Word Nerd: Quirky Phrases from British and American English

28 Nov


I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.”
Saki, The Chronicles of Clovis

In an earlier Word Nerd, we’ve discussed how accents divide us even when we speak a common language. Today, we want to talk about how idioms and phrases often do not travel across the pond. Here’s another anecdote that a British friend once told me. One of her acquaintances, an Englishman who taught Literature at university level, was visiting in-laws in a small American town. Every day he would spend some time in the local café. As a result, he got chatty with one of the waitresses. She asked him where he was from. He answered, “England.” “Well,” she complimented him, “you speak excellent English for a foreigner!”

In this spirit, we bring you distinctive phrases of British English and American English that would not be meaningful to anyone on the other side of the Atlantic. That’s no reason you shouldn’t discover, enjoy, and if you happen to travel, flaunt them!

5 phrases from British English

  • “It’s brass monkeys out” – It’s really cold outside
    How can we talk about British slang and leave out a weather reference! Apparently, the phrase means that the weather is cold enough for a brass monkey to freeze and shed its extremities.
  • “That’s pants” – That’s terrible
    Pants has different uses in the US and the UK. In the US, pants are trousers. In the UK, they are a lady’s underwear. In both countries, we think they are a good thing. But, for some reason the Brits decided to use it as a synonym for terrible.
  • “Sweet Fanny Adams” – Nothing
    It’s what you’ve been up to when you spend hours chuckling over grumpy cat memes instead of completing your Algebra assignment. We wonder if Fanny Adams was as lazy as they’d have us believe. Sexists!
  • “It’s all gone pear-shaped” – Things have gone wrong
    A fruity metaphor for lopsided, perhaps. Or, bottom heavy. And bottom, in this case, not being a very good place end up.
  • “He’s such an anorak” – He’s such a geek
    This is a common way to describe the fans of cult British show – Doctor Who. The fans show up, and who can blame their good sense, wearing anoraks (warm coats). Naturally, when you’re thinking about the next stop for the last Time Lord in the universe, you can’t be bothered with petty things like fashion.


5 phrases from American English

  • Plead the fifth” — Refuse to give self-incriminating information
    The fifth amendment allows witnesses to refuse to answer questions that will put them in a tough spot. We guess there are more legalities to it. But in the meanwhile you have a way to reply to most “Where’ve you been?” questions. So you can sound as smart as annoying.
  • “All hat and no cattle” – All talk and no action
    This phrase was made for politicians, and people who make New Year resolutions. That’s most of us.
  • “I don’t care” – I don’t have a preference
    Pizza with pineapple or jalapeno? If an American responds, “I don’t care”, it doesn’t mean he or she is being rude. It means they can go with whatever you want. Phew! (Because, hot fruit, seriously!)
  • “Shoot the breeze” – Have a casual conversation
    You don’t shoot the breeze if you’re talking about your SoP, or college majors, or scholarships. Apparently the breeze is only wounded by idle talk. Now you know.
  • “Ride shotgun” — Riding in the front passenger seat/ Watching over someone
    Possibly a phrase which originated from the Old West. It’s the best way to ride, we think. Maybe the drivers don’t agree.

Any interesting expressions you’re familiar with and would like to share with us?
Email us or leave a comment below!

Check out previous Word Nerd posts here!


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