11 British Expressions Nobody Else Understands, Translated
Look, British English is a problem all of its own. Between saying cheerio and looking like a dog's dinner, there's a high chance that foreigners will have absolutely no idea what's going on. But if you start to go into regional dialects, as you will have to do if you live in the British Isles for any period of time and meet more than three people, it becomes downright mystifying. Some idioms are virtually unknown outside of their own county (the equivalent of a state), others are more widespread — but the expression of utter confusion they put on my face is the same.
I'm not unfamiliar with peculiar expressions. I'm Australian, and we think to say somebody's got "roos loose up in the top paddock" is a perfectly normal way of saying they're not all there upstairs. (My favorite Aussie expression is "we're not here to f*ck spiders," which is what you say in response to an incredibly obvious or stupid question about what you're doing, closely tied with "stop being a sook," meaning stop being a sentimental mess.) But the English do it with a flair that comes from centuries of regional difference and hilarity, and that's not even getting into the wonder of astonishing vocabulary that is Cockney rhyming slang (some of which made it to Australia in the '20s, so I know that a "loaf of bread" means your head, obviously).
If you get to spend some time among Brits, you'll be blessed — and likely also slightly puzzled by what on earth they're going on about. Friendly hint: if somebody says they want a cwtch , rhyming with "butch," they're after a hug, and are also Welsh.
1. "To Bung Something"
Meaning: This isn't exactly polite English, but it's definitely widely understood. To bung something somewhere means to chuck it, throw it, or generally put it somewhere loosely and without much care. You probably bung all your socks in your sock drawer, or your change into your pocket. It always causes me momentary confusion because, to the Brits, a "banger" is either a sausage or a firework, and I always wonder if somebody's asking me where I've put either of those things.
2. "To Be Made Up"
Region: Possibly from Liverpool, but we're not sure
Meaning: My British-Welsh husband uses this regularly, and it still makes me stare at him blankly for about three seconds. It means to be sincerely pleased about something: you'd be made up if a friend won a prize, or if you got the top mark on something. It seems to mean the same thing as "chuffed," another great British expression that has no apparent basis in reality.
3. "Every Little Helps"
Meaning: This is the slogan of one of Britain's largest supermarket companies, and it never fails to make me want to cross my eyes. Who decided that the noun in this should be removed? It refers, as you may have guessed, to the idea that every small contribution helps a whole — referring to savings on products, mostly — but for some reason, one of the bits that isn't going to help is the word "bit". Maybe it's just an example of proving economy. Don't ask me.
Meaning: I thought I had a handle on this one, because the word "girt" actually features in the Australian national anthem. It's used to say that our land is "girt by sea," meaning that it's completely surrounded by water. But the Somerset version is something else entirely. It's used as a synonym for "very," so you could very easily say that you like British slang gurt much (though you probably won't).
5. "Pro(p)er Job"
Meaning: This is proper rural slang, and you can use it immediately to identify that somebody's from the West Country of England. It's used, roughly, to mean "good work" or "that was good". It's such a widespread slang term that it's the name of a chain of hardware stores in the county. And to pronounce it correctly, you almost don't pronounce the second "p" in "proper".
Meaning: If you thought this was going to be something affectionate about the nature of dogs, you'd be wrong. This is a widely-used but pretty archaic term for anybody who does somebody else's really unappealing work for little reward — a servant, an intern, or somebody really low down the pecking order. It comes from the Royal Navy's term for the lowly sailors doing work nobody else wanted to do.
7. "Mad As A Box Of Frogs"
Meaning: The sad thing about this, much like many idioms, is that you know somebody one day actually put some frogs in a box, looked at the results, and thought, "That looks like a pretty good synonym for madness to me". Or at least thought seriously about doing it.
8. "Damp Squib"
Meaning: This sounds weirdly sexual, but it isn't. It's often used to mean something like a "wet blanket," or somebody who spoils the fun of a party, but actually it means something a bit more complex. A squib is an old-fashioned term for a firework, and a damp one wouldn't go off — so technically a damp squib is something that promised to be magnificent but was just a letdown.
Meaning: This is charming in its own bizarre way, but it makes no bloody sense. Which is just as well, because it's largely confined to regional, rural slang. A mizzymozzy is a mess or some kind of chaos, always based in the brain — your room can't be a mizzymozzy, but your state of mind can, particularly when faced with a difficult test or an upsetting event.
Region: Shropshire, Staffordshire, South Yorkshire
Meaning: One of the most British regional slang terms of all time, this is basically a sneering term for somebody who can't cope with the cold weather peculiar to the Northern parts of England, and it comes from an Old English word for "weak" or "feeble". Yes, you are being insulted in a word that's many centuries old. That probably doesn't make it feel any better.
11. "Bishy Barney Bee"
Meaning: Throughout the UK, this bug is called either ladybug or ladybirds, but the people of Norfolk have another idea, referring to it as the bishy barney bee. In some interpretations, it derives from a cleric called Bishop Barnabas or Barnaby, who possibly wore a red cloak similar to the ladybird's distinctive backing, but there's no record of any such man existing in Norfolk; so it may just be some kind of odd local nonsense. The best kind. I defy you not to call a ladybird a bishy barney bee next time you see one.
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