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Common British Slang You Didn’t Realize You Knew

Updated: Jul. 26, 2021

A new book offers a quintessential guide to classic, common British phrases—including their quirky history and definition.

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“Bottoms Up!”

Back when Britain ruled an empire, persuading enough young men to join the navy was no easy task. Life at sea was not attractive for a simple seaman, and there were no union representatives or lawyers on board to say, “Please stop flogging that man.” So the Navy sent so-called press gangs around to dockside pubs and bought drinks (served in pewter pots) for the unwary. The trick was that at the bottom of the pot was a coin, and on finishing the drink you automatically “took the King’s shilling,” thus you agreed to join up. As people became aware of this trap, pubs began to sell alcohol in glass bottom pots to make the coin visible. If you lifted the tankard, you could see the coin on the bottom. Hence the expression bottoms up, which continues to be used as a happy exhortation to drink. We bet you didn’t know that these other words and phrases originated in the military.

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Goody Two Shoes

In an anonymously authored eighteenth-century morality tale for children, The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, the heroine was a poor, ragged, orphan named Margery who only had one shoe. Upon being given a full pair she went around showing them off to everyone. With her two shoes, Margery tried to do as much good as possible, and consequently grew up to be comfortable, well off, and happy, proving her superiority over “such wicked Folks, who love nothing but Money, and are proud and despise the Poor, and never come to any good in the End.” From that time on, a Goody Two Shoes became a mocking reference to someone you think is too self-righteous and follows every rule. We actually love these brand new slang words. 

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POSH is an acronym for Port-Out; Starboard-Home, referring  to the preferred cabins on the long sea journey to India in the days of the Raj. Those sides of the ship suffered less heat from direct sunlight, so naturally, passengers with more money and social importance booked them. Later, the term came into more general use to describe anyone with money and a certain social background. It need hardly be said that the upper classes do not use the term posh themselves. Posh was always how the lower social classes saw both the privileged and their lifestyle, thus conveying a strange mixture of resentment, envy, and admiration. Learn some more common British phrases everyone should know.

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Baker’s Dozen

As early as the thirteenth century the British bakers’ guild introduced the practice of adding a little extra to every loaf of bread, in order to ensure they were not selling underweight—for which the punishment was severe. For the same reason, when selling bread in bulk, they added a thirteenth loaf to every 12 sold. To this day, a baker’s dozen in 13. Learn which common foods have totally different names in England.

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By Hook or By Crook

The first recorded use of this phrase is from the fourteenth century. In medieval times, the peasantry were not allowed to cut down trees, but they were permitted to gather firewood from loose or dead branches using a hook (bill-hook) or a crook (a staff with a curved end like those used by shepherds). No doubt desperate peasants often exceeded the strict use of these tools, and so the term has evolved into its current usage, meaning to achieve something by whatever means possible.

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Red Herring

We all know about the red herring in the plot of a detective novel, the misleading suggestion of a perpetrator and motive for the crime, to throw us off the scent of the real killer. Red herrings, colored by the process of salting and smoking, were a cheap food in the Middle Ages and had a particularly strong smell. The belief is that they were used to mislead hunting dogs. From this practice came the meaning of a false scent. Learn the origins of some more phrases we use all the time.

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The English author Horace Walpole coined this word in a letter written in 1754, saying he had based it on a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” He explained that the tale’s heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Serendip is another form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka. In spite of its exotic origins, the word suggests something of the happily amateur temperament of the British, which always seems to allow space for creativity to arise as if by chance. Did you know the word “serendipity” has no equivalent in other languages? Here are some more words unique to English.

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How to Speak Brit

Christopher Moore’s book is a complete guide to the language of the land of bangers and mash. Get started with these terms that have totally different meanings in England and America.