This article is about the “British” words and phrases we don’t actually use in Britain, so if you’re planning a holiday to England, Scotland or any other part of Britain, and trying to learn some colloquialisms, scratch these from your list – the consequences of saying some of them can be a fist to the face (which, curiously, we tend not to call “fisticuffs”). This article has occasional use of the f-word etc.
This article about British words came about after an American blogger mentioned how if he ever came to the UK he’d be sure to tip a bob to the waiter. That was shortly followed up with someone (also American) commenting on a page on dialects with some sense of authority that British people said “sitting room” or “parlour” instead of “living room” or “den.” If you’re writing a British character for a book, these words will throw up a big red flag that kills suspension of disbelief for anyone British reading the book, and if you’re coming to Britain for a trip or travel, you will be mocked for using these words.
So here’s the words and phrases we just don’t say (or very, very rarely) in the UK:
1. British Accent – we rarely classify ourselves as “British” as opposed to our individual countries. For example, I’m English, my mother was Irish (which ISN’T part of the UK), my father was Jamaican (we say Afro-Caribbean not Afro-British, BTW), the man on my birth certificate was Scottish, my best friend at uni was Welsh. So we would start by saying “English accent” or “Scottish accent.” Then we’d get more specific, such as “Northern accent” for people from the north of England.
2. Bob – we call it money or cash, we use the word quid to mean pounds, or p (pronounced “pee”) to mean pence (multiple of penny). If you say “pennies” (multiple of penny) to anyone from the UK who speaks Polish, they will laugh at you because that’s how you pronounce the word “penis” in Polish.
3. Ta – Nowhere do people in the UK say “ta” for goodbye. That’s an Americanism you have imposed on us. “Ta ta” might be said by a posh elderly aunt (or a young lady with adorably misguided aspirations) from time to time, and “tara” (pronounced ter-rah with a long a at the end) is another word for goodbye, but we don’t say “ta” to greet someone’s departure. Ta is an informal way of saying “thank-you” in the North of England (as in, ‘ta very much’).
4. Cheero – Nobody’s said this since the second world war. Cheerio is sometimes used by older people, but again it’s dying out and it’s considered more old fashioned than roast beef. The last time I heard it was in the lyrics to a song in Oliver Twist, in the context “so long fare thee well, pip pip cheerio…” and we also don’t say “thee,” so it shouldn’t be considered an accurate representation of our modern language (it was made in the 1960s, after all).
5. Codswallop – Another old-fashioned term, we tend to say “bullshit” “bull” or “crap” (crap has three meanings – excrement, something that is really terrible, or something that is untrue). Our favourite, however, is “bollocks” when we want to call out something as untrue. The only time in living memory that a British person’s said codswallop was when Hagrid says it in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (we call it Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, BTW) – and that’s set in 1991 (if you do the math from the gravestones etc this adds up).
6. On your bike (actually, it was always “on yer bike”) – Very dated to the 1980s. We tend to say “fuck off” these days or, if we’re being polite, “sod off” or “get lost.”
7. Fitty – this isn’t a word. I’ve lived in Britain for 29 years, I’ve travelled all over, I’ve voraciously devoured literature, and nobody has ever used this word in any context. It’s made up. Some people would say someone is “fit” meaning attractive (or “she’s well fit” or “he’s dead fit”), and there’s the very outdated and generally offensive word “totty” which again no-one has used for a very long time, but we just don’t have the word “fitty.” It even sounds made up. Referring to someone as “fitty” will probably have people wondering whether you think they’re epileptic. If they buy into fear-of-rape culture, they might even use this opportunity to make a scene.
8. Rumpy Pumpy – if you suggest having some ‘rumpy pumpy’ to any woman under 45, she will tell you to fuck off. AVOID! Nobody’s used this word since 1995, and even then it was only in an ironic sense. Nobody actually uses this word to describe sex that they have had or are going to have.
9. Sweet Fanny Adams – no, we say “fuck all” to mean the same thing. Nobody’s used “Fanny Adams” to mean “Fuck All” since World War II.
10. Toodle Pip – again, the only time this gets used is by people who are being ironic. It’s a joke. People are taking the piss when they say this.
11. Cack-handed – I got this claimed as “I’m not co-ordinated” from this page but actually it’s a derogatory term meaning left handed (the hand that you wipe your arse with if you’re right handed), from the days when schools were run by a certain type of nuns (and other pro-social psychopaths) who thought that left-handedness was a sign of the devil. There are plenty of British people out there who hate on lefties due to their subconscious cultural conditioning. Use it anywhere near a left-handed person and prepare to get bitch slapped. It’s as offensive to a left-handed person as the N-word is to most human beings.
12. Fisticuffs – another one from Oliver Twist, people tend to call a fight a “scrap” a “punch up” a “brawl” or a “fight.” Then they tend to call the police. Assault is a crime in Britain, and is defined as “any unwanted physical contact” but people still do it and the police are utterly arbitrary in whether they choose to enforce it or not, like most other things here. I know someone who got a criminal record for putting their hand on someone’s shoulder, and I know someone who got away with trying to kill their child after years of abuse. It varies.
Generally when looking at British words and phrases, when faced with the choice between a bigger or smaller word, we will use the smaller one. Water will always find it’s lowest level, and it’s the same with language – think about what the minimum is that you need to say to make yourself understood instead of trying to dress it up with loads of words or phrases that might be inaccurate. Communication is about understanding, and the only real rule of communication (at least, general communication, not specialized e.g. academia) is that if most people can’t understand you, you’re doing it wrong. I stated “most people” not “all” because you can’t please everyone and some people will just never understand you.