They say that we’re two nations separated by a common language. For some of us the difference between British and American idioms leaves us stunned and confused. Just because you use the term “pants” to mean something that’s less than sufficient, it doesn’t mean your American friends will have any clue why you’re saying something is trousers when it clearly isn’t. Same words, different meaning. That being said, we believe that learning new idioms should be fun, which is why we’ve put together a list of top 10 British idioms to test your friends on during your next low cost call to the States.
“I told him to wind his neck in”
And how exactly does one wind a neck? This sign of British aggravation may be lost on our American counterparts. Other such phrases include “pack it in”, “you’re getting on my goat” and “don’t get your knickers in a twist”
“It’s all gone pear shaped”
Ah, the art of the British understatement. Our ability to understate the severity of almost everything is quite infamous in the States. While this idiom can be worked out pretty easily with a little thought, you can give your friend a hint when their guesses are getting them nowhere. Tell them that one has gone pear shaped and move on.
“I need to spend a penny”
How much can you get for a penny these days? Are penny sweets even a thing anymore? Your American counterpart might wonder if you’re saying you want another minute calling their landline – the chances of them realising that you mean you’re popping to the loo aren’t quite as high.
“Well that’s thrown a spanner in the works”
The American version of this is “throw a curveball”. Alas we don’t play baseball and we seem to take pleasure in being cryptic. Maybe that adds to the suave, James Bond stereotype that Americans have of us?
Without a knowledge of World War British slang, this name for Britain is almost certain to go over their heads. The question “when are you coming back to Old Blighty?” will likely confuse more people than it’s worth.
“I’m just having a fag”
Much to the amusement of your American counterparts, fag in British English simply means cigarette. It does not mean cigarette in America.
Your American friends may wonder if you’re talking to a child or making baby noises at them. This shorthand way of thanking people, like “cheers”, is often wasted on Americans until you let them in on the phrase. If you want to make sure that you show your appreciation, “thank you” is often a safer bet.
“He’s taking the Mick”
Wait, who’s Mick and where is he taking him?? Taking the Mick, Mickey or Michael is a brilliant example of how much us Brits like to make fun of each other. Between our dry humour and unflinching sarcasm we are especially good at taking the Mick.
“Bob’s your uncle”
No he’s not. If your American friend is already confused by this idiom, don’t add “and Fanny’s your aunt” or they’ll think you’re taking the Mick. That being said, it will make you that much more British if you do. This idiom is simply our equivalent of the “and there you go” or the French “et voilà”.
“Cheap as chips”
Who doesn’t love a bargain? Much like our low cost international calls, when something is incredibly cheap, it’s cheap as chips. “What, you can call the USA from your landline for only 1.0p a minute!? That’s cheap as chips!”