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15 British Phrases That Will Confuse Americans

LOL November 9, 2016 By Vincent

It was Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who said:  "England and America are two countries separated by the same language" and never is this more evident when looking at the two countries use of slang and colloquialisms that may not pass into the common vernacular of the other. Although, in some cases, some may be found through media shared throughout each country, others get less of an airing and so often confuse their overseas counterparts when they do crop up.


With many people threatening to flee the United States after the results of the recent election, they may have to learn what these terms and phrases mean if they wish to make a new life for themselves in Britain. Here we document a few that'll be vital to discourse in their new home nation.

1. "Bits and Bobs"

This phrase sounds odd but has a practical application in terms of say, shopping. Just going out to grab a few things, you're going for a few bits and bobs. Need to pack your stuff into the car for a road trip? Grab your bits and bobs and let's go. Deriving from the old British currency  bit was a coin and bob was a shilling, this phrase has evolved over time to encompass all things.



Unlike many of these phrases, it does have a direct US counterpart in "odds and ends" although the use of this in the UK would sound odd to the British ear, it would be understandable.

2. Bog Roll

Ah, well a bog is something of a marshy, soggy area but in terms of common parlance, it has also become synonymous with the lavatory in Britain. The origins of the word are from Gaelic and mean soft or moist and so how it made the leap to its other meaning shouldn't be too hard to surmise. You won't often hear it spoken on its own, though, although this is perfectly acceptable.


Most of the time you will just hear about bog roll, which is, of course, toilet paper. So if you're ever in need of any, this may come in handy.

3. Brolly

You may be using this term quite a lot in Britain as they are known for their gray skies and rainy days and this is a short term for the canvas rain deflector we call an umbrella. Apparently abbreviated to 'brelly' in the 1800s, it then, over time, morphed into 'brolly' which is still in common usage today.


So if the forecast is looking a bit grim before you leave the house, don't forget to take your 'brolly'.

4. Butty

Not a reference to someone's behind,this is actually far more appealing in the sense that it is edible. Referring to a sandwich or a roll (although rolls have various different regional names and are a source of much consternation within the nation so just avoid that issue altogether). Mostly heard in chip shops (where chips mean fries) in terms of a chip butty (yes, carb-on-carb is a part of British cuisine).


Popularized in the 1850s when poorer folks would eat butter sandwiches, 'butty' became a catch-all term for sandwiches.

5. Candy Floss

This one is both easy and yet slightly confusing. The name for the beloved sweet treat found at festivals, carnivals and fairs, it is the British term for cotton candy. It makes sense, it's like floss but it's a candy version of it. What the confusing part is, is that Brits don't call 'candy' candy but rather 'sweets' so its origin is a bit murky.


It clear doesn't come from the American term because then they'd call it cotton candy and in the 19th century it was called fairy floss so who knows?

6. Chuffed

The term 'chuff' has been around  since the 1520s and was used to mean fat or chubby but it's not really used in that manner much more. To be chuffed, however, is something you may hear a lot (if you spend time with upbeat people) as it means to be pretty darned pleased. Widely used since the 1860s, it still shows great pleasure in something.


So if you're feeling good, let your Brit friends know by telling them you're "chuffed" and if it's really good, you'll be "chuffed to bits."

7. Cuppa

A portmanteau of the words "cup of", this term is a colloquialism that has been arrived at through the strange pronunciation of 'of' from regional accents. Be warned, though, it is only ever used to refer to a cup of tea so do not expect anything else or ask for anything else when requesting a "cuppa" as you will be disappointed.


On cold days you'll hear this a lot, especially in the office if people "pop-off" to make a "cuppa".

8. Dosh

Cash, dosh, wonga, moolah, readies, dough, spondulicks, notes etc. These are all terms for cash money and are used sparingly when you need money to pay for pizza or parking. "You got any dosh mate?" or "Can I have that dough you owe me for the delivery guy?". It's all about having ready money on you.


With contactless cards and chip and pin widely available nowadays this etymology is being used less and less.

9. Faff

To 'faff' about or be caught 'faffing' means that you are dithering, procrastinating or time wasting in an ineffectual manner that means you are not getting anything done. Taken from the 16th-century ‘faffle,’ it is usually used on a disorganized person rather than someone who is trying to kill time although it can be used in both circumstances.


It usually happens when you need to leave the house and the person you are giving a lift has to quickly do something before you go and then, suddenly, it becomes a faff.

10. Jam Sandwich

There's plenty of nicknames for the police in Britain, some of which are less than complimentary, like fuzz, peelers, bobbies, pigs, popo etc. but this one refers to their mode of transport rather than their being as it comes from a time when police cars used to be emblazoned with a large red stripe down the middle.


The white cars with red stripes were considered to look like to slices of white bread with strawberry jam in the middle, hence the terminology, although not used so much anymore as most police vehicles are silver with reflective yellow and orange on them but it is still perfectly acceptable to call them this.

11. Plonk

From a nation that loves booing, this term refers to wine but only the cheap variety and usually that of red wine. You don't pay £50 for a bottle of 'plonk', you buy a £10 bottle from the corner shop down the road. Its origins aren't entirely clear but some have postulated it may come from the sound as you pour it into a glass.


Others have said it may come from the french for white wine which is 'vin blanc' but then why use it to refer to mostly red wine?

12. Rashers

A rasher is just a thin cut of bacon or ham and has been around since the 1950s. Thought to maybe come from a slang term to cut being to rash, it is not really certain where it come from but most of the time you will ask for a rasher of bacon over a slice or a cut and since Brits love a bacon butty you may find you use it quite a lot. Especially the morning after having one too many glasses of plonk.


The 'fry-up' is a traditional British breakfast that is served after nights like this and comes with a few rashers.

13. Serviette

The French word for a napkin, it has been picked up by the British (as well as Canadians and other nations) and used in place of napkin although if you did use this word, people would still know what you are on about. Typically coming with your takeaway meal (what Brits call take-out) or in restaurants so that you can clean your fingers.


Serviette sounds a bit posh though so more and more people are using napkin.

14. Skint

To be broke or out of dosh means that you are completely skin, mate. Adopted in the mid-1920s from the past participle of ‘skinned', it is a graphic but logical use of slang to describe your poor financial status. It's useful if you have to explain why you can't go out for a bottle of plonk or why you're living off chip butties.


Hopefully, you won't have to use this one too much though.

15. Throw A Wobbly

If angry or upset, you might 'throw a fit' or 'throw a wobbly'. The origins of this phrase aren't known but it started to appear in the 1970s and may be a reference to how a child's bottom lip might wobble when they are upset. However, if you are in a fit of anger or throwing a tantrum, the last thing on your mind will be etymology.


Just keep your cool and try to avoid any 'wobblies'.

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