Posted on February 23, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics

While we may well have a few colloquialisms of our own, we can’t deny that no one does slang quite like the British. In fact, it’s been taking over for a while. A few years ago, the BBC reported that ‘slanglish’ had become ‘the ordinary way of speaking for many young people’, and some schools had even had to ban certain sayings from their classrooms. Apparently, for British kids, it was becoming “difficult to get through a sentence without saying ‘innit’”, innit.

British slang has been around since at least the 16th century – maybe even before, as it’s believed slang was often used verbally, but rarely in the written word. However, it only took one Mr William Shakespeare to come along with his Barbary Cock Pigeons and three inch fools, and Bob’s your uncle – slang was there, in black and white. The first slang dictionary – A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words – was introduced in 1859 by John Camden Hotten, explaining the difference between something that was bosh and something that was gibberish, and between the doxes and the mortes. Today, of course, words like dappy and derp are in the standard Oxford Online Dictionary.

Where Did It Come From?

So why do Brits think slang is so smashing? Slang words and ‘secret’ languages have long been a part of the British culture, and it’s something that’s stuck. Homosexuality, for example, wasn’t legalised in the United Kingdom until 1967 (much better than the USA’s 2003, but still lagging for Europe – The Netherlands gave the good old two finger salute to those laws way back in 1811), and Polari slang was commonly used within gay communities. Polari slang introduced words that are still commonly used in the UK today, including naff (poor quality, uncool), and barney (fight, argument). Slang was also used within certain industries and occupations. ‘Talking bilge’, for example, or ‘a loose cannon’, both came from sailors.

Slang Across Great Britain

Planning to use British slang during your next trip across the pond? Well, you’ll make a right dog’s dinner of it if you use the wrong words in the wrong places. Just like foods and accents, colloquialisms vary as you cross the borders, with each region proudly boasting their own slang terms. England, of course, has Cockney Rhyming Slang, originating in London’s East End. Trouble and strife (wife), dog and bone (telephone), apple and pears (stairs) and pork pies (lies) are all common sayings, although they’re often shortened. It’s not unusual to hear ‘I’m walking up the apples’, or ‘I’m telling porkies’.

If someone in Wales tells you you’re lush, keep your cool. Unlike the American meaning of lush, the Welsh version is simply short for ‘luscious’, and is used for anything from a good meal to a nice outfit. Scotland’s slang is quite unusual, and, of course, full of history. The term ‘bairn’, for example, meaning baby, is believed to have Saxon roots, and was introduced to the country during the Anglo-Saxon period. Others, like bevvy (drink) and bonnie (pretty) are thought to be related to the (Old) French terms buvee and bon respectively – reminders of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

British slang has a bit of a reputation for being a little… colorful, to say the least. But there are also some really lovely words and phrases that we could try adopting into our own vocabulary. Think something’s great? It’s the bee’s knees! Happy with something? You’re chuffed! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish my bangers and mash, and then I’m off to see a man about a dog.