If you study English and are fairly confident in your ability to hold a conversation with native speakers, don’t be surprised if you arrive in the UK and find yourself somewhat perplexed. That’s because the Brits have a very unique way of talking about the world and depending on which city you happen to be visiting, you’re likely to encounter a number of British words you have never heard used before –and some pretty strong regional accents to boot.
British slang can be so tricky that sometimes even Americans don’t know what the English are talking about! This isn’t surprising given the many differences between American and British English. Nonetheless, if you want to get to know UK English culture and chat with locals, it’s helpful to recognize and learn some of the most common slang terms.
Slang vs. Standard English
Sometimes people speak in slang to show you where they are from. For example, people from Liverpool have a fairly distinct accent and may use words like Scouse which is both a regional dish and the term for someone from Liverpool or Reds to refer to a supporter of the local football club, to let you know they are a local. People can use slang to be more welcoming or to set the tone for a certain exchange. Sometimes people are not even aware that they are speaking non-standard English! Regardless of why a native speaker chooses to use informal language, you should be prepared to meet plenty of it in the UK as regional accents are quite common and vocabulary varies vastly between cities.
Learning slang words
Spoken language is a somewhat unpredictable beast and when it comes to English, regional dialects, accents and vocabulary can only make holding a conversation that much harder. Native speakers tend to develop a preference for certain vocabulary words. They may be used between friends, family or neighbors. Regardless of the conversation’s participants, slang will usually show up in informal exchanges.
This means that making friends, engaging in light chit-chat at a pub or cafe or following films and television shows with British English (have you ever seen Coronation Street?) will be much easier if you know some of the slang that might come up. These are terms you won’t find in your English textbook and that you may struggle to look up in a standard dictionary. In fact, you often need to find real live British people to teach them to you.
However, if you aren’t studying, working or living abroad and don’t have access to a Brit, the next best thing is to watch local tv programs and sitcoms which tend to be full of English slang. When you hear a word you don’t recognize, look it up and make a flashcard for it. Lingua.ly has a free service for this and will even provide you with English newspaper articles that use your word. This way you can revise it and gradually expand your vocabulary to include common expressions from the UK.
British words and expressions
People say these words sound better when you say them with a British accent, but worry first about meaning and tackle pronunciation later. You don’t necessarily have to use them if you feel unsure about speaking non-standard English. Just recognizing them in spoken language will help you massively (a lot) during your travels or extended stay in the United Kingdom.
Chuffed – This word means excited, happy, pleased with yourself. For example: Olivia just found out she was accepted at university. She’s really chuffed! You can use it to talk about how pleased you are with a new purchase or the results of a certain endeavor.
Footy – Everyone in England watches football (also known as soccer in America– see this post for more on American English). Footy is just a shortened version of football and you’re likely to hear it used in pubs across the nation, particularly when people enquire about if the pub is showing the Premier League matches.
Skint – This is the British word for poor or without money. If someone invites you out to dinner, you can graciously decline the offer by saying “I can’t, I’m skint until I get paid at the end of the month.”
Whinging – This word means complaining or whining. You may also hear moaning used. It’s often said to quiet someone down who is being overly negative: Quit your whinging!
Gutted – When you are gutted you are severely disappointed. This may be because your favorite football team didn’t win, you lost your phone or you didn’t get into the course you applied to.
Ta’ - It may be more common to hear this word up North, but Ta’ is just a shortened word for thanks. It can be paired with “Ta’ mate” or “Ta’ lad” which makes the phrase even more colloquial, the latter words meaning friend or guy.
Plonker - Using words like this may not make you too many friends but will certainly help you understand any insults that come your way. A plonker is a silly or stupid person.
Knackered – As in, I’m knackered! or I’m exhausted. You can use this to describe how you feel when you’re simply too tired to move.
Ace – If you are wearing a new pair of trainers (or sneakers in American English) you may be paid a complement on your fashion sense. Something is ace when it is really cool. You can use this British word to describe objects, people or events and outcomes.
Dodgy – This word means not right, strange, shady, not to be trusted. If you walk out of a pub and see someone lurking in the shadows, you may want to stay away from them because they’re a “dodgy” individual. Similarly, you may be told to avoid sitting at a certain dodgy chair if it is slightly broken and the bartender wants to warn you.
Want more words? Try this site.
There are plenty more informal terms floating around the UK and if you’d like to know more of them, the best way is to find yourself a real live British English speaker. You might want to try a conversation exchange (there are plenty of apps for this) or may even consider hiring a tutor for a few sessions on slang. Either way, make sure you don’t try to write these words down as as is the case with most informal language, they are just for spoken English.
Have you learned any British words you’d like to contribute? Please share them in the comments!