Tag Archives: idioms

UK 101–Slang, Trivia, History & more

In this post, I’m going to tackle everything you ever/never wanted to know about the UK.

My dad called me last weekend to let me know that he is going off to the UK for a few months for work.  First of all, jealous!  Second of all, as my Dad is not quite the anglophile that I am, I thought it might be nice to supply him with some basic knowledge about the country he is going to call home (albeit temporarily). With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee getting into swing and the Olympics less than two months away, I’m guessing there are lots of people traveling to the UK who may not have been there before. So this is my basic primer on all things British, gleaned from college courses, living there for a short time, and lots and lots of TV.

Basic Facts- you will be mocked and/or condescended to if you do not know these! Ask your stupid questions now, before you go.

What is the United Kingdom? What is Great Britain? Who is British, who is English?

The United Kingdom refers to the countries under the British Crown, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Do not make the mistake of thinking the Republic of Ireland is a part of this.

Great Britain, on the other hand, is just the island containing Scotland, Wales, and England.  The British Isles refers to all of these lands, plus other small islands like the Shetlands to the North and the Channel Islands.

So someone is British if they come from the Island of Britain, though they probably usually prefer to be called Scottish if they’re Scottish, English if they’re English, etc. Someone is only English if they are from England.

Government: There is a royal family, headed by Queen Elizabeth the II. We all know that.  But they don’t really do a lot of governing anymore. There is also Parliament, which contains the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  The House of Lords consists of men who have inherited seats, part of the nobility.  Their powers have diminished over the last century or two, and there is some talk of getting rid of that house entirely.  Most of the powerful figures are in the House of Commons, meaning they were elected democratically.  The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that is in the majority. The 2nd most important man (or woman, I guess) would be the Chanceller of the Exchequer, similar to our Treasury Secretary.

Big Ben is the bell, not the clock or the clock tower! Just the bell.

They drive on the left side of the road, and the left side of the car.  Before walking across a zebra crossing (crosswalk), look RIGHT.

Money: The UK money system is Pound Sterling. There are coins: 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, a 1 pound coin and a 2 pound coin.  FYI: pence is just the term for multiple pennies. Paper money starts at 5 pounds and also includes 10, 20, and 50 pound notes.  Carry a coin purse.  You will need it.  If you’re like me, you will end up with tons of stupid 2 pence pieces.  A quid is slang for a pound. Credit Cards are accepted in most places, with the exception of outdoor markets and stalls.

A lot of pronunciation cuts out the middle syllables of words. A quick pronunciation guide:

The River Thames is pronounced Tems, Rhymes with Gems.

Edinburgh, Scotland is pronounced Ed-in-burr-a

Words, usually place/county names like Worcestershire, Leicester, Gloucester, etc. leave out the middle syllable. They are pronounced Worstershire (or Woostershire), Lester, Glowster, etc.

schedule is pronounced shedule

Z is pronounced Zed.  Always.

Okay, lets get to some specifics:

First things first, some notes about Traveling:

1-I would hope most travelers would know this, but if not, your American appliances will not work with British plugs.  You need to buy adapters before you go.  Don’t bother bringing hairdryers or anything that produces heat. Buy them there if you’re staying a while. They have the highest chance of overheating a circuit, even with an adapter.

2-Getting Around:

In London: There are several options.  Unless you’re moving furniture, skip the car. You have to pay congestion charges to drive into the city, and it’s generally quite slow.  Taxis are expensive, so only take them if you really need to.  The majority of the time, the tube (also called the Underground, what we would call the Subway) is your best bet.  Get an Oyster card. You can usually get a week pass or a day pass, or you can put a set amount of money on it.  Much easier than buying individual tickets. If you’re a student or over 60, you can get a discount card.  The Oyster card will work on the Tube and the London buses, so it’s well worth it.  The tube is inexpensive, clean, and very reliable.  Compared to the NYC subway, it’s spectacular. Use it. Buses are also very clean and great for shorter trips that aren’t convenient on the tube.  But another note, Walk! London is a walking city.  Don’t take the tube everywhere.

Elsewhere: I tried to do as much traveling as possible while I was in England, and hope others will do the same. It’s not just London. The rest is vastly different.  And you can get almost anywhere in the country by railroad.  Major stations include Waterloo, Paddington, and King’s Cross.  Head to one of those for a day trip to places like Oxford, Brighton, York, Liverpool, and see a different side of the country.

Internationally: If you’re staying in the UK for any length of time, consider a trip abroad.  There are ridiculously cheap flights and tour groups. You can catch the Eurostar to Paris in just a few hours, or hop a ferry to Dublin for a weekend.  Amsterdam and Belgium are similarly close.  Research on cheap airfare, some of the airlines offer great deals and then charge an arm and a leg by the time you get there.  Also, there are strict weight limits and fees for baggage, so inquire ahead of time.

Living: If you’re going to be spending some time in the UK, here’s some essential info.

TV licenses-because a lot of British TV is subsidized by the government, you have to pay tax for your TV, based on its size.  Even if you just have a computer and watch online, you are supposed to pay tax for the privilege.  The BBC creates a lot of great programming, so it’s (arguably) worth it, but be aware.

Another note about TV: They are sometimes a season or more behind on shows of ours that have made the jump.  So be careful not to spoil it for them if you are ahead.

Baking Ingredients are measured by weight, not volume. You may have to invest in a scale and a different recipe book.  Or bring one of the American measuring cups and your own recipes.

Electric sockets have on/off switches.  I looked like a proper idiot when I couldn’t work the oven in our dorm because the switch was turned off.

Stoplights go from red  to yellow  to green  to yellow back to red, but I advise getting your butt out of the street well before green.

Stores that claim to be 24 hours (I’m looking at you, Sainsbury’s on Finchley Road) might be lying to you.  That particular shop was, if I recall, open 24 hours per day on Monday and Tuesday, Closed at 9 or 10 Wednesday-Saturday, and closed at FIVE on Sunday.  Double check the hours.

Public bathrooms: Some require money to enter. Carry change.

Some random trivia:

The City of London vs Greater London–The City refers to the part of London (1 square mile) that contained all of London back in the Middle Ages. “The City” is now the home of the financial district, and bankers and financial employees are often referred to as City Boys (or Girls, I suppose). Greater London refers to the entire metropolis.  A lot of tourists spend time in Westminster, which is a different part of London, where the Houses of Parliament are located.

London Bridge:

This IS NOT IT.  This is the Tower Bridge. Easy to remember as it is right next to the Tower of London.

College vs University-Oxford is one University, made up of tons of small colleges. Each has its own dorms, dining hall, etc. You are admitted to a college within a university.

Public school in the UK is what we would call private school or prep school here.  It originally meant open to anyone in the public who could pay, even if they were not local to that area.

Clothing and Shoe sizes-

For Women’s Clothing: Add 1-2 sizes to get your UK size.  So a size 8 US is a 10 or 12 there.

For Men’s Clothing: This tends to be about the same, as it is measured in inches.

For Shoes: A Size 8 women’s shoe in the US is a 5 1/2 in the UK. 8.5 US is 6 in UK sizing, and so on. For Men, inexplicably, it is very different. a Men’s 10 is a 9.5 in the UK, a 12 is an 11.5, etc.

Slang :  Some of these are slang and some just have VASTLY different meanings in UK vernacular. This is by no means comprehensive. Consult Wikipedia for a much longer list.

UK word-     our word/definition


Crisps-Potato Chips

Chips-French Fries (these two are important to keep separate if you want to eat what you think you ordered!)



Crumpet-English muffin

Pudding-Any dessert

Shopping, Around town:


Trousers-What we would call pants or slacks (again, these two are important to keep separate!)


Chemist-Pharmacist/Drug Store

Trainers-Tennis shoes

Homes & Cars:


Toilet or WC-what we would call a 1/2 bath.

Lift- Elevator


Mobile-Cell Phone


Bonnet-hood of a car


Hire-Rent (a flat, a car)




Hoover-Vacuum (the noun and the verb), i.e. I haven’t hoovered in a while, the place is a mess.



Barrister, Solicitor–We would call both of these lawyers in the US, though they do quite different jobs in the UK.  To oversimplify, Barristers argue criminal cases and solicitors are more likely to handle ‘family law’ such as wills and estates.

Fringe-what we call bangs.

Bang-have sex with


Cheers-this is an idiom used to say thank you or as a way of saying goodbye.

Sick vs Ill:  In the UK, if you say you were/are sick, that means vomiting.  Ill is the correct term for a cold, etc.

fancy dress- usually applies to parties, this means costumes, not tuxedos. Unless you go as James Bond.

full stop- period (as in the punctuation mark).  When describing web sites, they say www full stop wordpress full stop com

Restroom-break room, a room where one rests

Words you didn’t know were vulgar in the UK:

bum, bent, fanny, bugger, knob, bell end–I wont define these here, but do not use them in the American context.  They do not mean the same thing!


I know I am missing tons of stuff, but it’s hard to think of the things I already know that other people might not.  Suggestions?  What have I gotten wrong/left out?