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A Quick Guide to Slang in the UK and America

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What’s the difference between UK English and US English?

Well, some words that are spelt differently but pronounced the same (e.g. colour/color, aesthetic/esthetic), some that are spelt the same but are pronounced differently (e.g. vitamin, oregano, yoghurt), and a few that mean different things entirely (e.g. pants). But apart from these examples, “proper” English spoken in the UK and in the US is generally the same.

However, when you compare slang words and phrases between the two countries, it starts to look very different. In fact, many people from the US and the UK don’t understand each other’s slang, or they use the same slang words to mean different things, which can lead to some very confusing situations!

For example, take the American idiom “for the birds”. In the US, if you say that something is for the birds, it means that it is unimportant or not worth thinking about. In the UK on the other hand, “bird” is slang for a woman. So, in the UK, if you said that something was “for the birds”, people would think you were trying to say it was only for women.

Okay, before we continue, please be careful with this next example. Although it is VERY common to hear, it is also considered rude by many people. You certainly shouldn’t use it in your English exam…!

You often hear Americans say that they are “pissed”, meaning that they are angry or annoyed. British people also use the phrase “pissed off”, which means the same thing.

However, when someone from the UK says that someone is pissed (not “pissed off”), it actually means they are drunk.

To make things even more complicated, a very popular idiom in the UK is “taking the piss.” This has two meanings: if you take the piss out of someone, it means you’re teasing them or making a joke about them, but usually in a friendly way.

But if someone angrily complains that another person is “taking the piss”, this means that they are behaving in a way that is unacceptable. For example, if you were waiting for a train that was delayed for an hour for no good reason, you’re likely to hear other travellers on the train say something like, “they’re really taking the piss now.”

And whatever you do, don’t mix up “taking ­the piss” with “taking a piss”. Saying that you need to take a piss is a fairly rude way of saying that you need to go to the bathroom. If you say that you are “taking a piss at someone” they will be very shocked!

Confused yet? Don’t worry, so are plenty of American English speakers when they come to the UK.

Here are a few other popular slang words and phrases that differ between the two countries:

Chinwag, e.g. “We had a good old chinwag”. This is British slang for having a long chat, probably with lots of gossip, and usually with someone you know well or haven’t seen for a little while. The closest equivalent in America is probably “shoot the breeze”, which means chatting to a friend about nothing very important.

Cheers. Americans and British people both say “cheers” when they are out drinking and clink their glasses together. The difference is that people from the UK also use “cheers” to mean “thank you”. In fact, British people say “cheers” all the time without noticing they’re doing it – a bit like the way they say “sorry” all the time. They often use, “OK, cheers!” to mean “Goodbye!”.

Bought the Farm, e.g. “He bought the farm last week”. This is an American expression meaning that someone has died. No one’s really sure where it comes from, but it’s particularly confusing to British English speakers because it is so similar to “bet the farm”. If you say “I wouldn’t bet the farm on it” in the UK, this means that something isn’t certain and you should be careful about taking too much of a risk to get it.

I’m Not Being Funny, But This is something you hear a lot in the UK, especially in England. If someone starts a sentence with this, you can be sure that the next thing they say is going to be either an insult, something offensive, a complaint about someone, or possibly something a bit weird. Americans don’t say this, but they do say, “With all due respect…” which means the same thing (and doesn’t mean they really respect the other person!).

What’s your favourite slang expression from the UK or the US? Let us know in the comments section below!