15 Most Common British Phrases and Their Origins

Westminster Underground Station sign next to Big Ben Clock Tower

Every English-speaking country has its own peculiar way of expressing the English language. Americans love to spend their time “chilling,” Australians enjoy grilling shrimps on the “barbie,” and Canadians put on a “toque” when it gets cold. But what about common British phrases?

Even though British English is often considered the “standard” form of the language, it has its own brand of funny British phrases and unique British idioms. While some of these British colloquial phrases evolved over the centuries, others were added to the common vernacular quite recently. In any case, let’s take a look at some of the most common British phrases and their origins:

The Most Common British Phrases and Their Origins

“Hat trick”

Though this term is most commonly used in reference to three goals made by one team in a soccer match, a “hat trick” can actually refer to three of anything. The term originally came from the game of cricket, in which a bowler has taken three wickets with three consecutive balls. When this happened, the bowler was traditionally presented with a hat.

Example Sentence: If he can score this goal, he will achieve the first hat trick of his career.

“Chuffed to bits”

“Chuffed” simply means “pleased” or “happy” in the UK. In British English, “to bits” can be combined with certain adjectives for added emphasis. Thus, “chuffed to bits” generally means that someone is “very pleased.” The origins of “chuffed” are unclear, though it has been used in England as far back as the 16th century.

Example Sentence: I finally passed my driving exam! I’m chuffed to bits!

“Gutted”

“Gutted” refers to strong negative emotions. The closest synonyms are “devastated” or “grief-stricken.” The term has been used in British English for centuries, though it originally referred to a person having their stomach cut open with a knife or sword.

Example Sentence: Timothy was absolutely gutted when his girlfriend broke up with him.

“Knackered”

“Knackered” means “extremely tired.” This term comes from the verb “knacker,” which means “to make tired” or “tire out.” However, the term once referred to people who bought worn-out animals. Nowadays, “knackered” is one of the most common ways to express sheer exhaustion.

Example Sentence: I had to work a double shift today. I’m completely knackered.

“Chinwag”

A “chinwag” is just a casual conversation. If you break down the word, it actually makes sense. Your chin moves when you speak, and the word “wag” is a synonym for “shake.” In any case, “chinwag” has likely been used in England since the Victorian Era.

Example Sentence: I haven’t seen my friend for months, so we had a little chinwag this morning.

“Take the biscuit”

“Take the biscuit” is one of those British idioms that is best understood in context. It generally refers to something that has worsened or become annoying. Sailors began using the term as far back as the 18th century, when “taking the biscuit” referred to running out of food on a ship.

Example Sentence: I’ve had a pretty bad day so far, but getting this flat tire really takes the biscuit.

“Bog”

Though a “bog” can refer to a kind of swamp, it usually means “toilet” in British English. The word evolved from “bog-house” (a kind of outdoor bathroom), which itself derived from the Old English term, “boggard.” Despite its many variations over the years, “bog” has likely been in use for centuries.

Example Sentence: I need to stop by the bog before we go.

“Boot”

The word “boot” refers to the trunk or rear compartment of a car. In the time before cars, carriage drivers had to store their boots and tools in a special compartment under their feet. This was often referred to as the boot locker and later shortened to “boot.” Even once carriages became a thing of the past, the term “boot” stuck around.

Example Sentence: There are some extra blankets in the boot.

“Rubbish”

Though “rubbish” literally means “garbage” or “trash,” it can also be used as a criticism. Calling something “rubbish” is much like calling it “ridiculous” or “nonsensical.” The term first came about in Late Middle English, though it was borrowed from a similar word in French.

Example Sentence: He said that he didn’t take my pencil, but I think it’s utter rubbish.

“Dodgy”

“Dodgy” is very similar to the phrase “sketchy” in American English. Both terms refer to something that is wrong, illegal, or somehow disingenuous. The origins of “dodgy” are unclear, though it has been in use since the mid-19th century.

Example Sentence: There’s something a bit dodgy about the whole situation.

“Posh”

“Posh” is an adjective to describe someone or something from the upper classes. It is usually seen as a derogatory term. Though the origins of the word are disputed, many believe that “posh” is an acronym of the phrase “Port Out, Starboard Home.” This phrase refers to the best sides of the ship chosen by rich passengers (portside on the initial journey and starboard on the return trip).

Example Sentence: She’s living in a posh apartment downtown.

“Proper”

In most forms of English, “proper” refers to the “correct” way of doing something. However, in British slang, “proper” is frequently used in place of “very.” This is most commonly heard in the north of England, however, the exact origins of its usage are unknown.

Example Sentence: You’ve done a proper good job this time.

“Taking the piss”

“Taking the piss” is a pejorative (negative) term for acting unreasonably or joking at the expense of someone else. For example, you might hear this phrase if a person is annoyed about being mocked or teased by someone else. The term comes from a similar expression: “piss-proud.” Thus, “taking the piss” is synonymous with taking someone’s pride away.

Example Sentence: Are you being serious or are you just taking the piss?

“A load of tosh”

“A load of tosh” is very similar to saying “a lot of nonsense.” It is generally used as a criticism of a false, misleading, or annoying statement. It originated from the term “toshers,” which referred to Londoners who would go into the sewers in search of valuable items. These people would search through “tosh” (or garbage), leading to the term heard throughout the UK today.

Example Sentence: The ref said that the goal didn’t count. What a load of tosh!

“Tickety-boo”

“Tickety-boo” is another way to say “good” or “fine.” It is one of many funny British phrases that are more popular among older British generations. Nonetheless, it can still be heard throughout much of London and the rest of the country. “Tickety-boo” has been around since the early 20th century and is believed to have come from a Hindi phrase meaning, “It’s all right, sir.”

Example Sentence: Don’t worry. It’s all going to be tickety-boo.

If you’d like to learn more about common British phrases, visit Magoosh Speaking today!

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