Now, you may not be able to visit England during the pandemic (although there may be a virtual tour out there), but it’s still fun to try and perfect your English regardless. Understanding grammar and vocabulary is impressive enough already, but what if you brought some British English idioms into the mix? Not only will you be able to clearly express your actions, thoughts, and emotions, but you’ll thoroughly impress any native speakers you come across.
10 CLASSIC BRITISH ENGLISH IDIOMS
With that in mind, let’s walk through 10 of the most commonly used British English idioms. These run the gamut and are utilised in different scenarios depending on the context, but all are unique and hint at the vibrant history of the English language itself.
It’s worth noting, however, that these British English idioms are not as common in American English, which has some distinct differences from the British tongue.
DON’T GIVE UP THE DAY JOB
If you’re trying something that you don’t seem to be very good at, an onlooker may say, “don’t give up the day job!”. Apart from being sound financial advice, it’s meant to say that you probably couldn’t make a career off of whatever you’re doing at that moment, and should stick to your regular way of earning instead. Essentially, if someone is advised to keep their day job, it means they are an amateur.
Example: “After he failed to play Wonderwall by Oasis on his acoustic guitar at the party, we advised him not to give up his day job”.
If you know someone who likes to make people upset and claim it’s a joke, you know a “wind-up merchant”. This is equivalent to someone who likes to be controversial for the sake of being controversial, with the online equivalents known as “trolls”. The expression is a play on the fact that these individuals make a point to “wind people up”, or get them upset, just for their own enjoyment.
Example: “Steven’s smart, but he’s such a wind-up merchant; he knowingly offends us just so he can laugh at us for being upset”.
SPANNER IN THE WORKS
When some random event or person gets in the way of your plans, you’ve encountered a “spanner in the works”. The phrase refers to how the gears and other parts of a machine can be interrupted or damaged if something is thrown into them while they’re running. Not all life interruptions count as a spanner in the works, of course; it’s mainly reserved for interruptions that lead to actual issues.
Example: “Mick is usually great, but the fact that he wants to come over the same week as my parents makes him a real spanner in the works”.
TAKE THE BISCUIT
If someone or something greatly irritates you, you could say that it “takes the biscuit”, similar to how Americans say something “takes the cake”. The only difference between the two expressions, however, is that the American version is sometimes used positively, while “take the biscuit” is almost always negative.
Example: “I was mad when you didn’t do anything for the group project, but you really took the biscuit when you didn’t even show up for our presentation”.
If someone says they “over-egged” something, it means they put too much thought or effort in, causing the finished product to be worse than otherwise. While one would suspect this is about adding too many eggs to something, the “egg” is actually a shortening of eggian, the Anglo Saxon word for “excite”. In turn, the expression essentially means “over-exciting”, or doing too much to something.
Example: “The cheese bread I made was great, but I over-egged when I added habanero peppers on top”.
Idioms can be invoked in all sorts of situations, and using them correctly will be sure to impress any native English speakers you may encounter.
BOB’S YOUR UNCLE
While the original root of this phrase isn’t clear, it’s essentially used to describe a process that appears to be harder than it actually is. This could be considered the reverse of the popular expression, “easier said than done”.
Example: “Just find a beat, record some vocals, and get them mixed and mastered. Bob’s your uncle, you’ve created a song!”.
A FEW SANDWICHES SHORT OF A PICNIC
This particular idiom, rather than describing unpreparedness, is actually meant to describe someone that doesn’t seem to have common sense or full awareness of what they’re doing. Unlike the others mentioned here, the origin of this phrase can be traced to an exact instance; specifically, it was first documented on BBC’s “Lenny Henry Christmas Special” in 1987.
Example: “He’s a lot of fun to hang out with, but the fact that he thought it’d be okay to come to my house at midnight shows he’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic”.
FULL OF BEANS
This common expression simply refers to someone being enthusiastic or energetic. It’s either rooted in the fact that coffee beans have caffeine (which is controversial), or refers to how someone who’s eaten a full meal will have all the energy they need for the day.
Example: “You must be really full of beans this morning! How did you get up at sunrise and go on a run before I was awake?”.
WIND YOUR NECK IN
If you’re trying to get involved in an issue that doesn’t directly concern you, someone might say you need to “wind your neck in”. In other words, it’s the equivalent of someone telling you to look away from the action and focus on something else.
Example: “I get that you don’t want them to be mad at each other, but you’re not involved in their issue, so you should probably wind your neck in”.
Lastly, if you’ve invested your time and money into something that seems like it’ll work in your favour, it could be said that you are “quids in”. This expression finds its root in the common UK “quid”, which is a slang term for the British Pound. So, for example, 2 British Pounds would be referred to as 2 quid. In turn, being “quids in” means you’re “in” the money (you’ve gained a lot of it) as a result of your investment.
Example: “I can’t believe it! He played the lottery and he somehow managed to be quids in”.
UK ENGLISH IDIOMS — TRY THEM OUT FOR YOURSELF
So, you may not encounter situations where all of these British English idioms are relevant, but we encourage you to try practising each one when perfecting your English speaking and writing.
Idioms convey exactly what you mean when you’re talking about something, help you understand jokes, and make conversations that much more vibrant and exciting. In turn, if you ever find yourself talking to native English speakers, using British English idioms correctly will all but convince them you’re fluent.
After you’re done mastering those, you can also try incorporating idioms into your knowledge of French! After all, France isn’t too far away from the UK, so you could plan a longer trip once things start to clear up.