15 British Words & Phrases Which Confuse Americans

Big Ben | © Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro/Flickr
Big Ben | © Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro/Flickr
Photo of Alexia Wulff
9 February 2017

Bloke, pissed drunk, wanker – most Americans are probably familiar with these British slang words, whether heard in a neighborhood pub or an English film. And while both languages technically file under the same name, colloquial vernacular and street talk have made understanding one another that much more difficult. Here’s how to understand UK folk with ease.

Bits and bobs

Headed to the grocery store for a few items? The commonly known US phrase ‘odds and ends’ comes in handy during a quick trip, but this idiom has a British brother: bits and bobs. Derived from the words bit (coin) and bob (shilling), bits and bobs can also be used in place of ‘bits and pieces.’

Public Domain/Pixabay

Bog roll

Taken from the 16th-century Scottish/Irish word meaning ‘soft and moist,’ bog means restroom or lavatory. Bog roll, naturally, is an idiom for toilet paper. This will come in especially handy if you find yourself in a dire situation in the loo. Easy enough, right?

Public Domain/Pixabay


Forecast depicts gloom and showers? Don’t forget your brolly. Sounds like trolley, but it is the term for that widely used rain-deflector: the umbrella, ella, ella, ay. This one found its way into the British lingo in the late 1800s when (supposedly) umbrella was shortened to brelly and somehow made its way to the present-day version, brolly.

Public Domain/Pixabay


No, this isn’t in reference to a person’s behind. Rather, it’s commonly used to refer to a sandwich – especially a chip butty (white bread, butter, fries, and tomato sauce) or bacon butty. In a time when butter sandwiches were popular, the 1850s saw a shortened version arise in the way of the simpler ‘butty.’

Public Domain/Pixabay

Candy floss

Candy floss is a term for the beloved sweet treat found at fairs, festivals, and carnivals – otherwise known as cotton candy. Some believe the word could have stemmed from the 19th-century ‘fairy floss’ (still used in Australia to this day), but its exact origin is unknown.

cotton candy | © Roco Julie/Flickr


The term chuff, meaning plump or fat, has been around since the 1520s. But ‘chuffed,’ used to express when you’re pleased or happy, didn’t become widely used until around the 1860s. Feeling chuffed? Don’t hesitate to let your British friend know.

Public Domain/Pixabay


Americans be warned: cuppa never, ever refers to a cup of anything *but* tea. A colloquial term since the 1930s, this one can be heard nearly every day. Winter is coming – so go on and have yourself a cuppa.

Public Domain/Pixabay


Cash? Dough? Which one is it? While its exact etymology is unknown, some believe dosh was created by joining the two words cash and dough; others think it came from ‘doss’ or ‘doss-house,’ cheap accommodations. Either way, dosh is just cash money.

Public Domain/Pixabay

Faff, or faff(ing) about

We’ve all laid around our house, too lazy to make ourselves useful. Well, there’s a word for that. Taken from the 16th-century ‘faffle,’ this one is commonly used when someone is wasting time or being ineffectual.

Public Domain/Pixabay

Jam sandwich

Save the PB&J. This one’s for the police. A British slang word for police vehicles, jam sandwich came about after the introduction of cop cars that featured a fluorescent red strip running down the length of the side of the car, giving it a look that jam has been sandwiched between two white slices of bread. Today, the cars are now mostly silver, but the word has stuck.

West Midlands Police Rover SD 1 Traffic Car c.1985 | © West Midlands Police/Wikicommons


This term is widely used in the UK, especially by the younger generation, and for obvious reasons: it refers to cheap wine, particularly red. It’s unknown exactly where this one comes from (possibly from the sound of wine being poured into a glass), but many believe plonk could have been derived from the French ‘vin blanc.’

Public Domain/Pixabay


Rashers – while its origin is unknown (perhaps from the word rash meaning ‘to cut’) – has been around since the 1590s. Used to refer to cuts or thin slices of bacon or ham, this centuries-old idiom is still widely heard in the UK. Bacon, move over.

Public Domain/Pixabay


Many countries outside the UK use serviette (looking at you, Canada), but the US still hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon. Derived from the 15th-century French word for napkin or towel, this is what you would call a napkin typically seen in restaurants or take-out spots.

Public Domain/Pixabay


Out of dosh? Yeah, you’re skint. The British version of the American term ‘broke,’ skint was adopted in the mid-1920s from the past participle of ‘skinned.’ Graphic? Maybe. Useful? Always.

broken suicidal pig | © Rafael J M Souza/Flickr

Throw a wobbly

The origins of this phrase are unknown, but it began to make an appearance in the 1970s. Meaning to throw a temper tantrum or lose one’s temper, throw a wobbly was taken from the word ‘wobbly,’ meaning to have a fit of anger.

Public Domain/Pixabay