21 British Phrases That Are Confusing to Americans

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Although the United States speak English and was once under British rule, the two languages have diverged over the years. Here are 21 words that exist in British English, but might confuse Americans.


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The term snog was briefly popular in America thanks to the books “Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” It means to kiss, cuddle, or make out. Its origin is unknown, but it came into play sometime in the 1940s. It means nothing in American English.

Example: We snogged for hours after our date.


handsome bearded motorcyclist on black motorcycle at sandy beach near sea
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Bloke means a man. It originated in perhaps London in the early 1800s. It’s not used in America, although it is used in Australia. You can use it informally to describe any man.

Example: He’s an average bloke despite his upbringing.


Woman Napping On A Sofa In A City Loft
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Americans probably won’t understand what kip means, but this British slang word means to sleep or take a nap. It came about around the 1770s. It was probably related to the Danish word “kippe,” which means cheap inn or hovel.

Example: Jill took her afternoon kip.


wild furry monkey sitting on wooden branch with organic potato
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Monkey doesn’t refer just to an animal in the U.K. It actually refers to 500 pounds, as in money. It comes from 19th century India, where there was a 500 rupee note with a monkey on it. Returning British soldiers brought the term back. 

Example: They gave me a monkey for my payment.

Fun Fact: Monkey can also mean not giving any care. For instance, “I don’t give a monkey’s about your work schedule.” 


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This is another British money term. It means a single pound or 100 pence. It came from the Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” which literally translated means “something for something.” It’s one of the funny British words that aren’t used in America.

Example: The vending machine took my quid but didn’t give me my drink.


Trash cans
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Rubbish isn’t just “nonsense” as it means in America. Rubbish often means trash or garbage in British English. It came from the Anglo-norman French word rubbous, meaning broken or worn-out material. 

Rubbish can also mean non-sense or worthless. 

Example: I taught my dog to throw the rubbish in the bin.


Cliff with pathway.
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In American English, ledge is a surface projecting from a cliff or wall. But in British English, it is short for legend. The word legend came from Latin’s legenda, meaning to read. Legends were historically often discussed in writings.

Example: David Bowie was an absolute ledge.


Public restroom sign
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A penny in America is another term for one cent. In England, however, it is on the list of funny British words to mean go to the bathroom. It refers to public toilets since the word came from the cost of using a public restroom in 1800s UK.

Example: She went to spend a penny after eating out.

Brass Monkeys

Brass statue of three monkeys
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This is one of the best funny British words. It originated in the 19th century when small brass monkeys were common souvenirs from Japan and China. It means cold and is used in the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

Example: My trip to Antarctica was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.


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Bagsy means to reserve something, or “dibs on that” in American English. Its origins are unknown, and it appeared to come into use by the 1940s. It could mean to “take something” like putting it in your bag.

Example: Bagsy on the last pancake!


picture showing a picnic

Picnic is American English for eating a meal outside, usually on a blanket. It likely originated from both French and German. It’s been in use since at least the French Revolution (the 1780-90s) when fleeing French popularized it worldwide. 

In British English, it actually means that a person is not very bright. 

Example: She’s a picnic short of a sandwich.

Bog Roll

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The British call toilet paper a bog roll! The term originated from the Scottish/Irish word bog, meaning soft. Toilet paper is, of course, soft, which helped create the term bog roll.

Example: There was a run on bog rolls during the start of the pandemic.

Her Majesty’s Pleasure

Prison cell, inside a prison cell. Window of a penitentiary. Shadows projected on the ground. Prison sentence, window bars. Detainees and surveillance. 3d render
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This is another of the funny British words. It came from meaning something would happen until the Crown changed its mind. Now it means a prison sentence of an undetermined length.

Example: He knew he would now be imprisoned at her majesty’s pleasure.


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Cheers is a happy term in both languages. In the US, cheery means happy. In England, it’s used as a celebration term before drinking or a thank you when receiving a gift. 

Example: Cheers, mate! Let’s drink.


Carefree Time With Friends. Top View Of Five Cheerful Peopleholding Bottles With Beer And Eating Pizza While Standing Outdoors
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Banter is joking or amusing talk. The origins are from the 17th-century Gaelic word bean, meaning “talk of women.” However, it’s no longer a gendered term.

Example: The model bantered with him as though they’d known each other for years.


picture of a toilet

There are a lot of weird British words, but this is many people’s favorite. Loo means toilet in British English. It possibly came from the French word for water, l’eau. One of its earliest uses was in 1936 in a letter from actress Lady Diana Cooper.

Example: Make sure to go to the loo before you leave the house!


Man Peeing In Toilet
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“Taking the mickey” means to take the pee or to tease. Mickey refers to micturition, the bodily function of urination.

Example: I’m going to take a Mickey before we leave.

Going Apples and Pears

Autumn Fruits
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These are simply two types of fruit in American English. However, in British English, they mean stairs. It’s an old Cockney rhyming slang.

Example: I walked up the apples and pears to the door.


woman using magnifying lense
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Butchers is the terrific British term for having a look at something. However, it means someone who cuts and sells meat in American English. Its origins are another Cockney rhyming slang for “look Butcher’s hook.”

Example: Will you have a butchers at my resume?


Young Man In Detestation
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A tosser is someone who tosses something in America. However, in the UK, it means someone who is stupid or unpleasant. It started in the 1970s, coming from an older slang word “toss off.”

Example: Leave me alone, you tosser!


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Finally, we have the wonderful word porkies. It is rhyming slang for a pork pie and a lie. Its origins are from somewhere in the 1970s in the UK.

Example: John tells such porkies that no one ever believes him.

What Other British Words Are Confusing?

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What other British words make you scratch your head? Maybe you’ve been wondering about a word you heard on Ted Lasso or in a British pub. Let us know in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “21 British Phrases That Are Confusing to Americans”

  1. Another British word would be “Rubber” which in the U.S. is a stretchy substance like “Rubber Band” or something that tires are made from etc. Yet In England and the U.K. rubber is an eraser. I would guess because of two reasons, one it is made of rubber, and two, you are “rubbing away an error”.

  2. To bag something means to reserve it or lay claim to it. I have bags on the last slice of pizza or, who bags the last slice of pizza.


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