10 British Expressions that Americans Find Amusing

I recently published my list of 10 silly American words –  expressions that I still find ridiculous, despite having lived here almost 12 years. I generally try avoid situations when I have to utter the words “bangs” or “rutabaga” or other such words that I find to be just, plain silly. I have my pride, after all.

To be fair, there are many British words and sayings which humo(u)r or confuse my fellow Americans. Just last week, I used the word “slapdash” in a meeting, only to get what I call “the look” from colleagues. Anyone who’s been a traveler in a foreign country trying to make themselves understood knows that look. It infers, “I have absolutely no clue what you are trying to say but I’m going to nod and smile nonetheless.” Being a communicator at heart, getting “the look” pains me. But at the same time – and with the glass half full – I seize the opportunity to clarify my statement (which can sometimes lead to further hilarity) or, at the very least, educate my audience about the meaning of the expression so that the next time they find themselves in the room with a Brit, they can nod sagely rather than inflicting “the look.”

Here’s a shortlist of some of those British expressions that have caused me to be on the receiving end of “the look”:

  • donkey’s years (= a very long time)
  • putting a spanner in the works (= throw a wrench)
  • and Bob’s your uncle (= and there you have it)
  • gone barmy (= gone mad)
  • a lotta bottle (= a lot of courage)
  • picking up fag ends (= listening to the end of conversations)
  • dog’s bollocks (= cat’s meow)
  • fancy dress (= costume)
  • chuffed to bits (= very pleased)
  • gobsmacked (= amazed)

I confess that I also proactively alter the way I pronounce several words here to avoid getting “the look.” For example, I’ll ask for wahder, say tooona (instead of tuna) and ask for tom-ay-to. It pains me but “the look” pains me more.

Meantime, my fellow Americans, here are some useful links to sites to help your English cross the pond: Effingpot – the very best of British, British Sayings/British Words and this great post about 20 British expressions you will never hear in the U.S.


Leave a comment


  1. Jessica Cohen

     /  January 1, 2012

    Lovely! (There’s another word I get constant snickering about). Being a fellow Brit-Am, my favo(u)rite expression to get ‘the look’ is ‘How’s long’s a piece of string?’, when asked when smthg will happen. It means: ‘I have no idea. Could be anytime’.

  2. Stephen

     /  January 2, 2012

    Being a Canadian (and an avowed anglophile) allows me to easily flow between the two forms of English. Those terms I all recognized.

    Now, if you can explain why the Brits have TV shows to discuss tomorrow’s newspapers at 10PM every night, I will be impressed.

  3. I absolutely need to hear you say tuna and water when we get to work tomorrow.

  4. Sharon Hurley Hall

     /  January 2, 2012

    Loved this post and thanks for including my post on British expressions – so glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t get one of those looks 🙂 I try, but sometimes I still think I’m back in Essex talking to my mates.

  6. Wait, I say “to-may- to”….

    I have to admit, I picked up a few of those words (just back from an almost 4 yr assignment in Wales) and I get “the look” every time I let “cardy” slip instead of (cardigan) sweater and my kids still have “strops”. Although I am still dead chuffed to be able to say “pants” again without hearing snickers ..

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