British English Phrases


I hope that you will take away from this page a greater understanding of common English as spoken by native speakers, and also find out why this language is so very fascinating.


During writing this I sometimes experienced great difficulty separating swear words from common words and phrases, as so integrated is the British language as spoken on the daily streets I know so very well. Please also see our Guide to British Swear Words, which is sort of complimentary, but not for the easily offended, nor minors.


There is absolutely no end to this page, but we have to start somewhere - and more content will be added monthly, so call back or bookmark. It is “Like Feeding Buns to Bears”. Enjoy!










3 parts cut

He’s 3 parts cut already


Noticeably drunk, but still somewhat in control of himself

6 of 1 and half a dozen of the other

A comparison

It is the same thing, just looked at differently


6th sense

He has a…

Something unknowable

Refers to the fact we all have only 5 senses, and a ‘6th sense’ comes from the supernatural - or another skill most people do not possess. Talking with dead people is an example, but this phrase usually means an intuition … like: not getting on a plane, and later learning it crashed and all aboard were killed.


I don’t know who will win, it’s 50/50


Cantonese: ‘Mmm sup, mmm sup’ or  ‘yut boon boon’





A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush



Better to be sure of one thing than risk all for something larger that may never happen

A blinding flash on the road to Damascus

It was like…

Moment of inspiration, something from the gods

The impossible has happened, and I now see the whole truth. A Biblical reference. A miracle. Real meaning: Now I see and understand everything

A bull in a China shop


Act too quickly and risk destroying  everything

You can well imagine the damage a charging bull would inflict in a shop selling rare and precious porcelain. Sometimes people behave like this.

A chip off the old block


Just like his predecessors

Usually refers to a son following after his father

A stitch in time saves nine



Act early to avoid having to make a larger repair at a later date

A gift at half the price


Too expensive

Mildly offensive

A gift at twice the price


Much too expensive

Medium offensive. Here it is made more cynical by using a negative connotation. British people (Excepting Lawyers) often use this for emphasis. Americans will probably not understand this and take its literal meaning.

A little bird told me


Not saying where information came from

If someone doesn't want to say where they got their information from, they can say that ‘a little bird told them’. Used in confidence to advise a good friend.

A monkey in a banana boat

There’s a monkey in the banana boat

Something unknown is causing a problem

You know something is wrong, but cannot decide what is actually causing the problem. Often used to indicate something quite bizarre going wrong – as you see the effects, but remain helpless to determine what the real problem is.

Windows operating systems often employ a lot of ‘Monkeys’ within their programmes.

A month of Sundays



A month of Sundays is a long period of time: I haven't seen her in a month of Sundays.

A nods as good as a wink to a blind horse


Used to signify that what you do will not be seen or discovered

Popularised by Eric Idle from a sketch in Monty Python. Well, obviously a blind horse cannot tell whether you are ‘nodding’ or ‘winking’. However, this implies a mild con; as in selling somebody something they do not want, or something that is basically useless.

A penny for your thoughts

Often: “A penny for them?”


This idiom is used as a way of asking someone what they are thinking about. You are asking them to share their worries with you.

A pretty penny


Very expensive


A problem shared is a problem halved



If you talk about your problems, it will make you feel better and lessen your burden.

A right pickle

He’s left us in a right pickle

No easy solution can be found

Any problem, minor or serious, that is very confusing and difficult to resolve

A steal



If something is a steal, it costs much less than it is really worth.

A spare prick at a wedding


Surplus to requirements, useless

An insult and slightly offensive. Includes the swearword ‘prick’

A textbook case



A textbook case, it is a classic or common example of something.

A Champion without a cause


Someone who wastes his true talents

This person is doing the wrong thing in life. If he changed, then he would be very successful. Usually used when somebody highlights a worthy cause that nobody else supports. Sometimes they lay the foundations for future generations, heralding new and important considerations or issues in life. At the beginning of the Boar War you may have called Florence Nightingale this…

About as useful as a 5-bob note


Worthless. Totally unsuitable for use in that way

USA: As useful as a chocolate teapot

British: ‘bob refers to a shilling, and a ‘5-bob note’ refers to a ‘crown’ currency (LSD). In China these would be Fen (1.10th Jiao)

And one for yourself



In UK people tend to buy a round of drinks for everybody at their table – we do not use the ‘add it all to the bill’ method. If you say this after ordering, but before payment, then the Landlord of the pub has the chance to have a drink at your expense. It is considered polite.

As queer as a 5-bob note


A homosexual

In UK, 5-bob notes only existed in Ireland, not Great Britain. However, before ‘Gay’ became popular usage, homosexuals were called ‘Queers’. It means something we do not like much, but is probably ok in their lives.

As rough as a vultures crutch

I feel…

A very bad hangover

Vultures have very red behinds, which are put through all manner of awful debris when they land to feed. This is analogous to a hangover

Away with the fairies


Slightly mad, talking about something totally unrelated

Someone who follows their own path, and is considered to be mentally unstable, but not dangerous.

A watched pot never boils



Some things work out in their own time, so being impatient and constantly checking will just make things seem longer.





Bakers dozen

A Baker’s dozen


12 = 1 dozen


I’m bladdered


Refers to the habit of drunken people needing to use the urinals a lot

Black sheep

He’s the black sheep of the family

Someone who enjoys the pleasures of life

Somebody the greater family disapprove of. Me probably hehe!


Direct replacement word

England, Great Britain, or United Kingdom.

What British people traditionally call their home Country. A left over word from the days of the British Empire.

Bonnet 1

I love your bonnet

A Girls summer hat


Bonnet 2

Open the bonnet

Engine cover for a British car

USA: ‘Pop the hood’. Here ‘Hood’ and ‘Bonnet’ mean exactly the same thing


That’s food is Bostin!

The very best






Brass monkey

It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

It is very cold

Nowadays has mild sexual connotations, mainly through ignorance. Originally from the British navy; where cannon balls were piled inside a brass square known as a monkey. In cold weather the monkey contracted and the balls would fall off


I am brassic

I have no money

I have only brass coins









Can’t see the wood for the trees


Not able to find an obvious and simple solution

Often used when somebody is involved too deeply in a project, that they miss a far easier way of completing it. Can be insulting and / or imply stupidity

Cat got your tongue

What’s up? A cat got your tongue?

Be silent to hide something

Usually used when a person suddenly stops talking, often when somebody else says something to them. It implies you caught somebody lying and they are thinking about how to reply

Caught out

He got caught out

Do something and be found out

Often a minor indiscretion. Originally a cricket term (Cricket is an English bat and ball game)

Clean conscience

I have a…

I have nothing to worry about

I am aware that people may think I did something wrong, but they do not have all the facts. I know I did nothing wrong!

Come back to haunt you

Don’t do that or it will come back to haunt you

An ill conceived action that later has damaging effects



He’s cool

Not a problem

Applies to a good person or attitude within any group of people

Con artist / con merchant

He’s a…

A stealthy robber

Someone who befriends you in order to steal your money, or something valuable

Cover your back

Make sure you cover your back

Be sure to keep yourself safe

Can also be used as “You do it and I’ll cover your back” meaning someone is protecting you whilst you are occupied.

Curved ball

Here’s a curved ball…

Totally unexpected

American from Baseball. A great skill that sees a straight thrown ball that suddenly moves in the air before it is hit. The English cricket game has similar experts. You should use it as meaning: an unknown ball coming from a side angle, and spinning. Usage: Most notably to take an existing project into a new direction.





Dog Rough

He’s looking dog rough these days

Alt: I feel dog-rough (Implying I have a  hangover)

Not attractive, unclean – but more often applied to mental states rather than physical condition.

Doing ‘time’


In prison

Originally USA, but widely used in UK

(Doing) Porridge

As above


Old British tern for being in prison

Don’t cry over spilt milk


Stop worrying about the past

What has happened has happened, and you cannot change it. Best to forget it, learn, and get on with your life

Don’t notice the beam in somebody else’s eye if there is a mote in your own.


Don’t criticise somebody if you have done even the smallest thing wrong

Hear ‘beam’ means a large piece of wood, whilst a ‘mote’ refers to the smallest imaginable piece of wood. Here ‘mote’ means ‘mite’. Originally a verse from the Bible

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket


Spread your valuables around

Do not put everything you have into one risky venture – if it goes bad you will loose everything. Better you commit a little in several places. A good business strategy

Don’t say I didn’t warn you


You ignored my advice

I am sure this will go bad for you, but you ignore what I tell you as a friend. Therefore my conscience is clean.

Don’t teach your Grandmother how to suck eggs


Don’t talk about things you don’t fully understand

Normally used when a child tries to tell and experienced adult how to do something. It implies that sometimes there could be problem the child has no comprehension of, but the adult recognised the potential threat.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water


Keep the precious thing safe

You will loose the most precious thing for the sake of keeping everything tidy

Don’t run before you can walk


Finish learning before progressing

Alt. Don’t run before you can crawl. Meaning: you need to learn everything to be competent in all situations


I have dosh today


Dosh and Money mean exactly the same thing


He’s a dosser

Somebody that is no good

Often refers to somebody who lives without working, and scrounges off others

Drop-dead gorgeous


Extremely beautiful or sexy

One of the greatest compliments a boy can give a girl. Unfortunately most girls do not appreciate this and think the boy common. Best used between males when talking about females they are admiring.


Hey dude!

A man

A favoured person, normally a man



  1. This is a dump
  2. 2. I’m going for a dump


  1. This place is not very nice, it is like a rubbish tip.
  2. I am going to excrete






Pronounced as separate capital letters

Will comply

Comes from originally the British TV program Thunderbirds where it was used to imply understanding and compliance with instructions. Because of its similarity to ‘fabulous’, it is nowadays sometimes used in this context instead

Following his father


Acting like, or living his life exactly the way his father did







My gaff


Usually a temporary home of any description

Get the fired

I got fired today

Become unemployed


Get the sack

I got sacked today

Become unemployed


Get to the bottom of things’


Find out what is going on

This usually refers to peoples schemes. ‘Plumb the depths’ is very similar, but usually refers to problems. Can be interchanged depending upon exact situation

Give birth to a dead rat.



This is a boy phrase, and implies that something atrociously smelly will soon be deposited in a toilet. This often occurs after a night out on the town.

Glass ceiling


A point from which you can go no higher

Usually used to refer to women being excluded from top company positions, although in theory there is nothing stopping them

Go flying

Alt. sent flying

Fall badly

Used when somebody physically trips you up when you are running. Can be used in a theoretical way.

Grease lightning


Exceptionally quick

Alt. Greased lightning (More USA)

Guest of Her Majesty’s Government

He’s a…

In prison


Gut feeling

I have a … about this

Something that is not logical, but explains the truth

Someone has an extra sense that indicated there is more than something appears to be.

See: ‘Sixth sense’. Often used in Hollywood Cop movies.


Hi guys

Term of familiarity

Can be used for boys, or girls, or a mix. Take it to mean friends or inner circle





Hair of the dog

Technically: “The hair of the dog that bit you”

What hurt you will heal you

This refers to drinking way too much alcohol the time before now. You have a serious hang-over, and decide to cure it by having another drink. It often works, at least in the short term.

Heah, Heay, Hey, Hey-up

Heah Jonno!

Use instead of ‘Hi’

Many versions and spellings of this, particularly in UK and California

Heart of stone

My lover has a…

A person who has no feelings for his lover

Someone who enters into a sexual relationship for monetary or other personal gain from the partner. There is no love here.

Hoisted on his own petard

He was…

Failed to reach his own standards

Here ‘standard’ means ‘petard’ or pointed motif used in battle to carry your flag. Often means you lost, and failed to achieve standards you previously set for others.

How’s your Father.

That’s a real “How’s your Father”


Two meaning to this phrase, the original being a statement “How’s your Father” referring to a sexual indiscretion with somebody. Now more widely used to imply that a needlessly complicated situation has developed, which could have been easily avoided. In both instances, the reference is that the sexual liaison has resulted in the birth of an unplanned child.


He’s a hunk


A girl word used to identify a boy they consider to be really attractive. This usually implies he is also of slightly rugged and manly appearance.




This is how you feel when you drank far too much alcohol the night before. The only real cure is: lots of water, sucrose (Simple sugars), and time.





I did nothing wrong

I know…

As is

Sometimes implies the person could have done more, and knowingly did not. However, it can also be a statement of innocent fact.

In for a penny, in for a Pound



To commit wholeheartedly to something. It means that if you are going to do something, then you may as well go all the way and do it properly. Often used when the outcome is as yet unclear.

Inner wheel or inner circle


The people that actually control something

Usually applied to committees. See ‘steering group’





Jack of all trades

…master of none

He can do everything, but not professionally

Meaning a person who can fix things, but is not professionally trained, and usually his work is of medium or poor quality.

Jump from the frying pan into the oven

As in a hard sentence in order to deter others from doing the same


Get out of one tricky situation only to be faced with another. Usually implies acting too quickly and not considering all the possible consequences






I used ‘Kosher’ ingredients in this recipe. I got ‘Kosher’ builders in to do repairs to my home.

True, real, correct, reliable, certified.

As it should be. Americans use this word to indicate rock or sea salt = natural. It is actually a Jewish word that means holy meat slaughtered in a very specific way. Moslems do this slightly differently and call the results ‘Halal’. Kosher is now part of mainstream English language with similar usage to ‘Pukka’.





Labour of Love

Do something for love, not money


This often refers to a hobby or personal obsession. In the true sense it is when somebody sacrifices their own life and future prospects to look after an aged parent. However, it is used more widely and implies doing something for no reward.

Later than you think

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think


This means something important has happened that you are not currently aware of. The example refers to having fun with a girl – who is now pregnant.



Something unusual

This now means something musically chilled, but literally means coming from the other side of life. Think artistic impression if you use this word

Lesser of 2 evils

It’s the…

Comparing 2 bad options; with no good one available

Neither solution is correct, but as we are today, this causes us less problems in the future.

Lesser of 2 halves

It’s the…

Arbitrary judgement

The lesser of two halves can mean that one similar option is better, (or worse) than another (Your perspective). Used when deciding what to do next

Like a fish out of water


Completely lost


Like feeding buns to bears


Something that is endless

Often used to signify there is no point in continuing to do something. If you feed buns to bears they will eat everything you have and still want more.

Like a moth to the flame


Cannot keep away from something harmful

Often used about men being attracted to dangerous women. Or being drawn to something they can never have or win. But they keep trying when any intelligent person would quit. Gambling would be a good example

Like a pot telling the kettle (it) is black


They are both as black as each other

We are thinking about old style solid fuel cookers here




Light a cigarette.

Do you have a light?

Alt: Do you have a match?


Ask somebody if they have means for lighting a cigarette (Matches or lighter). There is a reply to the second version which is featured in our swearing section, but basically goes like this: “Yes, your face and my behind” – meaning ‘You are ugly’. It is a joke between friends, and the speaker should then produce matches or a lighter for his friend and light the cigarette for him.

Look what the cat’s dragged in

Alt: Look who the cat’s dragged in


Cats have a habit of depositing half eaten vermin at their owner’s feet. This phrase is used to refer to a person, usually a good friend, who may be looking a little under the weather. Normally used when someone is hung-over, or has not been seen for a long time.

Long-nosed, short-legged, long-tailed dog



A crocodile or alligator






Put your monica here


Put your name here





Neck and neck

The horses are…


Either could win. It is very close between them

Neck of the Woods

This… or Your…

A location or place

Usage: “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to your neck of the woods”.  Here I would be referring to a person’s: home, district, town or city. It is a bit vague, but relative to your interaction with the person or place in question.

Night Owl

He’s a real night-owl

Awake all night

Common daily usage for those poor souls like myself who are regularly awake all night long by choice. Does not apply to people who have to work all night, unless this is natural to them.



Short for Nobility

A mild insult aimed at Nobility, as spoken by common people. Usually infers someone in charge who does not understand what they are doing. Also refers to the head of the male sexual organ. Also used in board games such as Cribbage when ‘pegging’

Not a patch on…

He’s not a patch on…


The replacement (Usually a person) is nowhere near as good as the original. Mildly insulting.

Not big enough to swing a cat

This room is so small its not big enough to swing a cat

Small space

British people do not actually make a habit of swinging cats, in case you wondered. Whilst you are thinking about the animal, the actual reference is to the ‘Cat-of-nine-tails’, which is a particularly barbaric whip featuring 9 leather strips, each with a sharp piece of metal attached to the end, and similar to a cats claws. It was used as legitimate punishment in olden days. The phrase is used commonly in modern Britain, and references the cat as an animal.

Not for all the tea in China

I’m not doing that, not for all the tea in China!


Regardless of how great the rewards may be, I refuse to do it.



Butt end

The tip of a cigarette, as discarded after smoking.





Object lesson


A warning to others

Also ‘Abject lesson’ (USA).

Once in a blue moon


Very infrequently

Blue moon’s do actually occur, but they are extremely rare

Outside the box

You will have to think outside the box

Find a solution that is not normal

This implies thinking in an abstract and apparently unrelated way in order to solve a problem. Only very gifted people can see these solutions

Out of the mouth of babe’s


When adults learn something from children

An obvious solution to a problem children can see, but adults miss

Quicker than a whores drawers

He was in and out …

Very fast






Paper tiger


Not harmful

Refers to a person who thinks they are threatening, when in fact they are ineffectual


Cross the pavement

Walk where you should in a city

USA: Sidewalk. In British English a side-walker is someone up to no good, and probably a thief looking for an opening

Plant a seed

I planted a seed in his mind

Give someone a small introduction to something a lot larger

The emphasis here it that they will find the information interesting, and follow it to where the teacher or person wants them to end up

Plumb the depths

I’ll have to…

Examine the smallest details

Means the same as ‘Get to the bottom of things’, but used more for problems concerning when things go wrong


Doing porridge

In prison

British use only.

Normally: a cereal breakfast of Scottish origin


Alt: Pucker


The best, cannot be bettered. It is derived from the British Raj in India

Pulling Strings

I will have to pull a few strings to arrange this for you


Refers to puppets and puppet masters.

Is often used regarding companies, governments, or individuals. It can also be used where either a man or a woman is the dominant and controlling partner in any relationship, and the spouse will not act without consent.

Puppet government



A national government that claims to be one thing, whilst it is actually controlled by someone else. See ‘Pulling Strings’

Put your money where your mouth is

Cantonese: mo tien mo de gong

Stop talking and take action

Instead of talking about doing something, put your money into the project and do it

Put a sock in it


Shut up

Tell someone to stop talking

Put your face on

We can’t leave yet, I haven’t put my face on

Apply make-up

Common speaking for Western girls taking hours to apply make-up. Also includes trying on numerous dresses and hairstyling. Sensible boys will just go down the pub and wait until their partner arrives – remembering to compliment her on how great she now looks – even if you can’t see any difference from before!





Right hand man

He’s my right hand man

He is my number 2

You can deal with him as you would do me. Usually implies complete trust and loyalty






He rocked-up

To arrive in a casual manner



Roger and out

British airforce slang for will do

Alt. over and out. Will comply and finish the conversation. Also ‘WilCo’ is an older phrase meaning the same. Has another meaning see swear words, although should be spelt ‘Rodger’ on these circumstances.


That was a rumpty-fizzer


This has negative overtones as to being unexpected. Often what starts out as seeming normal leads to a quick succession of related events that are difficult to handle – but you (Normally) successfully sort everything out.





Sent packing

They were sent packing by the others

Sent away

Meaning to lose and have to retreat

Sink or swim

You can either…

Drown or escape

You can either give up or succeed

Sitting Duck

He’s a sitting duck

Easy prey

Exposing yourself to predators without your knowledge. Originally a British Cricket phrase

Steering Group, steering committee



The people who actually control the direction of a group or project

Sunday Best


Your very best clothes

Originally used when people would put on their very best or newest clothes to attend Church on Sunday.

Suss, sussed

I’ve just sussed that out

To understand

I’ve just worked that out





The lunatics have taken over the asylum


People who know nothing are in charge

Exemplifies the view of ‘Educated’ people (?) when ‘commoners’ take control. Often implied in politics, but generally used when the Hunter becomes the Prey

Tin soldier


Small person of inflated stature



Tea and Tiffin

An old fashioned chocolate biscuit made by Fry’s

In the days of the British Raj, Tiffin meant firstly afternoon tea at 4pm. Tiffin also has connotations of a slightly lewd nature often used in comedy to this day = something sweet you would like to have – a girl for instance. Therefore you could ask a girl to join you for afternoon tea … and see what happened?

Till the cows come home

He’ll be at it until the cows come home

A very long time

Shorter than a month of Sunday’s

Time waits for no man


The future is constantly changing

Do not relax, as the future may change and what you do today may become worthless

Trojan Horse



A gift with sinister connotations and brings misfortune to the recipient. Originally from Homer’s epic, but now used maily reference computers.

Trunk 1

Let me carry your trunk

A very large wooden box, as in a suitcase

British English for a large stout travelling box, usually with a convex top

Trunk 2

Pop the trunk

American for boot as in the rear of a car

If it were not for Hollywood films, British and Americans would not understand each other

There’s more to this than meets the eye


There is a lot more we do not know about. See ‘Gut Feeling’

Applies to something that appears on cursory inspection to be very simple. However, it actually is very complicated if you examine it in great detail. Think devious plots from crime movies here

There’s no fool like an old fool


Some people never learn anything

Usually refers to stupidity, and people getting conned

There’s no smoke without fire


Be wary, it is worse than you think

A small problem today, if left unattended, can become a major problem later. Usually used to refer to peoples actions to indicate a tendency


Many versions of spelling


Reference to something you do not know what to call it by. “Please pass me that thingymagig over there”.


Alt: Tidbit


A small but important thing; or piece of information




  1. An Australian word for food
  2. Tuck Shop is a British sweet shop

Two wrongs don’t make a right

As is

Make something worse by doing wrong things

If you have made a mistake and done something wrong to achieve it, don’t make another mistake and do something else wrong to put it right – it will only make it worse





Water off a duck’s back

like …

It makes no difference, or does not affect anything.


What’s food for the Goose is food for the Gander

As is

If you can do it, then so can I

This is all about being fair to everybody







Heah! Or good

Often used as a greeting, or to indicate the following word means something good.

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink

Cantonese is similar: you can put a cow in the water, but you can’t push its head down

You can prepare everything perfectly, but the outcome is not known

Usually a mild rebuke used when somebody has a chance to succeed and refuses to do something very simple

You can’t put a square peg in a round hole

As is

Sometimes things will just not fit, no matter how hard you try to make them

Usually used to imply that a person is just not suitable for the task. However, it is not an insult, and infers they have other talents that are better used somewhere else. An example would be an old fisherman suddenly transferred to working as a computer programmer. The opposite is also probably true in a commercial sense.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

As is

You can’t teach old people new things

Like teaching an 80 year old about computers. This is usually an observation, not an insult

You clean up pretty well

As is


Used when referring to a good friend who is normally noted for wearing casual dress (Me perhaps)? It is used when the person actually dresses properly, as in wearing a suit and tie or looking very smart.







There are many websites offering a more in depth service and category listings – but we have restricted ourselves here to mainly British phrases or those of worldwide usage.


You can find a more complete guide with thousands of idioms and expressions by clicking below; but maybe 20% of it is USA American, and may not be understood by British people and other English speakers around the world: