An expat’s guide to British English
Do you think British English is just like international English? Think again. Here are my top tips for understanding the Brits.
I moved to London a few years ago, and didn’t think the language would be an issue. I grew up in Sweden, where everyone learns English early on, and I had worked in English with international colleagues for several years in different countries.
I soon learned, however, that my international English had not prepared me enough for the Brits. It turned out those expressions picked up from American TV shows didn’t work, so I had to learn some new ones and brush up on the cultural references (and get used to accents from all over the UK).
Here are some British expressions that I’ve picked up so far, and that you often hear in the workplace. They’ll come in handy if you’re an expat who’s just moved to Britain, or if you’re dealing with British colleagues anywhere in the world.
Ping, whizz, and blitz
Are you used to sending emails and going through presentations? That won’t get you far on this side of the Channel.
No, here you “ping over” emails, or “pop someone a line”, and you “whizz” or even “blitz” through slides (I know, it’s quite surprising they use that German word, given their history).
Whistlestop tour of a dog’s dinner
Need to go through a presentation fast? Then you do a “whistlestop tour”. And if a project is messy, it’s not just complicated, it’s a “dog’s dinner”.
First draft of something? That’s called “having a stab at it” around here. Oh, and you don’t simply continue to work on it, you either “crack on”, or “get on with it”.
Top, hop and pop
Have you been “recharging”, “refilling”, and “visiting” until now? That’s all fine, if you want to sound like a boring dictionary.
If you want to sound like a proper Brit, you “top up” whether it’s a payment card or a drink, you “hop on” a bus or “hop in” to a car, and you “pop over” when you visit someone.
The more you can combine with “top”, “hop” and “pop”, the better.
Polite words and gifts
Is someone’s idea totally rubbish? Suggest to “consider other options”, as this handy table explains. Be less direct than what you’re used to, and neatly weave in what you wish to say with polite words.
If you’re for example trying to get across “that’s your job, you need to do it”, there’s the lovely British phrase “that’s within your gift”.
Short, snappy slogans
Preparing slides for an important meeting? If you’re from Italy or other Southern European countries, you’re probably used to cramming in more words than necessary.
With the Brits, on the other hand, you need to come up with a slogan containing exactly three items. They use it for everything around here, from terrorism to Covid-19.
“See it, say it, sorted” is for spotting potential bombers on the Tube, while “Hands, face, space” and “Catch it, bin it, kill it”, are the nation’s pandemic instructions. And how does the UK government address restarting the economy after Covid? Three words, of course, “Build back better”.
Fancy a cuppa or a cheeky pint?
Do you wish to get to know that new colleague? They’re probably tea drinkers, so ask them “fancy a cuppa?” and get acquainted over a brew.
If it’s Friday afternoon, invite them for a drink after work, and ask what their “tipple” is — that’s British for “favourite drink”. If it isn’t quite Friday yet, you can always go for a “cheeky pint”.
So how do you get ready for British English? It’s simple, stop watching American TV shows and start watching British ones.
The Crown, Downton Abbey and Bridgerton will give you some posh phrases to repeat in that important meeting. But then you need to dig deeper, especially for a drink after work.
Go easy on the crime dramas where they stand above a corpse and mutter “what you reckon, guv?”, as you’ll just pick up useless police slang (plus, I still haven’t heard anyone call their boss "guv”).
You should rather watch The Office UK, The Thick of It, The Inbetweeners and Fleabag to get acquainted with British humour and banter. And why not add a cheeky Love Island episode to the list, while you’re at it.
It will take some time to get a proper grip of British expressions, but these tips will already get you far. When applied properly, you’ll fit right in with your British colleagues, whether it’s on a Zoom call, in the office, or, most importantly, over a pint.