An Introduction to English Dialect Words

Image shows the pretty town of Tenby. We recently discussed English slang, in the context of which we observed that there are numerous slang words found within specific regions of the UK and across English as it’s spoken in other countries.

You should also read…

Such is the variation that it can even give rise to misunderstandings between English-speakers. For example, an English person might say “I’m going to have a root in the wardrobe”, meaning that they’re going to hunt around in the wardrobe for something; but an Australian would laugh at this because to them, “root” is a rude word. Across the UK, a bread roll might be referred to in different regions as a “bun”, a “bap”, or a “barm cake”, among other things – all essentially the same thing, but referred to differently. It’s little wonder that those learning English have problems – so do native speakers! To demonstrate the enormous variety to be found in the way English is spoken in different parts of the country – and the world – we give you three illustrative words and phrases each from a selection of well-known English dialects.

Brummie/Black Country

Image shows Birmingham canals.
Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice.

We start with an accent that doesn’t have many fans in the UK. The Birmingham accent – part of the ‘Black Country’ dialect, which refers to the name given to this part of the Midlands, formerly ‘black’ from coal mining – is affectionately known as “the Brummie accent”.

“Round the Wrekin”

This saying is common in and around the Black Country, including the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and others. It refers to a prominent hill in Shropshire called “the Wrekin” – pronounced “REE-kin” – which can be seen for miles around. The phrase “round the Wrekin” simply means “to take the long way around”, which could refer to a long route taken when travelling somewhere, or to a long, rambling conversation that takes ages to get to the point.

“Bostin”

The word “bosting” (usually spelt and pronounced “bostin”) is used to describe something brilliant or excellent. It’s actually slang for “broken”, so it’s roughly akin to the general English term “smashing”, which isn’t fixed to a particular dialect.

“Babby”

This technically means “baby”, but you’ll probably find you’re addressed by Brummie folk as such (or by the shortening “bab” or “babs”). It’s a bit like the general word “dear”, as in “How are you bab?”.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all EFL and English Culture articles."Essex

Image shows a pier in Essex.
The Essex accent was voted the least attractive in the country.

The Essex accent is regarded as a milder form of the London accent, but this part of the country has also developed its own set of interesting words and phrases that people elsewhere in the country might not understand. It’s a dialect made famous – or infamous – by the television series The Only Way is Essex, with modern Essex sayings (used among the younger generation) including the vulgar “well jell”, which means “very jealous”. There’s more to Essex than this dreadful television show, however, and the phrases below preserve some older sayings from this county.

“Sing-small”

This means “to put up with less than was expected or promised”.

“Narrow-wriggle”

This brilliantly descriptive expression refers to an earwig, a kind of household pest.

“Liggle”

This refers to the act of carrying something that’s too big to be carried easily. Picture a small child trying to carry a growing, wriggling puppy, and you get the idea.

Scouse

The Scouse dialect is spoken in the English city of Liverpool and its surrounding counties. This distinctive dialect, characterised by its rising and falling tones and the use of “youse” instead of “you” as the second person pronoun, has an extensive vocabulary of slang, of which the following are some examples.

“Devoed”

This is an expression of negativity, broadly synonymous with the more widely used “gutted”. “Proper devoed” would mean “well and truly gutted”.

“Fella”

The word “fella” refers to a man, either in the third person (“your auld fella” would mean “your father”, as in the more widely used “old man” to mean father), or directly, as in “you alright fella?”

“Chocka”

This means “very busy” (as in “the station was chocka”) and it comes from the longer expression “chock-a-block”, which is actually of 19th century nautical origin and is heard more widely around the UK.

Geordie

Image shows Newcastle.
The Geordie accent can be very difficult to understand, but is usually considered attractive-sounding all the same.

Another highly distinctive UK dialect is known as “Geordie”, and it’s spoken by people in and around the north-eastern-English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the larger Tyneside area.

“Pet”

This is simply an affectionate way of addressing someone, in the same way as the Brummie “babs”: “I know what yer mean, pet.”

“Geet walla”

This simply means “very big”, as in “there’s a geet walla tree in the road.”

“Haddaway”

This is generally used to express disbelief, in the same way as the widely used exclamation, “No way!” For example, a Geordie person might say, “Haddaway man, there’s nee [no] way he’s comin”.

Yorkshire

Image shows a typical Yorkshire town.
People with Yorkshire accents are perceived as honest and straightforward, making them a popular choice for advertisers.

The Yorkshire accent is the archetypal Northern English one, and it’s characterised particularly by the shortening of “the” to a single “t” sound, as in “middle of t’road”, and by the dropping of consonants at the beginning of some words, such as “‘appy” instead of “happy”.

“Eee by gum”

This essentially means “oh my God”, and it’s the phrase all non-Yorkshire people say when they want to replicate this distinctive dialect.

“Oh aye?”

This means “oh really?” and is generally an expression of surprise, that might be uttered with a raised eyebrow.

“‘Appy as a pig in muck”

This refers to someone very happy or content.

Cockney

Image shows East London.
Many features of the Cockney accent are also seen in Estuary English.

This dialect is traditionally spoken by London’s working class. We’ve already covered Cockney rhyming slang in our previous post on English slang, but this article would be incomplete without a mention of this notable English dialect. It’s so famous for its rhyming slang that it’s difficult to find examples of specific words that don’t arise from it; but they do exist, as these three examples show.

“Backhander”

This refers to an underhand payment, such as a bribe.

“Duck and dive”

The term “duck and dive” means hiding from trouble. If asked what they have been doing, a Cockney might respond by saying “duckin’ and divin’”, which is simply a non-committal answer that someone might give if they don’t wish to be specific.

“Luvverly jubberly”

Popularised by the sitcom “Only Fools and Horses”, the expression “luvverly jubberly” means that all is well.

West Country

Image shows Somerset.
The West Country accent frequently comes near the top of lists of Britain’s most attractive accents.

The homely West Country accent has connotations of farmers and cider (a primarily Somerset stereotype), and when non-West Country folk want to replicate it, they say “ooh arr” (which means “oh yes!”, said when you’re pleased at something). For a good illustration of what the West Country accent sounds like, refer to the popular West Country band, The Wurzels.

“Alright me luvver?”

Translated as “are you ok mate?”, this is a form of greeting, and again is often used when mocking this accent.

“Teddies”

Another word for “potatoes”. In wider English vocabulary, a “teddy” is a toy stuffed bear.

“‘Ark a’ee”

This means “listen to him”, “‘ark” being short for “hark” and “ee” being a common substitute for “him” in the West Country dialect.

Welsh

Image shows Snowdonia.
Welsh English is heavily influenced by the grammar of the Welsh language.

Wales was a separate country before being incorporated into the United Kingdom, and as such, many of its inhabitants still speak the Welsh language. When speaking English, the Welsh have a pleasantly lyrical accent often described as “sing-song”, and there are a few words that are often referred to as “Wenglish” – a hybrid between Welsh and English. There are different dialects within Wales, such as the Cardiff dialect and the Valleys, but here are some of the more well-known words in general use in Wales.

“Butty”

In Wales, this word is often taken to mean a “mate”, and its usage differs from the wider English understanding of the word to mean “sandwich”, as in a “bacon butty”.

“Wanged out”

The expression “wanged out” (or just “wanged”) means “exhausted”. As in, “I’m going to bed, I’m wanged out.”

“Tidy”

In English as a whole, the word “tidy” means neat and ordered, but in Wales, it takes on a whole new meaning. As an exclamation, “Tidy!” means “splendid!”, while “a tidy few” would mean “quite a large number”, “a tidy spell” would be “quite a long time”, and “a tidy bit in the bank” would mean “quite a lot of money saved up in the bank”. There are lots more expressions along similar lines, too.

Glaswegian

Image shows Glasgow illuminated in red.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have been translated into Glaswegian as Alice’s Adventirs in Wunnerlaun.

While the Scottish accent in general is very popular with the rest of England, one particular Scottish dialect presents problems for English and other Scots alike. The thick Glaswegian dialect – spoken by those who inhabit the city of Glasgow (which, incidentally, recently voted ‘Yes’ to Scottish independence) – is notoriously difficult for non-Glaswegians to understand.

“Byraway”

This term is added to the end of sentences, particularly those in which a point is being made – “That’s mine, byrway”.

“Ah huvnae a scooby”

This expression is proof that it’s not just the Cockneys who have rhyming slang. This Glaswegian saying means “I haven’t a scooby”, which refers to the children’s cartoon character Scooby Doo – which rhymes with the word “clue”. So, the expression means “I haven’t a clue”, or “I don’t know”.

“Wur aw Jock Tamson’s bairns”

This essentially means “We’re all God’s children”, or, if “Jock Tamson” is seen as a personification of Scotland, “we’re all children of Scotland” – that is, “we’re all equal”. “Bairns” is a Scottish word for children, and Jock Tamson – also known as John Thomson – is thought to have been a 19th-century vicar who referred to his congregation as “ma bairns”.

Australian

Turning now to some examples of how English is spoken outside the UK, the ‘Aussie’ dialect is incredibly distinctive and often hard for English speakers from the UK to understand – beyond the ubiquitous “G’day mate!” greeting. English as it’s spoken “Down Under” has many words influenced by the native Aboriginal language, and plenty of its own.

“Barbie”

A “barbie” is a “barbecue” (not the Barbie dolls we’re used to in the UK!), a feature of Aussie life that forms a major part of how the Australians are perceived by other nations.

“‘Ow ya goin’?”

In the UK, we might ask someone how they are by saying, “how are you doing?” In Australia, the equivalent expression is “‘ow ya goin’?” or “how are you going?”

“Sheila”

This woman’s name is used in Australia to refer to any female person.

American

Image shows an aerial view of New York City.
Many spelling differences between US and UK English were introduced by Webster’s dictionary.

American English is often derided by UK English speakers, who sometimes see it as unnecessarily messing with the English language; the term “Americanism” is a derogatory way of describing a word or phrase originating in America that’s crept into use in UK English. As well as subtle differences in spelling (for example, Americans write “s” as “z” in some circumstances, such as “realize” instead of “realise”), there are numerous specific words and phrases that are unique to America.
“Flipped out”
This describes an angry reaction to something, as in, “He flipped out when I told him I was leaving.”

“Megabucks”

This means “a lot of money”, as in “he’s on megabucks in his new job”, or “I couldn’t afford the laptop, it was megabucks.”

“Totaled”

You can work out the meaning of this word from the context: “I totaled my car when I hit a tree”. It means completely wrecked, resulting in what we would call in the UK, “a write-off” – a car so badly damaged that the cost of repairing it exceeds the value of the car.

Kiwi

Image shows a glacier in New Zealand.
Vocabulary differences between Australian and New Zealand English include the use of ‘duvet’ (NZ) versus ‘doona’ (Aus).

The New Zealand accent – commonly referred to as the “Kiwi” accent – sounds, to the untrained ear, rather like the Australian accent, though woe betide anyone who mistakes the two; a Kiwi would be offended to be mistaken for an Aussie! The Kiwi accent has shorter vowel sounds than the Australian accent, so the word “dead”, for example, would sound more like “did”. The New Zealand English dialect has influences from the native Maori tongue.

“Kia Ora”

This is a Maori greeting meaning “hello”, but it’s common to see it around New Zealand used in an English context.

“Hard yakka”

This is a way of saying “hard work”.

“Waiwai express”

This means “walking” – “we’re taking the Waiwai express to town” would mean “we’re walking to town”.


Image credits: banner; Birmingham; Essex; Newcastle; Yorkshire; London; Somerset; Wales; Glasgow; USA; New Zealand.