English is without doubt the world’s global language. While it might trail to Mandarin and Spanish in terms of number of native speakers, English is the one language by which people of all nationalities are able to communicate.
Up to a billion people are estimated to speak English as a second language and it is widely used in business, transport, politics and tourism – helping people of many different tongues make sense of each other to carry out everyday transactions.
But visitors to the UK may notice that, while they can understand the majority of what the locals are saying, British English is full of quirky phrases whose true meaning transcends that of the individual words used – welcome to the rich and varied world of idiom!
If you want to truly ingratiate yourself with the native speakers you’ll want to get onboard with this creative brand of English – so without further ado, here are my favourite British phrases to add to your linguistic repertoire.
1. Pot, kettle, black
Short for ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, this phrase is used whenever someone is being hypocritical. This idiom originated hundreds of years ago when both copper pots and kettle were heated over fires. It apparently has Spanish origins, but then we English are great borrowers of language.
2. Bob’s your uncle
Finished by ‘and Fanny’s your aunt’, idiom doesn’t come more British than ‘Bob’s your uncle!’, said in exclamation when a result is reached. As in, “Add a slice of lemon and Bob’s your uncle!”. For variation, try ‘Robert is your mother’s brother’, with this English equivalent of ‘voila’.
3. As the actress said to the bishop
The old fashioned equivalent of ‘that’s what she said’, I love the cheekiness of this very British piece of innuendo. For those unfamiliar with either phrase, this would be used as the punchline to ‘that’s a big one’, for example. Remember to say it with a knowing smile. Oh and raised eyebrows also help.
4. A total cock up
Despite appearances, the definition of this phrase is rather more innocent than the above and it simply means to make a complete mess of something. Interchangeable with the similarly anatomical ‘balls up’, ‘cock up’ is one of our most-used phrases.
5. Taking the piss
Well, while we’re talking about cock and balls ups… ‘Taking the piss’ (to mock) is not to be confused with ‘taking a piss’ (to urinate). It’s Cockney Rhyming Slang equivalent ‘taking the Mickey/Michael’ (Mickey Bliss = piss) is another oft-used phrase.
6. Blow one’s own trumpet
This one has nothing to do with music lessons and actually means to boast about something. Can either be used to show pretend modesty when praising yourself or as a snide remark to someone else who is singing their own praises (it’s actually really hard not to use idiom!).
7. A piece of cake
Of course, asking for a piece of cake in a cafe is what you do when you’re hungry, but declaring something has been ‘a piece of cake’ means it was easy to achieve. Unlike trying to choose my favourite idioms.