Have you ever stopped to wonder where phrases such as “have a gander” come from or what they mean? There are hundreds of British sayings, idioms, and expressions used in England and Great Britain that can tell you a lot about English culture and heritage. Let’s look at a few!
Before we do, does your family have any inside phrases or expressions? Do you know where they started? Share the stories with the rest of your family using FamilySearch Memories, where you can record some of your favorite family sayings, jokes, or stories and their origins.
36 British Sayings and Their Meanings
“Chuffed to bits”
- Meaning: Very pleased
- I’m chuffed to bits about how charming this English expression is.
“Bits and bobs”
- Meaning: Various items
- One might say, “Gather your bits and bobs before you leave.”
“Throw a spanner in the works”
- Meaning: To prevent something from happening smoothly or to bring a plan to a halt
- This idiom refers to the disastrous effects of throwing a wrench into moving gears.
- Meaning: Very cold weather
- “It’s brass monkeys out here today.”
“Bob’s your uncle!”
- Meaning: “There you have it” or “ta-da!”
- This phrase is usually used to end a list of simple instructions, such as “Walk down the street, turn left, and bob’s your uncle!”
- Meaning: Feeling extremely upset or disappointed
- A chef on the Great British Bake Off might feel gutted when a dish turns out poorly.
- Meaning: Exhausted
- You might be knackered after a long day at the office.
- Meaning: Extremely tired or exhausted
- “Cream crackered” is far from literal and started being used as a rhyme of “knackered,” which also means exhausted.
“Have a gander”
- Meaning: Take a look
- Picture a male goose, or gander, craning his neck to look at something.
“Lost the plot”
- Meaning: Lost the ability to cope or behave rationally
- This unique phrase started cropping up regularly in the 1980s.
“Throw a wobbly”
- Meaning: Become very angry or throw a tantrum
- This British saying often refers to a childish and angry outburst.
- Meaning: A good chat or gossip with someone
- “Chinwag” draws on the imagery of a person’s chin wagging like a dog’s tail when talking a lot.
- Meaning: A nosey neighbor or friend
- “Curtain twitcher” originally referred to a person caught peering at their neighbors through the curtains.
“Full of beans”
- Meaning: Lively or full of energy
- This British expression could derive from the use of coffee beans to perk someone up.
- Meaning: Crammed full or crowded
- “Chockablock” often refers to a full street or shop.
“Not my cup of tea”
- Meaning: Not my favorite thing
- As one of the most common drinks in the world, with an array of flavors, tea is a fitting comparison to describe a personal preference.
“Spend a penny”
- Meaning: Use the restroom
- Public restrooms originally charged a penny for their services, thus creating this charming phrase.
“Take the biscuit”
- Meaning: Particularly bad or annoying
- “I’ve seen bad prices, but this really takes the biscuit.”
“Put a sock in it”
- Meaning: Be quiet
- This rude phrase uses the idea of sticking a sock in something loud or annoying to quiet it down.
“On your bike”
- Meaning: Go away
- Ever feel like telling someone to get lost? What better way to go than “on your bike”?
- Meaning: Nonsense
- “Codswallop, if you ask me.”
- Meaning: Tasty
- “Scrummy” could be a combination of “scrumptious” and “yummy.”
- Meaning: A clumsy patch or repair
- Think duct-taped tennis shoes or plastic-covered broken windows.
- Meaning: Crazy or daft
- Ever think your family was going barmy?
- Meaning: Stress-induced stomach pain or queasiness
- “Collywobbles” is a fun word for a not-so-fun sensation.
- Meaning: A long time
- This English idiom is an extension of “donkey’s ears,” which are long.
- Meaning: Loud, opinionated, and offensive
- As an example, “They didn’t like him because he was gobby.”
- Meaning: A contagious but not a serious illness
- “Lurgy” is thought to originate from a 1950s radio show called The Goon Show.
- Meaning: An expression of surprise
- “Blimey” is derived from “God blind me,” dating back to the 1800s.
- Meaning: Shocked
- “Gobsmacked” references clasping your face, or gob, in disbelief.
- Meaning: A confrontation over differing views
- Harry Potter gets himself into a number of kerfuffles, and the word fittingly pops up in the fifth book.
- Meaning: Athletic shoes
- Tennies, trainers, sneakers—all the same shoes, right?
- Meaning: Stake a claim
- Someone might call “bagsy the front seat” to claim the front seat before getting in a car.
- Meaning: Waste time on something unproductive
- “Faff” comes from the 17th century word “faffle,” which means to flap about in the wind—“We can’t faff around all day.”
- Meaning: A party
- Typically a lively event involving dancing, or knees up.
- Meaning: Ditch or leave early
- “Skive” is derived from the French “esquiver,” meaning “to slink away.” Kids might say they “skived off school” if they ditched school.
Now that you’ve learned these British sayings, think about the phrases used by your own family. If your family uses unique phrases or idioms, record them using FamilySearch memories to share with the rest of your family. Even if the expressions aren’t unique to your family, share why certain phrases are meaningful. A funny memory, significant tradition, or inside joke can add a layer of meaning to common sayings. Recording your stories can preserve special memories for future generations or extended family.