An Introduction to English Slang: 30 Wonderful Examples
As if there wasn’t already enough to learn when you’re trying to master the art of speaking English, an informal language all of its own exists within this tricky tongue.
This is the language of English slang: the words that aren’t usually taught within formal English courses, but that you’ll hear all around you when you’re conversing with native speakers. You could think of this as “real life” English, because although it isn’t appropriate in an academic context, it’s a vital element of everyday communication, without which you may struggle to understand what native speakers are saying to you. This guide introduces you to some of the most common slang terms you may come across in the course of informal conversation in the UK.
1. Bee’s knees
This perplexing rhyme is a nonsense phrase that describes something excellent. “It was the bee’s knees,” you might say in response to being asked how your delicious lunch was. You could also use it to describe someone who loves themselves: “He thinks he’s the bee’s knees.” This odd expression is thought to have its origins in 1920s America.
2. Quid and other money-related slang
Our currency is officially known as the “pound sterling”, but many more informal terms exist to describe money in the UK. “Pounds” is the way you’ll most often hear it referred to as, but “quid” is an equally common slang word for it – as in “It costs fifty quid”. “Cash”, “dosh”, “moolah”, “dough” and “wonga” are all slang words for general money, though “cash” is by far the most common of these. A “fiver” is slang for £5, and a “tenner” is slang for £10. It’s worth noting that the same principle does not apply to larger sums – so £20 is not referred to as a “twentier”, for example.
The abbreviation “DIY” stands for “Do It Yourself”, and it tends to refer to home improvements. Thus a shop selling items for home improvers (paint, brushes, doors and so on) can be known as a “DIY shop”. You may hear the abbreviation in certain other contexts, though less frequently: a “DIY meal planner”, for instance.
Considering that the television is a comparatively recent invention (at least relative to the history of the English language), it’s surprising how many slang words we have for it. It’s perhaps most commonly known as the “telly”, but the abbreviation “TV” is also very common, and so is calling it “the box” (“is there anything on the box tonight?”). A more unusual slang term for the television is the “Electronic Fireplace”, which is much older and stems from the fact that the television has replaced the fire as something to stare at in the evenings. A multitude of words exist to describe the remote control for a television, too – 57, to be precise. Also television related: if you hear someone refer to “the Beeb”, they’re referring to the BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation, the main supplier of television programmes in this country.
5. Lost the plot
When someone has “lost the plot”, it essentially means that they’ve gone mad, or that they have no idea what’s going on. It’s something you might say about yourself on those occasions where you feel as though you’re seeing things (“I thought I’d lost the plot”).
The word “skiving” means avoiding work or school; someone who’s skipped school or work, or who has arrived late or left early, is “skiving off”. Someone committing this is a “skiver”. Another word meaning a similar thing is “bunk off”, as in “to bunk off school/work”. Another expression along these lines (funny how we have so many for this kind of thing) is “pull a sickie”, which means “to skive off work/school by pretending to be ill”. In the same vein, but not quite the same, is the word “dossing”, which means lazing around doing nothing (the implication usually being that you should be doing something).
7. Not fussed
This means “not bothered” or “I don’t mind”. For example, if someone asked you which seat you preferred, you would say “I’m not fussed” to indicate that you don’t have a preference.
8. Killing me
This is a phrase not meant to be taken literally: when someone says that something is “killing them”, it normally means “really hurting”. For example, “my legs are killing me after that run” would mean that your legs were hurting.
A “chap” is simply a man, though the word has connotations of niceness – “an affable chap” – and it’s generally a slang word used by those who might be deemed ‘posh’ or slightly old-fashioned. A less posh slang word for a man is “bloke”, and so is “guy”. More old-fashioned than “chap” is “fellow”.
The word “mobile” refers to the ability to move (“she’s less mobile since the accident”), and to a decorative object hanging from the ceiling, but it also refers to the mobile phone, so if you hear someone refer to their “mobile”, that’s what they’re talking about. The equivalent word for “mobile” in America is “cell”.
11. Bits and bobs
The term “bits and bobs” refers to a collection of small things, as does its variant, “bits and pieces”. Examples include, “I’m going into town to do some bits and pieces of shopping” or “she brought me over some bits and bobs to keep me entertained – magazines, DVDs and suchlike”.
While the word “gutted” literally refers to something that has had its guts removed (a “gutted fish”, for example) or to the past tense of the verb “to gut” meaning to remove the guts, it’s also a way to describe feelings of devastation. “I’m absolutely gutted that we lost”, for example.
A number of English slang words are synonymous with “stole”, one of the most common being “nicked” – “Someone nicked my bike.” Others include “pinched”, “filched” and “pilfered”.
The word “dodgy” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used, but in its essence it means “unreliable”. For example, a “dodgy curry” is one that would give you a bad tummy the next day. A “dodgy connection” in an electric socket would cause anything plugged into it to malfunction, or be underpowered. A “dodgy character” is an untrustworthy or unreliable person; if you were walking down the street at night and saw a “dodgy-looking guy” coming towards you, you’d probably cross the road to avoid him. If a situation looks as though it might take a turn for the worse, you might describe it as a “dodgy situation”.
The word “chuffed” signifies that you’re really pleased about something: “I’m so chuffed at your news”. It’s also found in the expression “chuffed to bits”, which means the same thing, but even more so.
The “chippy” is the local fish and chip shop.
The word “blimey” is an exclamation used when you’re commenting on something remarkable, such as “Blimey, that’s a big onion.” It has associations with Cockney – an East London dialect – but it’s widely used beyond the capital.
As well as being the highest card in a suit in a pack of cards, or a move in tennis in which a player scores a point in one move, “ace” is another word for “excellent”. To this end, someone who is particularly good at something is referred to as an “ace” – such as a “computer ace” or a “flying ace”.
“Veg” is slang for “vegetables”, and you may often see this word on menus, particularly at country pubs (“roast veg”, “garden veg” and so on). On a similar theme, we Brits have several words for “potatoes”, the most prevalent of which is “spuds”; others include “tatties” (which is Scottish in origin), “jackets” (potatoes baked with their skins still on) and “roasties” (roast potatoes).
20. Sarnie and more food-related slang words
The word “sarnie” is slang for “sandwich”, and so is “butty” (as in “bacon butty”). Other snack-related slang words you might encounter include “a bite to eat” (as in “I’m going to have a bite to eat” when you’re telling someone you’re going to have lunch), “grub” (the origins of which are explained here), “bangers and mash” (sausages with mashed potato) and “bickie” (a biscuit – or “choccie bickie” for a chocolate biscuit).
The Brits are so famous for their love of tea that it’s not surprising that there are a few alternative ways of describing it. One of them is “a brew” (as in “Anyone fancy a brew?”), and another is “a cuppa”. The phrase “builder’s tea” is often used to describe strong, sweet tea with milk, usually served in a big mug. A “cream tea” refers to scones served with jam and clotted cream as well as a cup of tea.
When you’re “miffed”, you’re a bit annoyed or put out about something. You might say, for example, “I’m so miffed that nobody let me know.”
A “kip” is a short sleep, usually referring to one taken during the day for a brief rest, and also known as a “nap”. It’s a similar sort of thing to the “siesta” of the Mediterranean, only you can have a kip or a nap at any time of day.
24. Local rag
This is a marginally disparaging phrase for your town’s local newspaper. The word “rag” technically refers to a scrap of old cloth, often a dirty one, and these connotations of worthlessness are carried across to express the generally poor quality of stories typically covered in local newspapers.
25. See ya
The expression “see ya” (literally “see you” – in turn, a shortening of the expression “I’ll be seeing you”) is often used as an alternative to “bye”.
26. Taking the mickey
When you’re “taking the mickey” or “taking the mick” out of someone, it means you’re taking liberties with them at their expense, or teasing them. This expression can be used sarcastically; if, for example, someone was expecting you to do something unreasonable, or go to extraordinary lengths to do something for them, you might say that they were “taking the mick”.
27. Arm and a leg
If something “costs an arm and a leg”, it means it’s extremely expensive. A popular but untrue story to explain this expression comes from the days when people used to have their portraits painted, and artists charged more depending on how much of the person was to be depicted; the cheapest was head and shoulders, and it would get progressively more expensive up to “legs and all”.
In English, we have various slang words meaning “extremely tired” or “tired to the point of exhaustion”. One of the most common is “shattered” (which, technically speaking, refers to something breaking into lots of tiny pieces, such as shattered glass). Another one is “knackered”, and another is “done in”, as in “I’m so done in from that run earlier.”
This means to be full of food to the point at which you can eat no more. As in, “I don’t think I can manage dessert, I’m stuffed.” Another similar expression is “fit to burst”, which means the same thing.
30. Cockney rhyming slang
Finally, no guide to English slang would be complete without some mention of the country’s most famous niche lingo: Cockney rhyming slang. All regions of the UK have their own dialects, and with them, their own slang words that only people from that region would understand, but Cockney rhyming slang is more famous and complicated than most, and it’s popular with tourists. The basis of this slang is, as the term suggests, that it rhymes: the “dog” is short for “dog and bone”, for example, and it means the phone (because “bone” rhymes with “phone”). The “apples and pears” is the stairs. “Trouble” is another word for wife, short for “trouble and strife”. “Plates” are the feet, or “plates of meat”. It doesn’t make as much sense as many of the other slang terms we’ve included on this list, and it’s not as widely spoken, but it’s one of many eccentric facets of British culture worth knowing about.
Image credits: banner; money; telly; skiving; chap; nicked; chippy; veg; cuppa; headline; Queen Victoria; St Mary-le-Bow.
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