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British slang: 27 must-know words and phrases before you head to the UK

British slang
British grime and hip-hop artist Stormzy is known to use all the latest words and slang in his music -- a good source of exposure. Source: Adrian Dennis/AFP

The use of British slang can bewilder the rest of us who speak English. “I’m going up the apples,” “You look like a right lemon,” or “Cheeky Nando’s” make no sense in the proper use of the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Once you’ve figured them out, however, British slang is as delightful a play on words as the best, the most grammatically correct sentences.

British slang refers to “unconventional words or phrases” the Brits use to express either something new or something old in a new way. It may originate from subcultures, criminals during the 16th century in saloons and gambling houses, or the codes certain vulnerable communities use to survive.

To know British slang is to enrich your time in the UK as an international student. Why limit what you know, what you can say, and what fun you can have with it? Here are our tips to enjoy this sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful quirk of the English language as spoken by the Brits:

Prepare 

Exposure through watching and hearing the language (in this case, British slang) is the best way to learn new words. As slang is ever-changing, just like fashion styles and music, the key is to find recent examples.

Comedy is the greatest place to find British slang. “Misfits” and “The Inbetweeners” are great shows that use a lot of casual language. Another great way to immerse yourself in this terminology is by listening to British music, get to “Vossi bopping” with Stormzy. Watch “Doctor Who” and “Peaky Blinders,” to get a sense of how British slang is used.

Another great way is to watch Brits themselves use such colloquialisms in short videos through platforms like Youtube. TikTok is a vortex you can get sucked into, all you need to do is key in a hashtag like “#britishslang” and you’ll have an endless stream of entertainment. 

Basic British slang: University edition

Let’s get a crack on some of the most used British slang you’ll hear on campus.

Fresher: When someone calls you this, they’re calling you a first-year student.

Libes: A place you go to study and read books, otherwise known as the library.

Budge up: If someone says this to you, they’re casually asking you to make room.

Mate: A popular term of endearment used to call someone a friend. This slang has other derivatives in which males can be called “lad” or “chap” and females are called “lass” or “lassie.”

Gutted: Means upset and disappointed — this might be used by your peers if they describe a test they didn’t do well on.

Skive: If you’re one to skip classes and fake an illness, firstly, you rebel! We’re not here for judgment but to tell you that this slang means avoiding duties.

 

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Quid: A one-pound coin. If you’re American, change the dollar for a quid and you’re officially speaking in slang.

Chips: Not to be confused with crisps (thinly sliced potato that’s been deep-fried), chips are known in the UK as thick chunky fries.

Banter: If you’re having very open conversations — it might sound like an argument, at times, but a positive one — with your new friends in the UK, it’s considered banter. 

Knackered: You’re bound to hear this a lot at uni — it means exhausted.

Fun British slang 

We could write a whole book on this but we’ll just go through the most popular ones for you to know as an international student:

Sloshed: A fun way of saying drunk.

Cheers: If someone says this to you, don’t scramble to look for a drink to toast. Instead, say “you’re welcome,” because this word means thank you.

Gobsmacked: Surprised beyond belief.

Minging: If someone tells you “you’re minging”, consider putting some deodorant on because this means foul-smelling in the UK.

Posh: Just like Posh Spice, this is used to describe something classy and fancy. 

Skint: The complete opposite of posh, being skint means you’re broke (something we probably all relate to right now!).

Bird: Unlike its true definition of a warm-blooded vertebrate, this refers to a female and is usually used by males to describe beautiful ones. 

Daft: Mildly silly or foolish. 

Bog: Even though it’s known as a muddy wetland in geographical terms, in the UK this is used to describe the toilet.

Nosh: Food, usually as a positive connotation.

Innit: Just as it sounds, this comes from the phrase: “Isn’t it?” but abbreviated.

More fun British slang phrases

Bloody hell: To express anger, shock or surprise. 

Chucking it down: If you didn’t know, UK weather includes (lots of) rain with a side of rain and this expression is used often.

Lost the plot: If you’ve heard this, simply put, it means crazy.

Can’t be arsed: When you can’t be bothered or you’re too lazy to do something. 

Faffing around: If you’re wasting someone’s time in the UK, they might use this phrase. So, stop faffing around!

Not my cup of tea: Not satisfactory.