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Top 10 British Phrases That Always Confuse The Rest of the World

VO: Ashley Bowman
Written by Sean Harris Let’s not waffle on and over-egg the pudding, or we’ll be here for donkey’s years. So, welcome to WatchMojo UK and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 British phrases that will always confuse the rest of the world! For this list, we’re celebrating some bog-standard bits and bobs of British English. But there’s a spanner in the works, because these sayings make no sense to anyone else. Special thanks to our user WordToTheWes for submitting the idea on our interactive suggestion tool: WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Top 10 British Phrases That Always Confuse The Rest of the World


Let’s not waffle on and over-egg the pudding, or we’ll be here for donkey’s years. So, welcome to WatchMojo UK and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 British phrases that will always confuse the rest of the world!

For this list, we’re celebrating some bog-standard bits and bobs of British English. But there’s a spanner in the works, because these sayings make no sense to anyone else.

#10: Bob’s Your Uncle

Even if Bob really is your uncle, what’s he got to do with anything? A saying said whenever a plan is executed, non-Brits might feel more familiar with the similar and Americanised idiom, “Hey presto!”, or the French phrase, “et voilà!” Some linguists trace “Bob’s Your Uncle” back to Arthur Balfour, who succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, as Prime Minister in 1902. Balfour’s critics claimed he only got the job thanks to his familial connections.

#9: A Car Boot Sale

While boot sales are a kind of cultural institution in the UK, this term can bewilder anyone not born in Blighty. First off, the car boot itself causes confusion, given that American English calls a car’s storage space its trunk. But then there’s the actual concept itself, which makes a stateside garage sale seem very small fry. Driving for miles to show-off your second-hand stuff on a fold-up decorating table; and somehow selling Delia Smith’s Christmas cookbook from 1997 for £2.50 – it’s all brilliantly British.

#8: A Good Ol’ Chin Wag

Enjoyed by friends over a coffee, a pint or on the walk home from work, this basic Britishism breathes new life into any conversation. With satisfying literalness, the term triggers anyone who hasn’t heard it before to imagine chins rising, falling and flailing around like an excitable dog’s tail. Of course, given that a “good ol’ chinwag” is the same as an overdue gossip, the mental image of mouths speaking quickly isn’t too far away.

#7: Have a Butchers

And so, we come to cockney rhyming slang. So much of British English is born out of London colloquialisms, but if you aren’t well-versed then you can quickly struggle. You might say you’re Hank Marvin if you’re hungry (because you’re starving). Or you’ll refer to someone you like as “your ol’ china”, as in “china plate”, as in “mate”, as in “friend”. But to “have a butcher’s” is one of the most widely used phrases (in London and elsewhere), and it simply means to “have a look”. Butchers hook; look. See? It’s simple.

#6: Chuffed to Bits

It sounds painful, but it’s actually quite pleasant – in today’s lingo, at least. We Brits describe ourselves as “chuffed” whenever something has gone exceptionally well, like A* exam results or a favourable football score. However, the etymology of “chuff” includes it being used as a 16th century adjective for an overweight person, and as an alternative noun for someone’s bottom, or their genitalia – if something’s “up the chuff”, it’s in a bad way. So, that “chuffed to bits” now means excessive happiness is quite a considerable leap.

#5: What a Plonker

A phrase made famous by Del Boy – usually at Rodney’s expense – “plonker” fronts a family friendly set of soft British insults, all designed to deride someone for their stupidity, but usually in a playful way. As well as the “Only Fools” favourite, there’s “pillock”, “prat”, “nitwit” and “numpty”, while you might also salute someone’s waning intelligence by saying that they’re “a few sandwiches short of a picnic”. Only in Britain does it make sense to match a person’s mental prowess with what they might be having for lunch.

#4: Spend a Penny

To a traditional euphemism which sometimes confuses even British folk below a certain age, to “spend a penny” is to use the toilet. The term dates back to the mid-1800s, when coin-operated locks were fitted onto lots of public loos, so there really was a charge if you needed to relieve yourself. A century or so later, and the cost of visiting the toilet had skyrocketed to 10 or 20 pence. But, the saying stuck around simply as a polite, indirect way of letting others know what you were up to.

#3: Sod’s Law

Given that one meaning of “sod” has the word relating to grass or turf, it can be tricky to see how “sod’s law” started. It’s often compared to “Murphy’s Law” in America – though “sod’s law” is slightly more severe. You could call it the exact opposite to a “win-win situation”. Red traffic lights when you’re running extremely late; that’s sod’s law. Staying in for a delivery but missing it because you took a shower; that too. Booking a beach holiday but getting rain all week – Good God it’s annoying!

#2: On the Pull

A close cousin to what Americans call “hooking up” or “getting lucky”, head to the city centre on a Saturday night and you’ll soon catch on. Whether someone’s on the pull, they’re pulling at that precise moment, or perhaps they’ve just been pulled by someone else, it all relates to the purposeful pursuit of romantic or sexual relationships. And British slang terms for the various stages of pulling are pretty plentiful, too. To “chat up” is to talk to, to “snog” is to make out with, and you can consult Austin Powers for the rest.

#1: Swings and Roundabouts

An everyday idiom across the UK, today’s winner roughly equates to “nothing gained and nothing lost”. Said whenever the pros and cons of a given situation seem to cancel each other out, the origins of the phrase are largely unknown – although most researchers agree on the obvious links to a children’s playground, with both playtime options promising equal levels of fun. You might even favour the slide, but it’s swings and roundabouts really.
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