The English learner’s guide to British phrases

British phrases, Verbalists

British English is much like the people of Britain themselves: down-to-earth and full of character. We compiled the list of our favorite British phrases, 25 of them, that we believe will confuse anybody who didn’t grow in the UK. These phrases aren’t just handy for holding a conversation though – they’ll also give you an insight into just how the Brits tick!

The English learner’s guide to British phrases Education Beyond Borders Podcast

Verbalists Language Network‘s Favorite British Phrases

  1. “Sod’s Law”

The Brits use the saying “Sod’s Law” to explain back luck or misfortune. It’s the British version of Murphy’s Law.

  1. “He’s cream-crackered”

This slang comes from the British word “knackered” meaning to be extremely tired.

  1. “Bob’s your uncle”

This saying has nothing to do with your family tree. It’s an exclamation used when everything is alright, or you’re all set.

  1. “They lost the plot.”

When someone has “lost the plot,” it means they have lost their cool. The phrase is particularly common in English football, where it is generally used when a player or coach gets in a fight or performs poorly during the game.

  1. “I haven’t seen that in donkey’s years.”

“Donkey’s years” translates to “a really long time,” mainly because “donkey’s ears” kind of sounded like “donkey’s years” and became a rhyming slang term.

The phrase was underscored by the belief that donkeys live a long time (which can be true) and have very long ears (definitely true).

  1. “I’ll give you a bell”

This means you will call someone on the phone later. It has nothing to do with an actual bell!

  1. “Quit your whinging!” 

When someone is “whinging,” it means they’re whining or crying. The next time your coworker is complaining about something, feel free to call him a whinger.

  1. “You’re full of beans”

Again, this saying has nothing to do with consuming beans. It really means to be in high spirits.

  1. “It’s a real dog’s breakfast”

Some people say dinner instead of breakfast, but the meaning is still the same. A “dog’s breakfast” is a mess!

  1. “He’s such a chav.”

This is a pejorative epithet in Britain that’s used to describe a specific kind of stereotype: a working-class person who is loud or brash and wears (usually fake) designer clothes — especially the classic Burberry check.

It is essentially the British version of “white trash” and should be used sparingly.

  1. “You’ve thrown a spanner in the works.” 

When you put or throw a spanner in the works, it means you’ve ruined a plan. A spanner is the word for a wrench in England, so it’s the British equivalent of “throwing a wrench in the plan.”

  1. “Let’s have a chinwag.”

Though fairly self-explanatory, having a “chinwag” (sometimes “chin-wag“) means that you’re having a chat with someone, usually associated with gossip. Just imagine a chin wagging up and down, and you’ll get the idea.

  1. “I’m chuffed to bits.”

If you’re “chuffed to bits” you’re really happy or thrilled about something. It’s also acceptable to say “chuffed” all on its own: “I’ve just scored free tickets to the Beyoncé concert, and I’m well chuffed!”

  1. “Spend a penny”

This is another way of saying you need to use the bathroom.

  1. “That’s manky.”

Something that is manky is unpleasantly dirty or disgusting. Its slang usage dates to the 1950s and was probably a combination of “mank” (meaning mutilated or maimed), the Old French word “manqué” (to fail), and the Latin “mancus” (maimed).

You can also feel “manky” if you’re under the weather.

  1. “A right bodge job”

This is one those British phrases that refers to something someone has done poorly.

  1. “My cat? She’s a moggy.”

A “moggy” or “moggie” refers to an alley cat or a cat without a pedigree, but it is often used interchangeably as another word for cat.

  1. “Spanner in the works”

To have a “spanner in the works” means someone or something messed up the plan.

  1. “This was an absolute doddle to do.”

A “doddle” is a task or activity that is extremely easy. Though the origin is unknown, it dates to the 1930s and is still common.

  1. “Totally chuffed”

At first glance, you might assume this means being worn out or tired. But it actually means pleased or thrilled!

  1. “I’ll give you a bell”

This means you will call someone on the phone later. It has nothing to do with an actual bell!

  1. “You’re taking the piss.”

When you take the piss with someone, you’re being unreasonable or taking liberties. For example, if a cashier overcharges you on something, he is taking the piss. It can also be a stand-in phrase for when you’re mocking or teasing someone, though this is more commonly said as “taking the piss out of” someone or something. For example: “They’re always taking the piss out of John because he likes Taylor Swift.”

  1. “Like chalk and cheese”

This British phrase means two people or things are fundamentally different or incompatible.

  1. “I’ve dropped a clanger.”

When someone makes an embarrassing gaffe that upsets someone else, that person has “dropped a clanger.” For example, if you offer your seat to a pregnant woman on the subway and she tells you she’s not actually pregnant, you may have dropped a clanger.

  1. “Horses for courses”

This phrase essentially means different people like or are made for different things.

Know of other great British idioms that we missed? Send them to

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