Voices

'You're having a giraffe!?' A starter guide to UK slang

By Sophie Cannon

08 February 2017 - 15:15

Are you moving to the UK for study or work? The British Council's Sophie Cannon explains some of the weird and wonderful words and phrases you might encounter.

'Hiya, mate, fancy a cuppa and a chin-wag?' 'I can't. Sorry, pal. I'm skint – so gutted!'

When you first arrive in the UK, you might be mystified by some of the words and phrases people use. This, unhelpfully, will often also vary depending on which part of the UK you are in. Don't worry, this is completely normal and you will soon get used to it.

People here, like in many other places, often use slang – especially with friends and family. You might hear some regional dialect words, too. A lot of these words are shared with other English-speaking countries, but many are unique to Britain, so even if you're a grade-A student or a native speaker, you might still be baffled.

To help you 'cotton on' (slang for 'understand'), here are some common words you may hear. It is worth noting that it is best to avoid using slang with strangers, in the classroom, or in formal situations until you're confident with the language. People may think it impolite if you use slang in these situations. With your friends, however, it can be great fun trying out new words.

Below is a guide to get you started.

Starter slang

'Alright?' means 'Hello, how are you?'.

'Hiya' or 'Hey up' – these informal greetings both mean 'hello' and are especially popular in the north of England.

'What about ye?' is popular in Northern Ireland and is another way of saying 'How are you?'

'Howay' is popular in the north east of England and means 'let's go' or 'come on'.

'Ta' is another way of saying 'thank you'.

'Cheers' is usually said as a toast when you raise your glasses to celebrate, but it also means 'thank you'.

Slang through the ages

Don't be confused if someone calls you 'pet', 'duck', 'sweetie', 'love', 'chicken', 'chuck' or 'sunshine'. Older people in the UK often use these terms when they are addressing younger people as a sign of affection and friendliness. (It is usually not appropriate for younger people to use these terms with older people, however).

'Bairn' is especially popular in Scotland and the north east of England and means 'baby' or 'young child'.

'Lass' or 'lassie' is another word for 'girl'. This is mainly in the north of England and Scotland.

'Lad' is another word for boy.

'Bloke' or 'chap' means 'man'.

Your 'mate' or 'pal' is your friend.

'Me old mucker' or 'chum' both mean 'friend', too. They are more old-fashioned now, but you may still hear people use them in a light-hearted way.

'Our kid' refers to 'my brother' or 'my sister'. It is especially popular in the northwest and midlands of England.

Good and bad slang

There are lots of slang and dialect words to say something is good or cool. For example, in Wales you might hear people say 'tidy' or 'lush', while in Birmingham you might hear 'bostin'. In the north of England, you might hear 'ace' and 'mint' and in Northern Ireland you might hear 'dead on' or 'grand'.

'Wicked' and 'sick' formally mean evil or distasteful, but in slang terms they can mean cool, too. These words are particularly popular in London and the south of England. If something is uncool, people may say it is 'naff' or 'cheesy' (the latter is used especially for anything with clichés – a cheesy song, for example). If it is bad or suspicious, then it it could be 'dodgy'.

If someone is happy, they might say 'I'm made up!' or 'I'm well chuffed!'. When disappointed, though, they might say 'I'm gutted'. If someone is being 'mardy', this means they are acting moody or sulky. 'It's doing my head in!' means it is annoying me, and 'it's all kicking off!' means an argument is happening.

The word 'solid' usually refers to an object, but in slang, it can mean that something or someone is resilient or difficult. For example, 'she just ran the London marathon. She's solid!', or 'that economics exam was solid!'. You may hear people use the slang terms 'well', 'dead' instead of very or really. For example, 'it was dead good' or 'that exam was well difficult!'. Meanwhile a 'tad' means a little bit. For example, 'that is a tad expensive'.

Social slang

You may well be invited to a 'do', 'bash', or 'get-together', which are all other words for a party or group gathering. A 'knees up' is a more old-fashioned term for a party. People may use this in a light-hearted way. It could well involve dancing. If you are invited to one of these, you may need to be aware of the below terms:

'BYOB' means 'bring your own bottle'. In the UK, it is common for the party host to ask guests to bring their own drinks. You might see BYOB written on the invitation.

'It's your round!'. In a UK café or pub, it is common for small groups of friends to take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for everyone at the table. In a large group, this may not be practical – people may decide to buy their own or split into smaller rounds. If you don't want to take part or can't afford to, it is perfectly acceptable to say so and buy your own.

These other terms of social slang might be useful:

To 'fancy' someone is to find that person attractive, e.g., 'He just smiled. I think he fancies you'.

If you fancy him too, you could 'ask him out', which is to ask him to go on a date with you.

'Chat up' is to flirt with someone, e.g., 'She was chatting me up at the party'.

'Snog' means to kiss passionately, e.g., 'Oh dear. My dad and mum were snogging at their anniversary party. I didn't know where to look'.

'Chin-wag' means a talk or gossip with friends, e.g. 'Fancy a chin-wag?' In this context, 'fancy' means 'would you like'.

Food slang

Different areas of the UK can be well known for regional dishes of food. They might now be available widely across the UK (and even the world) but they remain associated with the place of origin. Melton Mowbray in Lincolnshire is synonymous with the 'pork pie', Cornwall with the 'pasty', and Lancashire with 'hot pot'. Confusingly, different regions also call the same food and drink items by different names:

'Barm cake', 'cob', 'bap', or 'batch' is a bread roll.

'Cuppa' or 'brew' is a cup of tea.

'Fry-up' or 'full English' is a hearty fried breakfast, usually with eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, grilled tomatoes and toast.

'Sunday roast' is a popular Sunday meal, which usually includes roast meat with roast potatoes, carrots, gravy and perhaps a Yorkshire pudding (puffy, savoury baked batter).

'Brekkie' is breakfast.

'Tea' usually means a cup of tea, but in some parts of the UK, generally the north, it also means the evening meal. How confusing. To add to this, 'afternoon tea' is usually 'taken' in the afternoon and involves tea, cake and small sandwiches, but some people might just call this 'tea'. Are you keeping up?

'Supper', for some people, means their evening meal, while for others it could be a light snack afterwards or even before. Doubly confusing.

'Greasy spoon' is a café serving simple/unhealthy food, probably including a 'full English'.

'Gastropub' is a pub that specialises in food as well as drinks.

'Chippy' is a fish-and-chip shop.

'Spuds' or 'tatties' are potatoes.

Financial slang

'Quid' is a pound sterling. If something costs £1, you may be asked for a quid; the word doesn't change in the plural, so £50 is fifty quid (not 'quids').

'Skint' is lacking money, e.g., 'I can't come to the restaurant, as I'm skint this week'.

'Minted' means rich, e.g., 'It was my birthday last week and I got some money off my family, so I am minted now'.

'Splashing out' means spending a lot of money.

'That's as cheap as chips' is very cheap.

'That costs a bomb' means it is too expensive.

'That's a rip-off' means that something is not worth the price.

'Cough up!' is slang for 'Pay your share of the bill'.

Cockney rhyming slang

Just to throw some more confusion in, these expressions use rhymes to hide another meaning. Beginning in London's East End during the 19th century, Cockney rhyming slang was originally a way for local people to share secrets and ideas without others understanding. Now, people across the UK often use rhyming slang for comic effect. Here are some examples:

'Apples and pears' means stairs.

'You're having a giraffe!' 'You're having a laugh!' which means: 'You're joking!'.

A 'dog and bone' is a telephone. 'He called me on the old dog and bone this morning'.

'Mince-pies' rhymes with eyes. 'I've forgotten my spectacles and my mince pies aren't what they used to be'.

In some cases, the rhyming word has been dropped over time, which can make it a bit harder to understand. For example:

'Use your loaf' means 'use your head', that is, be sensible. 'Loaf' used to be loaf of bread, which rhymes with head.

'Let's have a butcher's' is another way of saying 'Let me have a look'. This was originally butcher's hook to rhyme with look.

If someone asks you to 'stop telling porkies', she's asking you to stop lying. 'Porkies' was 'porky pies', which rhymes with lies.

We hope this guide helps those of you planning to visit the UK. Don't worry about the confusing and weird and wacky slang you might hear. New words and expressions are invented and used all the time and this article is nowhere near definitive. People will be impressed and surprised if you pick up on intricate slang expressions right away or even at all, and if you use them in the right situation. These expressions are fun and often lighthearted. They should certainly not 'give you the collywobbles' (make you nervous) at the thought of 'dropping a clanger' (getting something really wrong.) Good luck, chuck.

Find out more about living and studying in the UK. 

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