10 British phrases every American study abroad student must learn

Aug 12, 2015 7:15:00 PM

You might think studying abroad in the UK would be a bit like climbing into a TARDIS, and clamouring about while the Doctor tries to get you to class on time.

That’s not exactly right, but you’d be surprised how turned around you can get just by listening to Brits talk. Making conversation can be especially difficult when you don’t have an understanding of the local vernacular.

If you’re thinking about studying in the UK, learn these ten phrases and listen for them on your trip. They’ll help you “mind the gap” between two totally different styles of English.

1. “I’ve dropped a clanger”

If someone has just “dropped a clanger,” things could get a bit awkward. It means they’ve made a blunder in speech, saying something inaccurate that might upset or embarrass someone.

For example, if you tell a new friend that her boyfriend is cute, only to find out that the guy wasn’t her boyfriend, you’ve just dropped a clanger. It might be time for an apology.

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

If you hear this phrase, take notice. You’re witnessing something that hasn’t been seen in a very long time.

“Donkey’s years,” as it happens, is actually a variant rhyme of the phrase “donkey’s ears.” As you may know, a donkey’s ears can be very long, a fact that likely resulted in this funny expression.

3. “I’m chuffed to bits”

This is great news! If you’re “chuffed” it means you’re feeling happy or pleased about something. If you’re “chuffed to bits” than you’re just having a jolly good day, aren’t you, mate?

For example, “I’m chuffed that we saw the London Eye on our way to the museum — chuffed to bits!”

4. “It’s gone pear-shaped”

When things have gone wrong you will hear this phrase on plenty of occasions!

The phrase origin is still disputed, but one story that dates back to World War II in 1940 claims it was used by British RAF pilots. When attempts to perform an aerial manoeuvre such as a loop went wrong, they described it as “pear-shaped” rather than the circle it should have been.

5. “They lost the plot”

If someone has “lost the plot,” you’ll probably want to stay as far away from them as possible. It means they have lost their cool.

This phrase is used a lot in football, when a player performs poorly during a game. It can also be used to describe a player or a coach who gets in a fight. If you’re watching from the sidelines, you may want to offer the fellow some gentle encouragement.

If you’re standing near him though, you’ll probably want to get clear out of the way!

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

If you’ve put “a spanner in the works,” then you have unwittingly brought an entire plan to a halt.

A “spanner” is another word for a wrench, so you’ve basically thrown a wrench into whatever plans or processes were in order that day. For example, “We can’t take the train. Henry lost his pass and threw a spanner in the works.”

7. “Quit your whinging”

If someone tells you to “quit your whinging” then you may be annoying your new British friends. The word “whinging” refers to fretful crying or whining.

So, if someone says “Quit your whinging” to you, you may want to quiet down and try to move on.

8. “Let’s have a chin-wag”

This phrase is an invitation to talk aimlessly or gossip. A “chin-wag” is an informal conversation where you talk so fast your chin “wags” up and down as you go. 

If you hear this expression, you can join the chat to share all manner of juicy gossip.

9. “That’s manky”

If something is “manky,” it’s regarded as inferior or worthless, broken or damaged—even dirty or rotten. This phrase is used in many kinds of variations depending on where you are in the country.

In some regions, people use the word “manky” to say they are feeling under the weather, for example “I’m feeling manky tonight.” When used as an insult against someone, though, the phrase can be downright degrading. So, you may want to use the word carefully.

10. “Bob’s your uncle”

Whether you’ve got an uncle called Bob or not, Brits use this strange phrase as a way of revealing something spectacular – kind of like a magician saying “ta-da”!

Be wary though, this is a tongue-in-cheek phrase that has become more synonymous with anti-climactic things that people have done – such as revealing a burned cake from the oven!

The ultimate checklist for applying to a UK university.