Many linguists have argued that learning slang, idioms, and colloquialisms is an important part of developing communication skills in a second language.
For instance, a group of researchers at the Industrial University of Tyumen in Russia point out that “even with [classroom] skills, you can fail to communicate with native speakers, read magazines, watch television programmes and travel to foreign countries”, and therefore if students’ goals include being able to “communicate with native speakers personally or in social networks”, then “studying some of the most common slang words and idiomatic expressions is definitely necessary”.
For English language learners, this can present a challenge. Colloquial English varies enormously between different parts of the world where English is spoken as a first language, as well as between age and socio-economic groups.
In this post we’ll explore some examples of colloquial language commonly used by speakers of British English. Learning some of these expressions can help you understand conversations and media from the UK, amplifying your ability to develop your communication skills in English passively or immersively.
Informal English greetings, farewells, and words of gratitude vary significantly between different British dialects, but some expressions are commonly used throughout the country.
The table below offers a guide to the English colloquialisms you’re most likely to encounter during one-off interactions in the UK:
|Colloquial Expression||Meaning||Appropriateness||Typical Response|
|Alright?||“Hello” (implied “How are you?”)||Informal but universally acceptable throughout the UK||“Hello”, “Alright” or “I’m good, thanks, how are you?” all work|
|Ey Up||“Hello” or “Look at that”||Informal. Common throughout the Midlands and North of England.||Depends on context, but very open-ended. Common to follow up with a variation of “How are you?”|
|How do you do?||“Hello, how are you?”||Extremely formal and traditional, usually only found in “upper class” settings||“How do you do?” or “Pleased to meet you”|
|You OK?||Understood as “How are you?”||Usually reserved for friends or family||“Not bad, you?”|
|What’s the craic?||“What’s new with you?”||Informal. Typical throughout the island of Ireland, rare elsewhere.||“Not much” or “nothing new”, or share some gossip or an anecdote about your day|
|Wotcher||“Hello”||Informal. Heard mostly in the southeast of England, but declining in use.||“Wotcher”|
|Ta||“Thank you”||Informal||Not expected. “No worries” or a similar expression can be used.|
|Cheers||“Thank you” (also used for toasting)||Informal||Not expected. “No worries” or a similar expression can be used.|
|Nice one||“I appreciate it”||Very informal, sometimes combined with another form of “thank you” to express gratitude in a friendly way||Not expected. “No worries” or a similar expression can be used.|
|Take it easy||“Have a good day” (also used to say “relax”)||Very informal||“You too”, “Goodbye” or a variation|
|Have a good one||“Have a good day”||Informal||“You too”, “Goodbye” or a variation|
|Pip pip||“Goodbye”||Not commonly heard. Old-fashioned and “upper class”.||“Goodbye” or a variation|
|Ta-ta / Ta-ra||“Goodbye”||Informal. Ta-ra is more common in the North of England.||“Goodbye” or a variation|
|Cheerio||“Goodbye”||Quite old-fashioned||“Goodbye” or a variation|
Complaining with British Slang Phrases
It’s characteristic of British culture to make casual conversation about things that have gone or are going wrong. This can include the weather, current events, or personal matters if the conversation is with close friends or family.
As a result, it’s quite typical to hear expressions that either exaggerate or downplay the extent of a problem. Creativity in this area is a component of British “banter” – the art of witty conversation.
|Bloody||Intensifies the following word or phrase, more often in a negative way. However, “bloody brilliant” would mean extremely good.||A mild profanity, but generally considered inoffensive|
|Bloody hell||Expression of surprise, anger or despair||A mild profanity, but generally considered inoffensive|
|Flippin’ heck||Softer version of “Bloody hell”||Inoffensive but old-fashioned|
|Rubbish||Literally, waste material. Used to mean “bad” or, when describing a claim, “dishonest”, or can be used as a verb.||Universally acceptable|
|Bollocks||Literally, testicles. Used to mean “bad” or “dishonest”, but when part of a phrase like “The (dog’s) bollocks” means “very good” or “the best”. “Bollocks to it” means “I will ignore it”.||A mild to moderate profanity|
|Cock-up||A failure or act of incompetence||A mild to moderate profanity|
|Tits-up||“To have gone tits-up” is to be in a state of disarray||A mild to moderate profanity|
|Daft||“Silly” or “stupid”, depending on context||Informal, slightly old-fashioned, could be considered offensive in certain contexts|
|Dodgy||Poor quality, untrustworthy or dangerous||Universally acceptable. However, unsurprisingly offensive if used to describe a person.|
|Gutted||Extremely disappointed. Literally, to have lost one’s intestines. Can also be used in a semi-literal sense to refer to a building or vehicle having its insides removed, or a project or organisation losing funding.||Universally acceptable|
|Knackered||“Tired” when referring to a living being, “in poor condition” for an inanimate object. The Cockney Rhyming Slang equivalent is “cream crackered”.||Very casual but inoffensive|
|(To have) lost the plot||To be confused or unable to cope with the situation||Not profane but can be somewhat offensive in context|
|Mug||A gullible person. “To mug off” is a transitive phrasal verb meaning to cheat or deceive a person.||Not profane but often considered coarse or rude|
|Nuts||Literally “testicles”. Used to mean crazy or great.||A very mild profanity|
|Pissed off||“To be pissed off” is to be angry, but “to have pissed off” is to have left||A moderate profanity|
|Prat||A person who is incompetent, arrogant, or lacking in initiative||Insulting but not profane|
|Taking the mickey (out of)||“To take the mickey out of” someone is to make fun of them, but the expression is often used ironically to indicate that a situation is unacceptable, i.e. someone is doing such a poor job that they are “taking the mickey”, implying that they are knowingly being irresponsible at the expense of others. “Mickey” is often shortened to “mick”, or it can be replaced with “piss” to make the statement harsher.||Very casual but not offensive. A mild to moderate profanity when “piss” is used instead of “mickey”.|
|Wind-up||“A wind-up” is a trick, practical joke, or prolonged irritation. It can also be used as a phrasal verb, “To wind [someone] up”.||Universally acceptable|
|Bugger all||“Nothing”, generally used to express annoyance at a conspicuous absence. Bugger can be replaced with similar words like “sod”, or the expression can be made much harsher by using the word “f*ck”.||A mild to moderate profanity. An intense, vulgar profanity when replaced with the word “f*ck”.|
|Cack-handed||Clumsy or lacking skill||Very casual but inoffensive|
|Chockablock||Very busy, at or over capacity||Very casual but inoffensive|
|Clanger||An absurd or embarrassing mistake||Very casual but inoffensive|
|Codswallop||Nonsense||Very casual but inoffensive. Quite old-fashioned.|
|Cost a bomb||Very expensive. “An arm and a leg” is also very commonly used instead of bomb.||Very casual but inoffensive|
|Faff||An activity or process that seems unnecessarily inconvenient or time-consuming||Very casual but inoffensive|
|Gobsmacked||Literally to have been hit in the mouth, meaning “absolutely shocked” or “astonished”||Universally acceptable|
|Long||Too much effort or inconvenience||Inoffensive, but quite recent slang from Multicultural London English. Less likely to be understood by older generations or those outside Lonndon.|
|Lurgy||Illness. Often used to playfully imply that a cold is actually something more severe.||Very casual but inoffensive|
A small sample of British slang words and phrases that mean “drunk”
It’s not really possible to offer a simple guide on how to “sound British”. There are many things British people say differently depending on where they’re from, or even based on socio-economic background.
Let’s dive into a few examples of regional dialects from around the UK.
|Ar||“Yes” or “I agree”|
|‘ark at that||“Listen to that” or “imagine that”, can be used to express surprise or to direct someone’s attention|
|Bab / Babs||“Baby”. A term of endearment. Broadly seen as acceptable for addressing friends. Actual babies might be referred to as “the babby”.|
|Bonce||The human head|
|Council pop / fizzy pop||Council pop is (tap) water while fizzy pop refers to carbonated soft drinks. “Pop” with no qualifier is often understood to mean dilutable squash or cordial.|
|Deff (off)||Ignore, avoid, forget, decide against, or abandon. Can be used as a phrasal verb with the addition of “off”.|
|The outdoor||The off-licence or newsagent, a store for purchasing alcohol|
|Round the Wrekin||“To go round the Wrekin” is to take a long time to get somewhere or do something inefficiently|
|Ta-ra a bit||See you later|
|Wench||A young woman|
|Aye||“Yes” or “I agree”|
|Bairn / Wean||Small child. The preferred term varies between different parts of Scotland.|
|Bawbag||Literally, “testicles”. Used as a playful insult between friends.|
|Bonnie / Braw||Beautiful|
|Canny||Clever or wise|
|Dae / Dinnae||Do / Don’t|
|Dead / Pure||Used in combination with adjectives as intensifiers, e.g. “dead brilliant” means extremely good|
|Get tae||Go away|
|Haste ye back||I hope to see you again soon|
|Hen||A term of endearment usually used to address a young woman|
|Nae bother||No problem|
|Scunnered||Tired or bored|
Take your English to the next level
Good English communication skills can open doors in terms of career, love, and leisure.
For the most part, a strong grasp of professional, international English is enough to understand and be understood in conversation. But there’s no reason to stop there. You may end up meeting native English speakers who are not used to international environments and automatically use enormous amounts of slang without considering that it might not be understood.
As most people encounter a significant amount of media from the USA, English learners tend to pick up the basics of American English colloquialisms almost automatically. But it’s a good idea to remember that there are many things British people say differently. There’s also plenty of variation in Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian English, as well as many smaller countries that speak English as a first language and have their own slang.