Do you have a hard time understanding British people?
Maybe younger British people especially?
If so, you are not alone.
Being British, I learned this the hard way.
When I was 19, I was sharing a living space in Australia with four Americans and one Canadian.
I assumed that communication would be no problem! I was wrong.
At first, they thought I was Australian because of my “strange British accent.” (I don’t speak like the Queen of England.)
After a few weeks of living together, they finally told me that they could barely understand me sometimes.
“For a start,” one guy said, “What is a butty?” (Where I come from, this is a sandwich.)
It turned out that not only my accent, but also my British slang made our communication difficult.
Language is always changing, and new words are often added. A lot of the time, these words are slang. Slang is informal or casual language and is commonly used, particularly by teenagers and young people. Certain areas may have their own slang words that are not used in other areas where the same language is spoken.
Slang from the UK (United Kingdom, or Britain) is significantly different from American slang. English learners worldwide tend to be more familiar with American slang, just because American popular culture is so widespread.
American music, Hollywood films and American sitcoms can often be seen in other countries. When British television shows are sold to America, they are often remade to make them more understandable to American audiences.
It is no wonder that American English tends to be more understood.
So if even native English speakers (like Americans) find it hard to understand British slang, how can English learners hope to understand it?
How to Learn UK Slang
Exposure (seeing and hearing the language) is the key to learning British slang. You may have to look a little harder, but there are plenty of sources out there.
The problem with slang is that it is always changing and there are trends (like fashions or styles with clothes). A word that was commonly used in the ’80s or ’90s may sound dated (out of place) today. So when you look for slang, it is good to try to find recent examples.
Comedy is always a good place to look, as comedians like to play with words.
“The Inbetweeners” is a popular British comedy show about a group of teenage boys that uses a lot of casual language.
For the same reason, slang appears often in British music, especially in pop, rap and hip hop. Dizzee Rascal is a famous British rapper who uses a lot of modern slang in his music.
There are also some helpful podcasts that you can listen to for more examples of how to use slang in conversation.
When you are finished looking through all of these, you can check your knowledge of both British and American teen slang with this quiz.
To watch videos of different kinds of spoken English from all over the world, you can check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world English videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Every video comes with clickable subtitles, flashcards and fun quizzes so you learn new words while you watch.
You can even type the specific UK slang words from our article into the FluentU search bar, and you’ll see videos that have the word. It’s a great way to hear UK slang words in natural contexts, the way British English speakers really use them. For example, here’s a video where you’ll hear the word cuppa (more on that word below!).
To watch that video and the full FluentU video library with all the learning features, sign up for a free FluentU trial.
The English Learner’s Guide to UK Slang: 18 Must-know British Words for Casual Use
Below are some slang words to get you started. Because slang is casual language, some of these might not be appropriate for younger learners. Also, some words that are fine to use in Britain may be considered offensive in other places! We will explain all of that, though. Have fun learning!
When someone is chuffed, they are very pleased or happy about something.
“I’m absolutely chuffed with my birthday present. Thanks!”
Knackered (or sometimes “ready for the knackers yard”) means that someone is extremely tired. This comes from “knacker,” which is an older word. It refers to a person who slaughters old worn-out horses who can no longer work.
“I’ve been up half of the night with the baby. I’m totally knackered.”
“Bants” is an abbreviation (shortened version) of “banter.” “Banter” means to joke or to exchange witty (quick and fun) remarks with others.
“I’m going to Nando’s for some bants with the lads.”
When someone is cheeky, it means that they are being a little rude or disrespectful, but usually in a way that is funny and endearing (cute).
“That is a cheeky smile…are you up to something?”
“Did you just take the last biscuit? That was a bit cheeky!”
It can also be used if you are eating, drinking or doing something that you maybe should not or that is not good for you.
“I’m just going to have a cheeky burger on the way home.”
“Are you coming to the pub tonight?”
“On a Tuesday?! Well OK, just a few cheeky drinks.”
In American English, “fag” is a derogatory (insulting or mean) term for someone who is gay. In British slang, however, it just means a cigarette.
“I’m going outside for a fag.”
Cuppa comes from the phrase “cup of.” The implied (suggested) meaning is a cup of tea (because we love tea…sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason). The word “tea” is not actually needed. You only need to make it clear if it is a “cuppa” coffee or a “cuppa” something other than tea.
“Would you like a cuppa?”
“I’d love one. I’ll get the kettle on.”
You may already know that this word is the informal word for “bottom.” It also has another meaning. It is used when somebody uses or gets something from someone else without paying.
“Can I bum a fag?”
“How did you get here?”
“I bummed a lift with Tony.”
Here, “lift” means “ride.”
While in standard English a mate is a life partner, it is commonly used in Britain to mean a friend. It is also often used to address strangers in informal situations, such as in bars or on public transport. It is particularly used between men (but not always). A similar word is “pal” (which is also used in American English).
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“Hanging out with some of my mates.”
“Excuse me, mate, is anyone sitting here?”
“Hey pal, could I get a whisky and a beer please?”
This is a shortening of the word “legend.” A legend is someone who is well-known, often for doing something great or incredible. The slang word “ledge” is often an exaggeration, or used to make things and people sound more important than they really are. It can be used not only to describe a famous person, but also a friend or family member who is not famous. It is often used when the friend or family member has done something particularly good or impressive.
“That final goal was amazing, mate. You’re a ledge!”
“Thanks for the tickets, mum. What a ledge!”
The original meaning of “gut” is to remove the insides of an animal before eating it (gutting a fish, for example). It also has the meaning of being bitterly disappointed about something.
“I was gutted when I failed the exam.”
In Britain, “sherbet” is a word for a fizzy sweet or sweet powder. However, inviting someone to go to the pub for a few sherbets is not an invitation to eat sweets, but an invitation to drink a few beers. It is possible that this comes from the fizzy, frothy top on beers.
“Do you fancy a few sherbets after work tonight?”
Asking someone if they “fancy” something is a way of asking if they would like it.
A “trolly” is the word the British use for a shopping cart. However, when the noun “trolly” is turned into the adjective “trollied,” it is used to describe someone as being drunk.
“I had a few too many sherbets last night, mate. I was trollied.”
Narky is another word for moody or bad-tempered.
“She won’t speak to me. She’s been narky with me all day.”
A “fluke” is something caused by chance or luck. Something can also be described as being “flukey,” meaning that it is particularly lucky or coincidental.
“I hit the bullseye (the red target on a darts board)!”
“That was a total fluke! You wouldn’t be able to do it again.”
“I won 10 pounds on the lotto again!”
“That is so flukey!”
“Can’t be arsed” is a less polite version of “Can’t be bothered.” It is used to express that someone really does not want to or has not got the energy to do a particular thing.
“Would you like go out today?”
“Can’t be arsed. It’s Sunday. I’m not getting out of bed.”
The original meaning of this word is choking or retching (making movements and sounds like vomiting). However, it also means to desperately need or want something.
“I’m gagging for a cuppa. I haven’t had one all day!”
When something is cracking it is particularly good or excellent. People can also be described as “cracking.” For example: “He’s a cracking lad.” It can also mean to get started on something (and this meaning is also used in American speech).
Another variation is the word “cracker.” Describing a person as a “cracker” means you think they are fantastic. (But watch out! This is completely different in American slang. In the U.S., “cracker” can be an insulting term for white people from rural areas.)
“That was a cracking dinner. Compliments to the chef.”
“I have lots of Christmas presents to wrap. I’d better get cracking!”
In standard English, “bloody” usually refers to something covered in blood. In British slang, though, this is an intensifier (something that puts stress or importance on another word) and a mild expletive (swear word).
“Bloody British English is bloody confusing! Bloody hell! Why do they have so much bloody slang?”
British slang may seem confusing. It is not always the same as American slang. As you can see, the same words can mean very different things depending on whether you are talking to a Brit or an American, so be careful!
We all know improving language skills is no fluke—it takes practice. It doesn’t have to be boring, though. Just follow my advice and check out some of the clips in this article.
When you feel confident, you could always try some of your new words out on a real Brit (either in person or on the italki website).
I guarantee they will be chuffed with your efforts!
So what are you waiting for?
You’d better get cracking, mate!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "brought," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends examples and videos to you based on the words you’ve already learned. You'll have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
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