Improving Your English

British idioms: Interesting British phrases and sayings explained

In both American and British English, idioms feature a lot, so it seems only fitting that we have a dedicated list of British idioms for you to enjoy.

Some of these British sayings are linked to each nation of the United Kingdom. Others have words that you may only ever hear in British English. All of them, however, come with easy-to-understand explanations and are used in examples to help your comprehension of things British people say.

So, whether you want to wish someone good luck or discuss the weather, we have you covered with these fun British phrases and idioms.

British phrases and idioms – from each country

When we talk about British idioms, we are usually referring to those that stem from British English as opposed to American English.

First, we’ll look at some idioms that come from or are about specific regions of the UK. If you’re confused about the difference between Great Britain, the British Isles, and the United Kingdom, this article has a great explanation.

The best of British

This is a great way to start our list of British idioms as there is a hint of sarcasm in it (something British people are renowned for!) To wish someone the best of British is to wish them good luck and all the best. However, it suggests that you don’t really think they will succeed.

“You’re going to ask the new guy out on a date! The best of British to you.”

The Scottish play

The Scottish play is a well-known way to refer to the play Macbeth in theatre circles. It’s believed that it is bad luck to mention the name of this Shakespearean play within the theatre.

“We don’t mention the M word here in the theatre. Please refer to it as the Scottish play from now on.”

There are plenty of other interesting superstitions associated with working in a theatre.

I’ll do it now in a minute 

If the above phrase makes sense to you then try reading it again! How can you do something now AND in a minute?

This popular Welsh expression is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’ll do it now in a minute is a funny way of confirming you will do something, but you’re not sure how soon you’ll do it!

“Yer, yer I heard what you said. I’ll do it now in a minute.”

Feeling brave? Then take a look at these other expressions from Wales.

What’s the Craic

British phrases and idioms may be used in all the nations but this one is most popular in Ireland. ‘The craic’ (pronounced krak) means the news, gossip or current events. So next time you meet someone from the emerald isle, instead of saying ‘How are you’, or ‘What’s happening’, try using What’s the craic?

“Well it’s Friday night and I have nothing planned for tomorrow so what’s the craic?”

Luck of the Irish

You’ll normally hear people wishing you the luck of the Irish around St. Patrick’s days or perhaps when teams linked with Ireland are playing sports. It’s used when you wish to express that someone has been experiencing extremely good luck.

“I can’t believe he scored three goals. He really has the luck of the Irish sometimes.”

This saying isn’t as positive as you may think. Or, in fact, even Irish! The saying has an outdated meaning.

British idioms and sayings that use British English

Next we have some British phrases and idioms which are not associated with any particular part of the UK, but are generally not heard in other English-speaking countries. In other words, these are things British people say that could be confusing to anyone else in the world!

Chuffed to bits

Sometimes it must feel like British English and American English are completely different languages. This is one of the British idioms and phrases that would confuse most other English speakers, including Americans. If you’re chuffed to bits you’re very pleased, happy and perhaps even excited about something.

“We are delighted to announce we are expecting a new baby in September and we’re all chuffed to bits.”

Discover some more idioms about happiness and excitement.

Bits and bobs

Out of all of the British phrases and idioms, this is the ONE to learn! This is a very useful term. If you can’t quite remember the vocabulary you need then simply say bits and bobs. It’s a general term for small items, things, objects or even small jobs.

“I’m just packing the suitcase for the trip. What bits and bobs would you like to add?”
“I need to do a few bits and bobs around the house before we go out.”

This is the same as the more widely-used term odds and ends.

Throw a spanner in the works

A spanner (or a wrench, in American English) is a small tool used to fix things. However, if you throw a spanner in the works you disrupt a plan or activity or cause it to fail.

“Ok, I did not expect that to happen. To be honest, it’s thrown a bit of a spanner in the works!”
“I was planning a quiet weekend by myself, but my mother has thrown a spanner in the works by saying she wants to visit.”

The American version of this British saying is throw a wrench in the works.

Brass monkeys

Believe it or not, this isn’t an animal idiom but in fact weather-related. If the weather is extremely cold we could describe it as brass monkeys.

“You can’t go for a run this morning. It’s brass moneys out there!”

The origins of this British saying are said to be from the ships of yesteryear, with the whole expression being ‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. What do you think?

Full of beans

In British English, someone who is full of beans is very active and energetic. This British idiom is more often used to describe a child than an adult.

“The kids are full of beans this morning, I’m going to take them to the park.”

Be careful, because as an American idiom this describes someone who is talking nonsense.

Bob’s your uncle!

Who is Bob? Is he your uncle? Perhaps we’ll never know! What we do know is that Bob’s your uncle is a common idiom in Britain, basically saying ‘there you are’, ‘here you have it’, ‘ta da’ or ‘voilà’.

“So, all I did was follow the recipe and Bob’s your uncle, here’s the cake.”

Builder’s tea

Do builders like to drink their tea particularly strong? Perhaps, because a builder’s tea is a mug of strongly-brewed tea. With milk, of course, as that’s the way Brits usually drink it.

“I’ll take my tea any way it’s served to me, but you can’t beat a good old builder’s tea.”

Have a gander

There is no way you’d be able to figure out what this idiom means, so let us help you. Have a gander is a very informal way of asking someone to take a look, have a peek or check something out.

“Derick, come over here and have a gander at what this guy’s wearing!”

British idioms certainly are interesting. There is a similar saying, have a butchers, which means the same (take a look at something). This phrase is from cockney rhyming slang; the full saying is ‘have a butcher’s hook’, which rhymes with ‘look’.

Read more: Funny English idioms

Spend a penny

Saying you need to spend a penny is a polite way of saying you need to go to the toilet. This euphemism is more often used by women than men, and it’s one of the British sayings that is not used so much by younger generations.

“Would you excuse me for a moment please, I need to spend a penny.”

Throw a wobbly

‘Wobbly’ is a quality that usually describes jelly (or Jello), as it jiggles back and forth.

But to throw a wobbly would mean to become upset, noisy or uncontrollably angry in a childish manner. There’s a jokey feel to this expression, as it hints at an overreaction to a trivial situation.

“Everyone calm down. There’s no need to throw a wobbly over a broken printer.”

For other ways to talk about situations like this, check out some anger idioms too.

Curtain twitcher

In the UK it’s very common for people to have net curtains or blinds with curtains behind them. This may make it hard for people to see into the house, but it’s also where this top saying comes from.

In order for a nosy person to see what is happening on their street or to keep an eye on their neighbors, they have to slightly move the curtains back to look out of the window. This movement looks like a twitch – a short or a sudden pull.

“I can see Betty at the window right now peeking at us. She is such a curtain twitcher.”

Don’t confuse curtain twitcher with other British phrases and idioms like ‘twitcher’. A twitcher is a birdwatcher; a person whose hobby is spotting birds.

All over the shop

This is not a shopping idiom, as it may sound, but it actually refers to someone or something being disorganized or physically scattered about.

“How can you ever find the tool you need when they are all over the shop like that?”
“Kasey has been all over the shop since having a baby.”

Not my cup of tea

Here’s something that British people say when they want to be polite about not liking something. By describing something as not your cup of tea, you’re just expressing that the thing in question isn’t something you like.

“I know it’s a popular movie, but vampire films just aren’t my cup of tea.”

Most people know about the British love affair with all things tea-related. Hence, there is an extensive list of tea idioms to enjoy.

After all these fun British idioms you’ll be able to hold your own in conversation. Did you manage to guess the meaning of any of them? Which ones took you by surprise? Let us know and be sure to keep an eye and ear out for idiom usage during your next conversation.

You can also read our guide to different words in British and American English, if you want to be aware of more variations in vocabulary.

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