12 Expressions British People Use That Might As Well Be In A Different Language

Being an unrepentant Anglophile, I’ve adopted certain British ways of life — an obsession with tea and McVitie’s biscuits being one of them — and when I’m in the U.K., I’m happy to use English words as they are used there, like “bin” instead of “trashcan,” “lift” instead of “elevator,” and “trousers” instead of “pants.” (That last one is important, as “pants” refers to underwear in the U.K. You can imagine how Americans get in trouble with that one.) But I acknowledge that there are some sayings that I will never get away with, British expressions that sound bizarre to American ears and that would sound outright ridiculous coming out of my Texas-born mouth. (I tried “bloody” once. It did not work).

The following phrases are ones that might have you pressing “pause” and saying “Wait, what?” when you hear them in British movies and TV. Many have U.S. equivalents that would probably sound equally strange to British people. It’s important to note, too, that these phrases might be more common in some parts of the U.K. than others. For a geographically small country, the U.K. hosts a surprising variety of regional differences in accent and expression. Thus, one phrase that’s regularly used in Yorkshire might sound really strange to someone in Cornwall.

We’ll kick it off with my fave:

“That’s total pants.”

As I’ve already mentioned, in the U.K. “pants” refers to underwear. But “pants” can also mean “bad,” so the expression “That’s pants” means something along the lines of “That sucks” or “That’s sh*t.”

“I can’t be arsed.”

To be unwilling or unmotivated to do something; For example: “I should work on that project, but I can’t be arsed.”

“Donkey’s years.”

A long time. Example: “It’s been donkey’s years since I’ve seen you!”

“Bob’s your uncle!”

Similar to “… and there you go!” or “et voila!”, “Bob’s your uncle” is usually added to the end of a set of instructions or story to indicate that that’s the end. For example, one could say, “To get to the pub, take a left at the corner, then a right, then walk down the lane, and Bob’s your uncle!”

“The dog’s bollocks”

“Bollocks,” of course, are testicles. Usually “bollocks” refers to something bad (so if you say “That’s bollocks!”, you’re saying “That’s crap!”), but when the balls are attached to dogs, they become good. When people describe something as “The dog’s bollocks,” they’re saying that it is The Best. So, waffles are the dog’s bollocks, as are Hayley Atwell, morning sex, and ponies.

“Knees up”

A lively party or dance. Example: “This do is a proper knees up.”

“Cock up”

Believe it or not, “cock up” isn’t obscene in origin or meaning. It can be used as a verb meaning “to mess up” (ex. “I’ll do my best not to cock up the situation.”), or as a noun, meaning “a mess” or “blunder” (ex. “That disaster of a presentation was a complete cock up.”)


Pleased or happy. Ex: “This is great. I’m quite chuffed.”)

“Arse over elbow”

A dramatic fall. One might say, “Mark must be drunk. He just fell arse over elbow!”

“Taking the piss”

“Taking the piss” refers to the grand British tradition of making fun of people.

“Brassed off”

Pissed off or fed up.

“Bite your arm off”

Being a bit too excited about something. Example: “She would bite your arm off for Beyoncé tickets!”

Images: Anna & Michal/Flickr; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4)