folks from this particular home county such a hard time. Essex residents, we’ve decided, are shallow, slutty and they wear a lot of fake tan. Tell any curious Americans to think of Essex as Britain’s New Jersey equivalent and they’ll get the idea.

England always losing on penalties
Fans of England’s national football team just know that, not only will we be knocked out of any major international tournament, but it’ll happen on penalties. I think we’re actually quite pleased when this happens, because we were proved right. Which for Brits is often more important than winning. It’s our national sense of fatalism that’s the joke here. Example: when England was knocked out of the World Cup by Portugal on penalties in 2006, the BBC cut straight to “Numb” by the Pet Shop Boys.

“As the actress said to the bishop”
We’ll very often follow an innocent innuendo with this stock punchline. For instance, one Brit says to another: “I need to get my hands on some sausage meat. Ooh, as the actress said to the bishop!” To anyone not in the know, it’s impenetrably peculiar. (“Which actress? What bishop?”) Brits might be interested to note that the American equivalent is, apparently, “That’s what she said.” When The Office was remade for the U.S., the writers had Michael Scott say, “That’s what she said” in place of David Brent’s frequent actress/bishop usage.

Gingers
It’s generous to classify this as a British gag because, let’s be honest, it’s borderline bullying on a national scale. But redhead ribbing simply won’t die out in the U.K. This is bizarre to Americans, who revere the flame-haired. Read all about our national obsession with poor ol’ gingers here.

The excuses used by train companies
Locomotive lateness is a national joke in Britain. We particularly enjoy the corporate justifications issued over the fuzzy intercom when trains turn up hours after their timetabled slot, or are simply cancelled. Favorites include “It’s the wrong type of snow” (no one knows what this means, and we’re too afraid to ask) and “There were leaves on the line.”

Horse meat scandal
When the news broke last year that some major supermarket’s ready meals contained minced equine instead of the advertised cow, we quickly moved from revulsion to hilarity. Now, it’s still considered fair game to refer to any and all ground meat product with a horse reference.

Eurovision
This annual parade of Euro pop is cherished by Brits. Unlike the rest of Europe, we don’t take the competition seriously. We watch mostly for the so-bad-they’re-good entries, and the comedy voting. Eastern block countries only ever award top marks to their best mate, even if they entered a donkey in full national dress, with scantily clad donkey backing singers. We also cherish the fact that Britain will never win. Britain could enter Led Zeppelin and still come joint 29th with Serbia.

See more:
8 American Sports Idioms Brits Won’t Understand
Coming to America: 10 Everyday Phrases Brits Need to Know
10 British Insults Americans Won’t Understand

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.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis