50 British Words and Phrases Americans Just Don't Get
“England and America,” George Bernard Shaw may or may not have once said, “are two countries separated by the same language.”
He may have been exaggerating a bit. The differences between American and British English aren’t really all that profound, to be honest. And most of us have probably heard or read by now that our cousins across the pond call an elevator a “lift,” a car trunk a “boot,” and a vest a “waistcoat” — and that they persist in identifying French fries as “chips” and chips as “crisps,” and consider Oreos to be “biscuits.”
On the other hand, there are still plenty of British words and phrases that probably wouldn’t make sense to us if we heard them used in conversation. Sometimes that’s because they mean something different in the U.K. than they do in America — like bonnet, jumper, or scheme. In other cases, they’re simply mysterious. What on earth is a kip or a spanner? What would we do with a pair of breeks? Terms like this can be just as confusing as (or even more confusing than) all those Canadian slang words and phrases Americans just don’t get.
When you throw in entries from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — as this list does, because we’re talking British, not just English here — things can get even more complicated. A list of old Scottish words and phrases can be particularly, well, challenging. What’s a lum, for instance? Ah dinnae ken.
It’s always slightly tricky to compile a list of slang terms and phrases from other countries, of course, because people who are actually from those places often look at what we’ve written and scoff. “You do realize that nobody here actually talks like that, don’t you?” they might say.
Language is a living thing, and it constantly changes and evolves, in the U.K. as in the U.S. It’s hard enough for us to keep up with our own words that were just added to the dictionary.
But while all 50 of the words and phrases on this list might not be in frequent current usage, a good many of them are, and the rest are colorful if potentially vexing enough to be worth knowing — just in case.