Think just because you’re both speaking English you’re speaking the same language? Think again. Idioms, turns of phrase, and figures of speech all differ between different dialects of English, and the UK is home to over 40. Here are several common differences between British English and American English that you might not expect, and might save you from tripping up and being misunderstood.
If a British person says to you: “You all right?” or “You okay?”
This one might seem obvious, but it takes some getting used to. Instead of America’s standard “Hihowareyou”, British people tend to dispense with the greeting and get straight to the question.
The ideal response to this, no matter what’s going on in your life, is “Yeah, good thanks”, even to the point where British people will respond to “How’s it going?” with “Yeah!”. How’s it going? Yes. It is going. Don’t get tripped up—no one actually cares how you are; it’s just the opening salvo of communication.
Still, you never quite shake the feeling that you’re doing something alarming. “You all right?” “God, I thought so. Do I have something on my face? Am I bleeding?”
If a British person says to you: “How are you getting on with __?”
If this is someone you know personally, what it means is “I’m worried about this aspect of your life.” “How are you getting on with the new job?” means “are you fired yet?”
If this is your boss, it means “Where the heck is this, I needed it yesterday!” “How are you getting on with those TPS reports?” doesn’t invite the response “Great! Thanks!” What they’re looking for is a specific timeframe for when those reports are going to be on their desk, preferably ASAP.
If a British person says to you: “Are we happy?”
This is not an existential rumination on the nature of contentment and the possibility of ever truly experiencing joy. Instead, it’s a way of assessing whether a job has been done to everyone’s satisfaction. “I’m happy with that” doesn’t actually mean the person is pleased, it means they’ve done a job well enough to move on. Therefore “are we happy?” means not “is it perfect”, but “have we finished? Can we move on?”
If a British person says to you: “I’ll take that”
It means “I cannot believe you just said that to me, but I’ve decided not to be mad about it.” That’s British, translated!
In British culture, being surprised is a sign of weakness. Staying dry, detached, and somewhat ironic is the way to maintain control of a situation or a conversation.
So, if you describe someone in a way they weren’t expecting, especially if it’s a compliment, you usually won’t get a “thank you” or a considered response.
But you will get “I’ll take that”, as though they’re relieving you of a bag of groceries, or an awkward homemade gift, like a misshapen pinch pot from a ceramics class. It means they’re pleased, but confused.
For our final lightning round, here are some insults that don’t sound like insults, but are in fact meant to be insulting:
“On your bike!”
Essentially, take a hike! I always think it’s somewhat quaint and romantic, like a village milkman from the 1930’s getting on his bicycle to do the daily rounds. It’s not meant that way at all, though.
Do what? Just one? No one has adequately explained the meaning of this phrase to me, although I’m certain it’s vulgar. It’s charmingly vague, but, again, not really meant to be charming in the slightest.
The idea of actually getting mad when someone calls you a tart is unthinkable to me, especially in a country that makes such liberal use of the c-word, but although it might conjure up visions of life in the Great British Bake-Off tent, it’s a genuine insult. Try not to laugh, it’ll only make it worse.
Have you found slang in your host country that took some getting used to? Sign up for free, and join the conversation! Let’s have some fun, eh?
by: Katie Bergen