A Guide to Weird British Expressions

It’s easy to overlook the weirdness of Great Britain. London is a wild beast of a city, yet with its gray buildings, smartly-dressed workforce, and historic buses and taxis, everything seems to be in order. The countryside is vast, much of it tamed by agriculture, with the more raw areas resembling quaint watercolor paintings of yesteryear. We know the British as polite, considerate individuals, maybe a bit uptight, but mostly harmless, right? Well, we shouldn’t generalize, but we can at least agree that this is the superficial understanding that most of us have of the island they know as “Blighty.”

Yet with a history that goes back millennia, it’s no wonder this strange and isolated little island has come to develop some strange habits. They’ve been invaded by Celts, Romans, Vikings, and Normans and, in latter centuries, done more than their fair share of invading others. British colonization of vast areas of the world, and the omni-directional migration involved, has just added to the strange cultural stew to be found in that rainy land.

It has been a land of druids, of knights, of religions invented by over-sexed kings, the birth of industry, the first computer, and David Bowie. In Scotland, they deep fry chocolate bars in batter; in Wales, they have a town called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. In Hartlepool, England, they once tried to hang a monkey, believing him to be a French spy. not-give-a-monkeys

And then there’s that language of theirs. What’s that about? Well, it’s a small land, but travel was very difficult until recent centuries. The varied provinces of Britain are one of the things that make it so fascinating and eclectic, even if, like much of the world, the differences are being ironed out today. This means that some curious idiosyncrasies have popped up in the disparate counties and villages of that green and pleasant land. Partly it’s because all of the weirdness hinted at above that have created unique ways of looking at things. Partly it’s because the British survive the grim weather and the strange loneliness of island life by putting a humorous spin on much of what they say and do. And partly it’s just the beauty of communities developing their culture together over years, decades, and centuries.

youre-all-bum-and-parsleyIn Scotland, for example, to be told “you’re all bum and parsley” means that you’re a bit of a know-it-all, but you’re not necessarily correct. It’s not clear where the phrase came from, but it makes sense enough to the Scots. Yorkshire is a real bedrock of phraseology. You may know the accent from films such as The Full Monty or Blow Dry. They also have some great sayings to go with it: “were you born in a barn?” is a way of complaining that someone’s left the door open; to be “happy as a pig in muck” (or worse) is to really be in your element. Both of these phrases originated in Yorkshire, but are widely used across the island now.were-ya-born-in-a-barn

To the west of Yorkshire, folk in Lancashire and Merseyside can quite frequently be heard uttering: “you’re pecking my head!” It’s a somewhat irritable way of saying that the other person is being annoying. There are, however, nicer things to say, too. For example, if someone succeeds at something, or gives the correct answer to a question, you might tell them “that’s the badger!” should you be in England’s west country. Anywhere else in the UK, and “Bob’s your uncle!” will do just fine.

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Have you heard of Cockney rhyming slang? The idea of it is very common in Britain, although it’s mainly localized in London. Yet, it’s surprising how few people outside of the island are aware of it. Thus, they’re totally baffled when they hear Londoners talk about “going up the apples” or “talking to the trouble on the dog and bone.” Nobody’s 100% sure how or why rhyming slang developed, but it seems to have emerged in the 1800s, and it’s still developing today. Users take the word that they want to say (e.g. stairs) and find a commonly-agreed rhyme for it (e.g. apple and pears), often cutting out the part that rhymes. Hence stairs becomes apples, wife becomes trouble (and strife), and phone becomes dog-and-bone. More recent developments of rhyming slang take famous names and put a Cockney spin on them, for example Gregory (Peck) for neck, or Ruby (Murray) for curry. Please note, however, that the idea of using the word ‘trump’ to mean ‘fart’ goes back several centuries, and thus cannot be considered a political slight (unless you want it to). Whether it’s inspired by the noisy gust of air from a trumpet, or by a contraction of the word ‘triumph,’ is not known. Either explanation seems to work well in light of recent events, nevertheless.it-looks-a-bit-black-over-bills-mothers

Another semi-celebrity that makes her appearance in British slang is Mary Arden, William Shakespeare’s mom. If someone says that “it looks a bit black over Bill’s mother’s,” they mean that there are rain clouds on the horizon. It doesn’t necessarily mean above the house of anyone in particular, but certainly on their way to wherever you are when you hear it. If you’re planning on spending the afternoon in the pub, though, you might “not give a monkey’s” about the weather. It means you really don’t care.making-a-right-pigs-ear-of-something

So before you land in the strange ol’ UK, be sure you brush up on your regional phraseology, so you don’t “make a pig’s ear” (a mess!) of communicating with the British people. It’s a wonderful place to discover, if you can just make sense of the locals.

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1 CommentLeave a comment

  • I really enjoyed reading this post about all the wonderful weird British expressions – I think my favourite is “you’re all bum and parsley” 🙂 thanks for sharing! Miriam

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