The British have unique ways of saying things. So if you’re not as familiar with the Queen’s English (though I doubt whether she would ever use slang), here is a list of some words and phrases that you might come across on the other side of the pond.
Chav: A chav is a derogatory term referring to a person who comes from a low socio-economic background, has little or no education past secondary school (i.e., zero GCSEs) and wears knock-off designer labels such as Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Chavs are also big into their bling, so if it shines, sparkles or glitters, then you can bet they’ll be wearing it, and lots of it.
Innit: This literally translates as, “is it not?” and is part of the vernacular of mainly youths (pronounced “youfs”). It is generally used at the end of a sentence such as, “it’s like that, innit?” It can also be used to agree with what a person is saying such as, “innit bruv” (bruv meaning brother). The term originates from chav subculture and is used by youths from all backgrounds in North London.
Up the duff: This is a phrase used to refer to a girl who is pregnant. She can also be referred to as a “duffer”. The word was first printed in 1941 in John Baker’s Dictionary of Australian Slang. While the term “duff’” itself isn’t widely used in the English language, the phrase originally came from another word altogether – pudding (which was used to refer to a man’s genitals).
Gooseberry: This term refers to being in that awkward “third wheel” position. It originates from the term, “playing gooseberry”. To use it in a sentence, you (being the person coming between a couple) would say, “if you two are going to kiss and cuddle on the sofa all night making me feel like a gooseberry, then I’m off to the pub.” Nobody likes being the gooseberry.
Fit: Contrary to what you might think, this term has nothing to do with fitness. This is a compliment that a male might give to a female (maybe not to her face) if he finds her attractive. It might be used in a context where he is speaking to his mates and will say, “that bird (girl) is well fit.” While it is not as common, girls could use this to describe a man but it might sound more like, “he’s a fittie” (and that’s not a 50-dollar bill they’re talking about). Another unique way for a man to pay a compliment to a woman is to call her a “sort”.
Tosser/Wanker: If you hear one of these terms lobbed at you, then you’ve just been insulted and you’re most likely a male. To “toss” or “wank” is a slang term for male masturbation. The less offensive term of the two is a tosser, which might be used if someone acted like a jerk. In this case they would say, “he’s a tosser.”
Carpeted: This term is more commonly used by the middle and upper classes, so you’re more likely to hear it if you’re at an equestrian event in Greenwich rather than a West Ham versus Tottenham Spurs football match. Basically, it’s used to describe how drunk you got at the races or at yesterday’s polo match — you take a noun, such as carpet, and make it into a verb to say, “I got so carpeted last night” instead of saying you got trashed or wasted.
Tout: This is what we in Canada would call a scalper. If you happen to be in or near the Olympic grounds, you might see some of these chaps in operation. Like at home, they are usually found selling tickets for sporting or entertainment events at a higher price than face value. Visitors to London should also be aware of taxi touts, which are illegal taxicab operations that target travellers — taking their luggage and charging them exorbitant fees upon arrival at their destination.
Quid: A quid literally means one pound sterling similar to how a buck means one dollar. The term is believed to have originally come from the Latin phrase quid pro quo which means “something for something”. The pound is the world’s oldest currency still in use, dating back to the mid-eighth century during the reign of King Offa of Mercia. Other English slang for money is “squid” or “dosh”.
Cockney rhyming slang: This is the dialect of true east-enders who were born between the Bow Bells in East London, close to where the Olympic stadium is situated. Cockney rhyming slang was first used around the mid-nineteenth century and is still spoken on the mean streets of East London today – there’s even the choice at an ATM in Hackney between English or Cockney!
The way rhyming slang is formed is usually by taking a common word or words such as, ‘apples and pears’ to mean the word that is actually being referred to, which in this case is ‘stairs’. That way, it is elusive to those who aren’t in the know (back in the day, this might have been the police). So here are some other examples so you can get the hang of it (keeping in mind Cockney rhyming slang is like English itself where hard and fast rules don’t always apply!). ‘Trouble and strife’ means the wife; ‘The baked bean’ is the Queen; ‘Syrup of figs’ is a wig; and ‘she’s all sixes and sevens’ means she’s crazy.
So if you find yourself at one of the many east-end markets on the weekend, drop by a costermonger ‘s (fruit and vegetable merchant) stall and have an ear.
This list is merely the tip of the iceberg given the development of the English language over hundreds of years and plethora of regional dialects on this tiny little island. So if I’ve left a few off the list, then I leave it up to you to translate.
Until next time, cheerio chaps!
Sarah Lysecki is a freelance journalist based in London, UK, where she has written for Cosmetic News Weekly and Cosmetics International. She has also contributed to Economist Intelligence Unit, ITBusiness.ca, and Foodnetwork.ca. She is currently in a very happy relationship with a dandy of an English gent.