British English Phrases, Idioms, and Expressions (Letters A-C)

by Mira

By Mira at Wizzley. Some of my favorite words and phrases that are particular (peculiar) to British English. Selection from the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd edition, 2006.

I’ve heard many Americans say that British English is a different language, and for many reasons that statement stands true. There are many different words and phrases that British English uses for the same referent (bonnet for a car’s hood, jumper for sweater, etc.). Then, as with all cultures even at this stage of globalization, there are words and phrases that don’t have an American English equivalent (think certain specific foods or products; my mind first went to Marmite, but I'm learning it's actually available in the US as well). Finally, there are words and phrases that exist in AmE but are used differently (I’ll write about that in another article). So things can get pretty confusing.

Of course, there are also other differences, which fall into the categories of spelling, pronunciation, differences in the use of verb tenses, writing dates, differences in punctuation after titles, etc. I’m not going to deal with them here. They are also rather well-known.

This is the beginning of a series that will go alphabetically at first, and then all over the alphabet with various British English words and phrases I wrote down over the past few years, when I finally found time to read more for fun, and chose to focus on contemporary British fiction. It was also around this time, the summer of 2009, that I discovered British chick lit.

I wish I knew more about Australian English so as to include more of it in future articles, but I confess I don’t. I also wish I knew more about Canadian English and other varieties of English. I expect it will come in time, as I read more of their literature.

If you've never read British chick lit, start with this book!
Twenties Girl: A Novel
$16.00  $1.97

A note on the words phrase, idiom, and expression

As I use them here and as I have also found them defined in dictionaries,

a phrase is "a sequence of two or more words arranged in a grammatical construction and acting as a unit in a sentence” (Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on the Random House Dictionary);

an idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements (Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on the Random House Dictionary), as “to pull someone’s leg;”  

and an expression is a particular phrase used conventionally to express something (Collins Complete & Unabridged 2009).

All idioms and expressions are, therefore, phrases to begin with.

British English (and Australian English) Words and Phrases

Here are some of my favorite words and phrases that are particular (peculiar) to British English. The selection is based on the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd edition, 2006. Where possible, I tried to define the phrases listed here by giving an American equivalent.

As for the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, to me it posed more questions than it answered. Take get on your bike, for instance. This dictionary says it means "go out and look for work," which apparently, as I learned online, is a meaning that was established after British politician Norman Tebbitt used the phrase in that sense in a certain speech he gave in the eighties. Words and phrases particular peculiar to British English

It turns out that, in fact, in British English on your bike is, first and foremost, simply a dismissive phrase, which children might hear often. It isn't always about urging someone to look for work.
Then there were other phrases, like to get no chance out of someone, and to have had your chips, for which the definitions given differed from how native speakers use these phrases online. So, in these two cases, I give here definitions and explanations which I've seen confirmed by British English speakers online. If you are one and you use these phrases differently, please let me know in comments.

So here come some of my favorite British English words and phrases.

argy-bargy – loud dispute or argument. Rhyming jingle based on “argue”

to be out of the ark – to be ancient in the sense of very old-fashioned

can’t be arsed -- can’t be bothered, which is also British.

to be fed up to the back teeth – to be fed to the teeth in AmE, or, more commonly, fed to the gills, or fed up to here (accompanied by gesture)

to be in a bad way (British and Australian) – to be in a bad place; can be used of both people and things (businesses, countries, etc.). Here “way” means condition or state.

to bat for the other side/team – to play for the other side/team, in the sense of being gay

to be off-beam (British and Australian) – to be wrong

to be like a bear with a sore head – to be grumpy and rude to people

beat somebody hollow (British and Australian) – beat the crap out of someone in the sense of defeating them thoroughly

the bee’s knees – excellent; slang taken up by Americans in the 1920s, which is also when they started using “the cat’s pajamas” and other similar expressions

a bit of how’s your father (British and Australian) – sex

bits and bobs – bits and pieces, odds and ends

and Bob’s your uncle! – something like “that’s all; it’s easy;” used to emphasize that you will be successful after following some easy instruction steps. As in, “Sauté the onion and garlic, add the veggies, tomato juice and spices, cover for 10 minutes, and Bob’s your uncle, you’re done!”

bone idle – bone lazy, very lazy

(That’s/There’s a) turn-up for the books – something unexpected. Comes from betting in horse racing. If a race was won by a horse that wasn’t wagered on in the bookmaker’s book, then the latter got to keep all the money.

Why break the habit of a lifetime? (British and Australian) – self-explanatory

bright as a button (British and Australian) – a version (meaning “intelligent”) of the American “cute as a button”

like chalk and cheese – (superficially alike but in fact) totally different

Chance would be a fine thing! – said when you desire something that isn’t likely to happen. As in a response to an invitation.

to get no change out of someone – to get no help from someone

cheap and cheerful (British and Australian) – cheap but of decent quality

cheap and nasty (British and Australian) – cheap and of (very) bad quality

hard/tough cheddar (British and Australian) / stiff cheddar (Australian) – tough luck

cheeseparing – 1. adj. stingy, penny-pinching. 2. n. stinginess

to have had your chips – to be done for

to chop and change – to change again and again what you do or plan to do

off one’s chump / off one’s trolley – out of one's mind (off one’s rocker, off one’s nut -- but these can have certain, specific connotations)

Hope you've enjoyed today's bits and bobs of British English! :)

A Crash Course in British English

If you want to start your study of British English at full throttle, I recommend David Lodge's Campus Trilogy, which is also a fun read about life in the academia for the professors as well a reflection on what academics thought a novel should deal with and read like to be trendy.

The Trilogy consists of Changing Places, Small World, and Nice World. The first was my favorite. I loved the characters of Morris Zapp and Philip Sparrow, the American professor and the British lecturer, and how they enter and change each other's lives. The story is set in 1969 in the fictional university called Euphoric State, modeled on UC Berkeley. The novel is a lot of fun even though somehow Lodge's humor seems dated. But Changing Places, as well as the other two, are highly enjoyable nevertheless. Enjoy!

Listen to Some of the Accents Found in the British Isles

Video: How to do a Cockney accent

Video: How to do a Geordie accent (NE England)

Video: How to do a Scottish accent

Video: How to do a Welsh accent (South Wales)

Video: How to do an Irish accent

Updated: 10/16/2015, Mira
 
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Mira on 05/27/2014

I wasn't aware of that "different to" -- "different from" distinction. Thank you for pointing it out. The hospital one I did notice. :-) Yes, I do hope to continue this series.

Guest on 05/27/2014

Mira, They say in New England that the dialect (especially accent and intonation) in Maine, which is quite distinctive, is close to late 17th-early 18th century British English, that is preserves English as it was spoken during the American colonial period.
It's fascinating to me that "the" is eliminated by the Commonwealth in the phrase "in the hospital." So my professor from Scotland once said to me, "I was in hospital for a while."
Also, British English uses the phrase "different to" where AmE states "different from."
Such an interesting series! I hope that you're able to continue it. :-)

Mira on 10/31/2013

Thank you, ologsinquito for your visit and your nice words.:) I keep making lists of words to turn into articles, but never get around to it (and in the meantime, misplace the sheets:). But people do search for British English phrases and idioms, so I'm tempted to make time soon.

ologsinquito on 10/31/2013

People who have mastered more than one language absolutely amaze me. I think you have a better command of English than many native English speakers. Anyway, this is a cute article. There are some real differences between British and American English, which I'm noticing when some of the Brits post on the Wizzley forum.

Mira on 05/09/2013

:) Glad you enjoyed them, Robin! :) The "and Bob's your uncle" was the one that puzzled me the most when I first saw it :):)

frugalrvers on 05/09/2013

This is GREAT Mira - I recognized a few but loved this list. We learned some Australian vocabulary when we had our rv (named Joey) speaking on our blog - it was so much fun finding "his language." The "a bit of how's your father" is hilarious!

Mira on 05/08/2013

I'm with you ;-). I'm Romanian myself -- but I've had the good fortune of interacting intensively with many wonderful Americans over the years, so I've used American English a lot in both informal and professional settings. I've also read a lot of American books. In the past few years, however, I've been catching up on some contemporary British English literature :-). I've been trying to pause and look up new words and phrases each time, but I haven't always managed that, because it's so tempting to move quickly to the next book! :).
Thanks for visiting, adragast!

adragast on 05/08/2013

Thanks for sharing those. Just imagine how hard it is for foreigners to learn English... We get lost in these American English/British English differences, not to mention other variants (New Zealand comes to my mind). Then, of course you have all those strange phrases/idioms/expressions... Thanks for making things a bit clearer!

Mira on 05/07/2013

Thank you, Peggy! I really enjoy learning British English. Am thankful for the Internet, with all the resources it offers: dictionaries, language forums, etc. As for the BBC, I have access to two BBC channels on my TV right now, and I agree, it's great! :) I'm also thankful for the local branch of British Council, with their books and DVDs, even though I don't get to plow through them as fast as I wished :)

PeggyHazelwood on 05/07/2013

This was a fun read. I love watching BBC shows with the different phrases. I'm often lost but love it when I know what they mean!


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