British phrases that confuse Americans

You would think that in moving to a country where English is most people’s second language, you would have a leg up on understanding and speaking English. Before moving abroad to the Netherlands, I never thought I would be so confused about my native language. Why? I’m often surrounded by British native English speakers. Many times since living here I’ve found myself looking back at a British English speaker with a blank stare, having no idea what they said. Sure, all Americans know the Brits call the toilet the loo, the line the queue, and the elevator the lift. But there are so many more differences, especially in British phrases, oh yes, there are, and sometimes they leave me utterly confused, and sometimes they leave me wishing we Americans would adopt them.

Here are the British sayings that have surprised, confused, and delighted me over the past seven years

british phrases

British English phrases that don’t exist in American English

You alright?

Usage: a greeting. For easily the first year of my job, I walked in every morning, to have my colleague ask “You alright?”. And every day, i though, wtf, does it look like something is wrong with me? why does he ask me if I’m alright. After a looong time, I realized it was just the equivalent to Americans asking “how are you?”. Yeah. duh.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

Meaning: there is more than one way to get things done. But honestly, who the hell came up with this saying? Theoretically, I understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat but first, that is disgusting, and btw thanks, I’m going to go barf now. Upon further investigation on this one, I’ve learned now that this isn’t even an entirely British phrase (!), it comes from an American short story called The Money Diggers. Alright, Brits, you’re off the hook for this one, but please stop using it.


Meaning: when you are disappointed or saddened. I’m gutted you’re moving away! I love this one. It is so much more impactful than being bummed. You are so disappointed, its as if your guts are spilling out of you like a fish getting prepared to be thrown on the grill. Damn. That is pretty hard core disappointment. And the best part is, I’ve rarely heard it used sincerely. Put this one on the list of British phrases we need to adopt.

Bob’s your uncle

Meaning: you’re all set. Ok, this one was especially strange to me because I ACTUALLY HAVE AN UNCLE NAMED BOB (Hi Uncle Bob, if you’re reading this).


Meaning: exhausted. If you say this, you should never pronounce the “r”. Which is why as an American I never use it. And every time I’m tired but don’t want to be dramatic and say I’m exhausted, I soooo want to say “knackered.” But let’s be real, we Americans pronounce a hard “r”, so I’d just sound ridiculous. Can we just all adopt saying it so I’m not the only one that sounds stupid? Again, put this on the list of British phrases to adopt.

Nip to the ladies/Nip to the gents

Meaning: go to the bathroom/ladies room. Just gonna nip to the ladies before we leave! How cute is this? So much cuter than me saying I have to pee. British phrases are so much more polite than American ones, especially when it involves the toilet.


Meaning: bachelorette or bachelor parties. On Friday nights the canals of the Red Light District are filled with the puke of visiting stag-do’s. Or at least, that’s the way I mostly used stag-do. I hear this one so much in relation to the Red Light District that I think at this point I couldn’t imagine saying “a bachelor party in the Red Light District”. It just wouldn’t sound normal… there aren’t bachelor parties there, there are stag-do’s!

Taking the piss/Taking the mickey

Meaning: mock, tease. Next time you can’t believe what the hell someone is saying, or better yet, when you are in a fight with your boyfriend/girlfriend and they accuse you of something, just respond with Are you taking the piss? Our version, are you joking/ are you kidding me? just doesn’t resonate with the mockery the same way taking the piss does. This is another one of the British English phrases I’m bringing back to the US.

british phrases

Before writing this post, I had a long conversation with my dear friend from the UK – where could take the mickey come from? Apparently this comes from Cockney rhyming slang when they would say Taking the Mickey Bliss instead of saying Taking the Piss

Side note on this one: Cockney rhyming slang is practically a language of its own. Once on a work trip I was with two Londoners who thought it would be fun to speak in Cockney rhymes for awhile. I didn’t understand anything. A Cockney rhyme sentence could be: “It nearly knocked me off me plates—he was wearing a syrup! So I ran up the apples, got straight on the dog to me trouble and said I couldn’t believe me mincers.” Which would mean: It nearly knocked me off my feet, he was wearing a wig. So I ran up the stairs, got straight on the telephone and said I couldn’t believe me eyes. If you want to be more confused, check out this article on Wikipedia

Having a go/have a go

Meaning: this either means trying something, or criticizing someone. Could be used if you are trying to accomplish a task I’ll have a go at it. Or if someone is mocking Don’t take him seriously, he’s just having a go at ya. 

What are you on about

Meaning: what are you talking about. Usually this is used when someone’s been talking for a long time and typically, when what they are saying is genuinely confusing, or even when its not, and you want to give them the impression you don’t understand them, cause you’re being a dick. This is one of the British phrases I’ve picked up, and love to use on my boyfriend 😉

With an aim to…?

Ok so maybe this one is too specific, but I have a very distinctive memory about it. I flew into London for a meeting with our PR agency. Arriving in Heathrow, I had to (as I always do) go through passport control. The border agent asked what I was in London only for a day for. I have a meeting with a PR agency, I told them. With an aim to…, the border agent trailed off. I looked back blankly. With an aim to…. Still, more blank looks from me. With an aim to… With an aim to… I repeated back. Maybe this was some sort of repeat after me? With an aim to what?! Oh! Um, just to go over a project proposal. The border agent shook her head… clearly she thought I was taking the piss. I had to apologize… sorry, we don’t say that in my country, I didn’t understand you.

Bits and bobs

Meaning: odds and ends. Just the cuter British way of saying it.

Tits up

Meaning: belly up. Just the more vulgar version of it. Basically when you just want to say that something has been totally fucked up.

As and when

Meaning: at the time that something happens. As I write these, I realize so many of my confusions are rooted in working with agencies based in the UK. I had no idea what the hell they were talking about half the time. So if someone says they’ll send you something as and when they mean that they’ll send you something as and when they receive it.

Aww, bless/bless ya

Meaning: bless their heart. Usage: often condescending or patronising, but sometimes sincere, when it is sincere it’s like a verbal hug. This is my most favorite of all British phrases because it can be used in pretty much any conversation, and if you add it in to a conversation you are having about someone else, it pretty much immediately signifies that you don’t that person seriously.

Example:  Person 1: She keeps trying to lose weight, but just can’t stop eating crisps for breakfast. Person 2: Aww, bless.

What British phrases did I miss? What are your favorites?



    • Reply

      ooh good one! get it sorted, I say that all the time now too! so funny how you start picking them up!

  1. Hahaha they made me giggle!! I have lived in Canada and now in Australia and am loving all the different sayings etc! Never think of the ones I am familiar with as… I am familiar with them lol! Really enjoyed reading this! Great post!

    • Reply

      thanks! it is so funny how English differs so much from country to country!

  2. Great article! Not sure if this is always the case, but where I live, ” having a go ” at someone doesn’t necessary mean taking the piss, but more like attacking someone. Like telling someone off for doing something. Not sure if this makes sense but yeah…. ?

  3. Great list, of course as a native Londoner, I use most of these regularly.

    Only one I think is not quite right – “Having a go” isn’t used to mean mocking someone like “taking the piss” is. It means you’re being verbally aggressive at someone, you are having a go (at them). When you tell someone to stop having a go (either at yourself or someone else) it’s usually because they are ranting, or criticising, or nagging, or otherwise being a bit nasty.

    • Reply

      thanks for the feedback! I updated it cause I realized I got it a bit wrong… clearly I am still confused by these phrases!

  4. Loved this post so much! I spent 6 years in the North of England and definitely remember being confused the first time someone told me that “Bob is my uncle”. Haha, I can only imagine your reaction. You must have wondered how they know.

    There are lots of words and phrases on your list that I didn’t even realise were British English. But that explains why Americans are sometimes confused when I say things like gutted.

    Do you say: “Swings and roundabouts” or “Not my cup of tea” in the US?

    • Reply

      We do say not my cup of tea, but what does swings and roundabouts mean? We actually hardly have any roundabouts in the US anyway, haha!

  5. This made me laugh so much! I’m from Liverpool and I ALWAYS say ‘you alright?’ instead of Hello! Everyone always looks at me strange or asking them a question but I cant help it! Great post!

    • Reply

      Thank you! so glad it made you laugh… I also had to laugh when writing it… felt so dumb sometimes not understanding British folks!

  6. What a delightful read! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I must say, some of these phrases do confuse me as I’m a native American English speaker, lol. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      haha glad to hear someone else can relate!!

    • Reply

      hahah chalk and cheese, I don’t know, kettle of fish we also say in the US!

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  8. It really is funny how different British and American English is. One of the ones that makes me laugh is “bloody hell.”

    • Which is just a normal expression which I use all the time! Nothing remarkable about it! Although we don’t say “bloody” every 3rd word like some Americans think we do… ?

  9. It’s always so fun to read these. When I moved to Australia, I thought I’d be fine with language too, but there are some words and phrases there that we don’t use in the States too!

  10. It’s always so fun to read these. When I moved to Australia, I thought I’d be fine with language too, but there are some words and phrases there that we don’t use in the States too!

  11. As a Brit, who has many foreign friends (I’m including Americans and Australians in that) so many times they’ve looked at me like I’m the one speaking a foreign language – or in my Brit way they ain’t got a scooby what I’m saying 😀

    • Reply

      haha glad that you and your friends can somehow relate to my experience! funny how different English can be!

  12. There are massive regional differences within the UK too. One expression I love, which I first heard when I moved to the Midlands, is “over Bill’s mother’s”. As in, if you can see black skies in the distance like there’s rain on the way, you would say “it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s!”. Love that one.

    One difference that does get me is how Americans use the word “pissed” to mean “angry”. In British English we would always say “pissed off” in that context; if you say someone is “pissed” it means they’re drunk. Language is weird.

    • Reply

      haha Bill’s mother… that is a strange one indeed! yeah we say pissed in American English to mean angry so that is one of the reasons why I was so confused!

  13. Patricia Johnston Reply

    Lived in the USA since 1966, but a native of Cheshire in NW England. Here’s a few more
    “I’m gobsmacked” = I am amazed
    “That’s brilliant (or brill)” = That’s a very good idea, or even I like it.
    “We’d better scarper”= We should leave in a hurry and “Have a butchers at this” =take a look at this ” and many more (from Cockney rhyming slang)

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