28 British Slang Terms You Should Know

A cob, bap, or barm—a.k.a. a bread roll.
A cob, bap, or barm—a.k.a. a bread roll.
iStock.com/RichLegg

Welcome to Britain, where the food is heavy and the slang is almost completely impenetrable. It should be easy—Britain exported the English language, after all—but there are so many regional quirks that never made it beyond the borders that things can get quite tricky for the non-locals.

If you want to know what's going on when you re-watch Harry Potter, or when you see Drake on Insta pretending to be a north London roadman, this list of words should help.

  1. Bollocks: literally, testicles. Colloquially, a general expression of annoyance or distaste.
  1. Cob: a bread roll.
  1. Bap: a bread roll.
  1. Barm: a bread roll.
  1. Kecks: a bread rol—hang on, no, trousers. It's trousers.
  1. Knackered: tired, but very. It can also mean worn-out or damaged.
  1. Bladdered: drunk. Insert any noun, add ed on the end of it, and it means "drunk" if you give it the right emphasis. The British have a lot of words for being drunk.
  1. Punter: This one has a few meanings and it's fairly important not to mix them up. It can be used to describe paying customers, usually as part of a crowd or audience, or it can be someone who's gambling (i.e. someone who's having a punt, or bet). The third meaning? A sex worker's client. Seriously, don't get them mixed up.
  1. Owt: something.
  1. Nowt: nothing.
  1. Gutted: incredibly disappointed.
  1. Bird: A woman, usually in the 18-40 age range. Except don't actually use it, because you'll sound a) like a dad and b) sexist.
  1. Peas: money.
  1. Bare: lots of, as in "man's making bare peas."
  1. Hench: muscular.
  1. Tory: a member of the British Conservative Party, used casually in a slightly demeaning way to denote a posh person.
  1. Offie: short for off-license; a shop that can sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. Similar to a liquor store, but usually has a greater variety of non-alcohol products.
  1. Tosser: a casual insult, equivalent to jerk-off.
  1. Pillock: a stupid person. Originally meant "penis," but barely anyone remembers that.
  1. Cwtch: an incredibly Welsh term for a hug (pronounced "kutch," as if it rhymes with "butch.") Specifically, a nice, cozy hug that makes you feel all warm inside, like from your nan or something.
  1. Pants: underwear, not trousers.
  1. Fiver: a five-pound note. See also: tenner, but not twentier. That would be silly.
  1. Skint: broke, no money. A distinct lack of fivers and tenners.
  1. Chuffed: very happy, for example at not being skint after a windfall of fivers and tenners.
  1. Peng: good, or (of a person) attractive. "She's a peng ting [thing]." Other British slang words for attractive include fit, lush, a sort, piff, buff, leng.
  1. Pissed: drunk. Again—a lot of words for drunk.
  1. Fancy Dress: not "dressing fancy." Kind of the opposite—if you're being invited to a fancy dress party, you're being invited to a costume party.
  1. Roadman: Generally someone from London, characterized by heavy use of London-centric slang (modern, not cockney), full matching tracksuits, expensive trainers (sneakers, in American), and hanging around outside shops on street corners.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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