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Can Americans Understand These Britishisms?

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The United States and the United Kingdom are two countries bonded by the same language. While many might find this to be true, it is certainly a bit more one-sided than that. Even though the British can understand most of what Americans say, there are often regional British words that leave Americans feeling confused.

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We’ve highlighted some of the most British words we could find that aren’t used across the pond by our American cousins. How many of these did you know? 

*Full disclosure – this writer was born and raised in London, England.

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Anorak

Brits use the word ‘anorak’ to describe water-proof winter jackets. Usually, these are made from light materials and include plenty of pocket space for things like pens, notepads, or cameras. This is also the reason why anorak is a slang term for a nerd or someone who pursues a ‘boring’ hobby.

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Stereotypically, an ‘anorak’ is someone who would follow boring hobbies like train watching or bird-spotting. However, its proper use refers to the jacket he/she might be wearing during rainy days. 

Banjaxed (Northern Ireland)

Here’s a word specifically from Northern Island, which is the fourth country included in the United Kingdom. Referring to something as ‘banjaxed’ would mean it was destroyed or ruined beyond repair. 

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This would likely refer to a broken down car or old gadget. While the origins of the word are unknown, there is evidence that people were using it back in the 1950s. Next time your computer breaks down, make sure to call it what it is: banjaxed! 

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Bespoke

When something is customized or made-to-measure, the Brits will refer to it as ‘Bespoke’. This is mainly used for clothing and other personalized items. Americans might not have heard of the term before, but it doesn’t mean it’s not widespread in the country.

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Next time you find yourself in the UK, listen out for the word ‘bespoke’ and how it is used in everyday language. Maybe next time you order a coffee you can add some personalized touches and make it ‘bespoke’! 

Bonnet

Technically, a bonnet is the hood of a car. However, Americans will need to listen for the context, since Brits tend to use the word in many metaphors or slang catchphrases.

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For example, if someone is ‘on it like a car bonnet’, then they have a situation under control and are focused on a task at hand. Americans might also hear someone refer to their helmet as a ‘bonnet’ – protecting their head (engine) from damage! So, make sure you pay attention and decipher the context for yourself.

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Chinwag

When a group of friends gets together on the weekend, they might go for a chinwag. This means that they would be talking or chatting with one another. “Fancy a chinwag?” someone might ask. “Gosh, that sounds tremendous!”, would hopefully be a response from a friend.

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The origins of the word chinwag are unknown, but it’s pretty obvious to see how the term came about. Next time you’re chatting to someone, consider how your chin is wagging along with your words. 

Chopsy (Wales)

Chopsy is a regional word found mainly in the Welsh capital city, Cardiff. To describe someone as chopsy would mean they were being a little over chatty in public or cheeky in how they conducted themselves.

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Usually, Brits go to great lengths to avoid talking to anyone – particularly in public. So, if someone talks with someone they don’t know, there’s a whole world to describe them. Americans might bump into a chopsy person and find them charming and friendly. 

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Chuffed

If someone is chuffed, they will tell you how happy they are. Originally, the word came from the military and related to an old word for swollen or chubby. Today, Americans will hear Brits consider themselves chuffed if they are delighted. For example, if they made a particularly good cup of tea.

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Weirdly, some regions use the term chuffed to describe a feeling of displeasure. Usually, Brits will use the former meaning but make sure to listen out for the context. 

Clanger

Oh, no! You’ve just accidentally attributed your colleague’s weight gain to a pregnancy that doesn’t exist. While you might want to die of embarrassment, you shouldn’t do it without knowing that you had actually committed a clanger.

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A clanger is social faux pas or mistake committed when talking with people. Brits describe the act as a clanger and not the person who committed it. Americans might want to keep an eager eye out for any cultural mistakes they might make if they travel to the UK!

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Codswallop

When you have that drunk friend at the bar, you might start to notice how he speaks absolute codswallop. This is when he will be talking nonsense and not making any sense. Although we don’t know where the word came from, it might be connected to the Scottish word ‘wallop’, meaning to flop or wobble.

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Today, it’s used to describe anyone speaking nonsense. This could be applied to someone who embellishes the truth or someone who simply makes up facts and stories. 

Dog’s Dinner

When your plans go array, there’s a chance you’ve made a dog’s dinner out of the situation. Generally, the expression can be adopted to apply to a real mess, or confusion about what happens next.

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Interestingly, making a dog’s dinner can also be labeled as making a ‘dog’s breakfast’, out of plans, too. Next time your arrangements change or adopt causing a mess, you have successfully made a dog’s dinner out of the situation. Americans: don’t mess up your plans! 

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Duff

When something is broken or fake, Brits often refer to it as duff. For example, if you buy a handbag or a watch from a street market, the chances are that they won’t be real products. The counterfeit items, therefore, would be duff items. 

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We’re not exactly sure where the word originated from, but it might refer to a ‘duffer’ – a seller of fake goods. Therefore, the item bought would be a duff product from a duffer. Always keep an eager eye out when shopping and make sure you don’t buy any duffs.

Gaff

Not to be confused with a gaffe, a gaff would be someone’s home. Whether it was a house or apartment, if you were invited into someone’s gaff you would be entering their place where they live.

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There are a few ideas for why Brits refer to their hoes as gaffs. One idea comes from the 18th century when the word referred to a fair or music hall. Then, people adopted a looser definition to extend it to their homes. 

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Gobsmacked

If you’ve just heard some surprising news from a friend or family member, it’s likely that you would be gobsmacked. Generally, it means that you are speechless or shocked by some recent news or experience.

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The word comes from an old Celtic term for your mouth, a gob. When your gob was ‘smacked’, it means you were metaphorically hit with something heavy, leaving you unable to verbally respond. When was the last time you could describe yourself as gobsmacked? 

Goonie (Scotland)

You’re going to have to go to the Northern parts of the United Kingdom to hear the word goonie. The Scottish word refers to a nightgown worn by women before they go to sleep for the night. Whereas some people in England would refer to it as a ‘nightie’, the word goonie is almost exclusively heard in Scotland.

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It isn’t clear where the word came from and why it is limited to speech in Scotland. Either way, if you find yourself up there you might need to know the word.

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Gormless

If you are sitting in a boring meeting right before lunch time, you might start to see your colleagues looking gormless. Generally, the adjective describes people who are without much sense or discernment for things.

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The word comes from the term ‘gorm’, which is an archaic word for ‘attention’. So, someone who is without gorm (gormless) is seemingly indifferent to the situation.

Hob

If people want to make some pasta at home, Americans would be confused to hear the homeowner describe the kitchen device as a ‘hob’. Instead of looking around for something you don’t recognize, you’ll realize the hob is right in front of your eyes! 

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Brits often refer to their stove or burners as a hob. This might be related to the ‘hub’ of the device which is the center part of the wheel used to heat up pots and pans. 

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Jumper

Quick, it’s getting cold. You might want to grab a jumper before you head outside. No, we don’t mean you should jump up and down to warm up – we’re talking about a sweater! Brits and Americans might fail to be on the same page about what a jumper is and why it should be called that! 

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In the USA, Americans generally refer to it as a sweater and will have a little bit of trouble understanding the British language. In some cases in the US, a jumper is a dress for women!

Kip

Fancy a kip? It’s the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. A kip is a name for a short nap or snooze in the afternoon. While the original term specifically referred to a nap away from your home, the term has been adopted to mean a sleep at any place.

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Americans will want to grab a kip after a Thanksgiving meal, for example. A heavy meal with a few drinks might be the perfect recipe for an afternoon nap. So, time to rest those eyes.

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Knackered

If you overhear someone describe themselves as knackered, it means they probably had a busy night the night before! Knackered means exhausted or worn out. Basically, someone who is like a walking zombie due to tiredness. But where did the word come from?

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Many people think that the word originated from a ‘knacker’. He would be someone who killed sick or tired horses and sold their meat as dog food. A more colloquial use of the word is when someone is tired after performing… you know.

Knees-up

So you’ve been invited to a knees-up. You’re excited because it’s a funny word, but what is it exactly? Well, a knees-up is an expression to describe an informal gathering to celebrate something like a birthday or promotion. 

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The origins of the word are unknown but you won’t be able to go far without hearing it in England. Every Friday at around 5pm, you’ll see the bankers and lawyers in town embark on a knees-up – so watch out!

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Knock Up

Don’t worry – this has nothing to do with pregnancy. If someone is performing a knock-up, it means they’re simply knocking on someone’s door to wake them up in the morning. It was actually a job for some people before the invention of the alarm clock. 

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Can you imagine getting paid to wake someone up in the morning? To be a knock-up, all you would need is a good sense of time and the ability to knock on wooden doors for minutes at a time. 

Legless

Sadly, the British need a few terms to describe the different levels of drunk they become at any time. Legless is just one of the terms used to describe people, usually at the end of their night, who lose control of their legs.

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Consequently, a legless person can usually be found sitting outside a bar or in the street. The next morning, they won’t remember the fact they were legless – until they see the social media posts from their friends. 

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Made Redundant

It isn’t a term that has carried over to the US, but sadly the British know it all too well. When a company makes its employee redundant, it means that there is no purpose for that role to exist anymore. In effect, the employee is fired.

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The difference between getting fired and being made redundant is small but meaningful. Whereas if you’re fired you can expect to be replaced, being made redundant means the job will no longer exist. We don’t know what’s worse, to be honest. 

Minging

This slang word was popular in the 2000s and early 2010s but has died out in recent years. To be described as minging would mean that something was gross, disgusting, or unattractive. 

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It could mean that your meal was minging, or maybe it was an unflattering way to refer to your ex. Either way, it was a derogatory word that has died down in everyday speech. Usually, people who used the word would drop the ‘g’ at the end and pronounce it as ‘mingin’’. 

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Naff

The last thing you want is to be described as naff! The term refers to something that is cheesy, unfashionable, or generally deemed ‘uncool’. For example, if you wear socks and sandals, you might be called naff by your friends.

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It doesn’t just refer to people. You might hear the British refer to an occasion as naff if they’re not having fun. Think of a dry office party or high school reunion. There are plenty of reasons to describe people as naff – can you think of one?

Pear-Shaped

Oh no – it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped. But what does that mean, exactly? Well, if you hear a British person describe something as pear-shaped it means that it’s all gone a bit wrong. This could apply to a business meeting, date, dinner party, or a general plan.

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While the origins of the word are unknown, the expression was a popular slang term used by the Royal Air Force. When was the last time you planned something, only for it to become a bit pear-shaped? 

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Pukka

When the British describe something as pukka, you’re going to want to get in on the action! The origins of the word come from Hindi, where pukka was used to describe something strong, mature, or substantial.

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Today, its most common use is to describe something as generally high quality. This can be a meal, experience, or product. Why don’t you come over for a pukka dinner before he hit the pukka pub? It’s not very common in parts of England outside of London.

Scheme

If you hear a British person talk about a scheme, don’t worry! They’re not planning something mischievous or sneaky, they’re just planning something! Americans use the word to refer to something negative or dishonest, but this couldn’t be more different in the UK.

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Examples of this could be an electric company implementing a new scheme to improve a power grid, or a classroom adopting a new homework scheme. Next time you hear a British person plan a scheme, give them the benefit of the doubt!

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Scrummy

As an abbreviation of scrumptious, you might hear a Brit talk about a delicious meal and describe it as scrummy. This is a colloquial term for nice tasting food that’s enjoyed by someone. 

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There aren’t any specific times someone can describe something as scrummy. It can be a snack or a five-course meal! Basically, if you enjoy what you eat then you can call it what it is: scrummy and scrumptious! You might hear a Brit refer to their tea and biscuits as this at tea time! 

Shirty

Alright, no need to get shirty! Describing someone as shirty means that they are likely to be rude or angry. The term is an abbreviation of a few idioms that relate to someone losing control or trying to keep it. 

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For example, ‘having your shirt out’ means you’ve just lost your temper, whereas someone trying to calm that person down would be ‘trying to keep his shirt on’. So, shortening these expressions to shirty makes more sense than explaining the phrasing! 

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Spiffing

If there’s one thing the British people love, it’s dressing up for a night on the town. If you get out your favorite suit and tie and top it off with a nice hat, someone might look at you and think you look rather spiffing. 

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Spiffing is an endearing term for someone who chooses to dress nicely and looks elegant, smart, or fashionable. Across the pond, you might hear Americans describe someone as ‘looking spiffy’ – the meaning is the same. 

Spanner

If you go into your toolbox, you might see something that looks like a wrench. Well, Brits would call this a spanner and it’s basically the exact same tool. What’s more, the English use it in replacement for some of your favorite sayings.

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For example, whereas Americans would describe a disruption as ‘throwing a monkey’s wrench in the works’, Brits would say that a ‘spanner was thrown in the works’. Spanner is also a term for a friend who has just done something stupid. 

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Stroppy

Parents of young children will love to know this word! When someone is rude, ill-tempered, or generally acting sassy, they can certainly be called stroppy! Toddlers and teenagers are most likely to be called this, as well as overtired parents! 

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If someone is in the middle of a hissy fit, you might describe that person as ‘having a strop’. Usually, they will calm down after some food or rest – just like all good children! When was the last time you had a good strop? 

Swot

To swot or not to swot? That is the question! To swot means that you are studying hard. Usually, the context relies on someone working hard by cramming a lot of study into the night before an exam.

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Alternatively, someone who frequently works and studies hard can be called a swot – although this is a derogatory term similar to a ‘loser’ or a ‘geek’. Did you know any swots in your school? If the answer is no, then it was you. 

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Tamping (Wales)

Here’s another word from Britain that is more regional. The Welsh word tamping would refer to someone who is annoyed and fuming from an argument. “Oh my, he’s tamping!” you might hear someone say.

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Tamping actually has a second meaning which is also used every so often. It could refer to the act of bouncing a ball up and down on end. For now, we will focus on the first meaning so you know how to spot it if someone says it about you!

Tatties (Scotland)

Back up to Scotland where we can learn about all the fun ways to say ‘potato’. One of the most interesting ways is the term ‘tatties’. 

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Tatties are the traditional side to the Scottish dish, Haggis. As well as tatties, you might also want to put some neeps (turnips) on your plate, too. So: we have haggis with tatties and neeps all washed down with an icy cold scotch! For those who don’t know what’s inside haggis, we suggest you google it!

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Twee

You won’t hear many young people use the term ‘twee’. Older generations use it to refer to something that might be a little too quaint or dainty. 

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Someone’s home that doesn’t have a cushion out of place, or a film that’s a little too romantic, might be described as twee. You’ll be likely to hear parents or grandparents talk about these things – younger Brits are likely to use words like ‘naff’. Try to listen out for older British people using the word in the street!

Peckish

If someone says they’re peckish, it means they are hungry enough for a small snack but not hungry enough for an entire meal. This usually occurs at around 3pm, after lunch when you fancy another treat.

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Feeling peckish is a great chance to grab a quick snack. Just beware that you don’t snack on too many sugars or carbs! It’s important to have healthy snacks whenever you feel peckish. To read up on our list of healthy office snacks, follow this link. 

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Cuppa

Fancy a cuppa? Well, you might want to know what it is before you decide if it’s something you want! You’ll hear this saying every day in Britain at around 4 pm. Americans, take note: a cuppa refers to a cup of tea.

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The term cuppa is a colloquial term for ‘cup of’. Therefore, it doesn’t specifically refer to tea, but generally a hot drink of sorts. You can sit back and enjoy a cuppa coffee if that’s what you prefer!

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