List of British English Idioms & Phrases

Listing 205 Entries
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Across the pond
This idiom means on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, used to refer to the US or the UK depending on the speaker's location.
All mouth and trousers
Someone who's all mouth and trousers talks or boasts a lot but doesn't deliver. 'All mouth and no trousers' is also used, though this is a corruption of the original.
All my eye and Peggy Martin
An idiom that appears to have gone out of use but was prevalent in the English north Midlands of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire from at least the turn of the 20th century until the early 1950s or so. The idiom's meaning is literally something said or written that is unbelievable, rumor, over embellished, the result of malicious village gossip etc.
All talk and no trousers
Someone who is all talk and no trousers, talks about doing big, important things, but doesn't take any action.
An Englishman's home is his castle
This means that what happens in a person's home or  private life is their business and should not be subject to outside interference.
Argue the toss
If you argue the toss, you refuse to accept a decision and argue about it.
As the actress said to the bishop
This idiom is used to highlight a sexual reference, deliberate or accidental.
At a loose end
If you are at a loose end, you have spare time but don't know what to do with it.
At the end of your tether
If you are at the end of your tether, you are at the limit of your patience or endurance.
Back foot
If you are on your back foot, you are at a disadvantage and forced to be defensive of your position.
Bad mouth
When you are bad mouthing,you are saying negative things about someone or something.('Bad-mouth' and 'badmouth' are also used.)
Ball of chalk
If something has gone for a ball of chalk, it has gone terribly wrong.
Banana skin
A banana skin is something that is an embarrassment or causes problems.
Barrack-room lawyer
A barrack-room lawyer is a person who gives opinions on things they are not qualified to speak about.
Be up the spout
If a woman is up the spout, she is pregnant.
Been in the wars
If someone has been in the wars, they have been hurt or look as if they have been in a struggle.
Beer and skittles
People say that life is not all beer and skittles, meaning that it is not about self-indulgence and pleasure.
Before you can say knife
If something happens before you can say knife, it happens very quickly.
Belt and braces
Someone who wears belt and braces is very cautious and takes no risks.
Bent as a nine bob note
A person who is as bent as a nine bob note is dishonest. The reference comes from pre-decimalisation in UK (1971), when a ten shilling (bob) note was valid currency but no such note as nine shillings existed.
Billy Wind
If the wind is so strong it is howling, one might say, "Wow- can you hear Billy Wind out there?" like Jack Frost.
Black as Newgate's knocker
If things are as black as Newgate's knocker, they are very bad. Newgate was an infamous prison in England, so its door knocker meant trouble.
Bob's your uncle
This idiom means that something will be successful: Just tell him that I gave you his name and Bob's your uncle- he'll help you.
Box clever
If you box clever, you use your intelligence to get what you want, even if you have to cheat a bit.
Brass neck
Someone who has the brass neck to do something has no sense of shame about what they do.
Break your duck
If you break your duck, you do something for the first time.
Buggles' turn
If it Buggles' turn, someone gets promotion through length of service rather than ability, especially in the British civil service.
By a long chalk
If you beat somebody by a long chalk, you win easily and comfortably.
Call time
If you call time on something, you decide it is time to end it.
Canary in a coal mine
A canary in a coal mine is an early warning of danger.
Cat's arse and cabbage
The idiom  "cat fur and kitty britches" reminded me of this saying that my granny used when asked what was for dinner, and was her way too of saying you get what you're given! This was in Gloucestershire, UK and in the first part of the 20th century.
Champagne socialist
A wealthy person who has left-wing views is a champagne socialist, especially if their political beliefs are seen as shallow or hypocritical.
Champagne tastes, beer wages
A person who likes expensive things but has a low income has champagne taste and beer wages.
Cheap as chips
If something is very inexpensive, it is as cheap as chips.
Chinese whispers
When a story is told from person to person, especially if it is gossip or scandal, it inevitably gets distorted and exaggerated. This process is called Chinese whispers.
Coals to Newcastle
Taking, bringing, or carrying coals to Newcastle is doing something that is completely unnecessary.
Come a cropper
Someone whose actions or lifestyle will inevitably result in trouble is going to come a cropper.
Come up smelling of roses
If someone comes up smelling of roses, they emerge from a situation with their reputation undamaged.
Cupboard love
To show love to gain something from someone
Curate's egg
If something is a bit of a curate's egg, it is only good in parts.
Daft as a brush
Someone who is daft as a brush is rather stupid.
Damp squib
If something is expected to have a great effect or impact but doesn't, it is a damp squib.
Death warmed up
If someone looks like death warmed up, they look very ill indeed. ('death warmed over' is the American form)
Do a Devon Loch
If someone does a Devon Loch, they fail when they were very close to winning. Devon Loch was a horse that collapsed just short of the winning line of the Grand National race.
Do a Lord Lucan
If someone disappears without a trace or runs off, they do a Lord Lucan.  (Lord Lucan disappeared after a murder)
Do a runner
If people leave a restaurant without paying, they do a runner.
Do the running
The person who has to do the running has to make sure that things get done. ('Make the running' is also used.)
Do time
When someone is doing time, they are in prison.
Dog in the manger
If someone acts like a dog in the manger, they don't want other people to have or enjoy things that are useless to them.
Don't wash your dirty laundry in public
People, especially couples, who argue in front of others or involve others in their personal problems and crises, are said to be washing their dirty laundry in public; making public things that are best left private. (In American English, 'don't air your dirty laundry in public' is used.)
Double Dutch
If something is double Dutch, it is completely incomprehensible.
Drunk as a lord
Someone who is very drunk is as drunk as a lord.
Dull as ditchwater
If something is as dull as ditchwater, it is incredibly boring. A ditch is a long narrow hole or trench dug to contain water, which is normally a dark, dirty colour and stagnant (when water turns a funny colour and starts to smell bad). (In American English,'things are 'dull as dishwater'.)
Dunkirk spirit
Dunkirk spirit is when people pull together to get through a very difficult time.
Early bath
If someone has or goes for an early bath, they quit or lose their job or position earlier than expected because things have gone wrong.
Easy peasy
If something is easy peasy, it is very easy indeed. ('Easy peasy, lemon squeezy' is also used.)
Economical with the truth
If someone, especially a politician, is economical with the truth, they leave out information in order to create a false picture of a situation, without actually lying.
Enough to cobble dogs with
A large surplus of anything: We've got enough coffee to cobble dogs with. Possible explanations: A cobblestone is a cut stone with a curved surface. These were set together to create road surfaces, in the days before the widespread use of asphalt. The image the phrase contains is that, even after all the roads have been cobbled, there are so many cobblestones left over that things that don’t need cobbling – such as dogs – could still be cobbled. A cobbler repairs shoes, so if you have enough leather to cobble an animal with four feet or that doesn't need shoes, you have a surplus.
Fair crack of the whip
If everybody has a fair crack of the whip, they all have equal opportunities to do something.
Fall off the back of a lorry
If someone tries to sell you something that has fallen of the back of a lorry, they are trying to sell you stolen goods.
Fifth columnist
A fifth columnist is a member of a subversive organisation who tries to help an enemy invade.
Fine and dandy
If thing's are fine and dandy, then everything is going well.
Flogging a dead horse
If someone is trying to convince people to do or feel something without any hope of succeeding, they're flogging a dead horse. This is used when someone is trying to raise interest in an issue that no-one supports anymore; beating a dead horse will not make it do any more work.
Flutter the dovecotes
Something that flutters the dovecots causes alarm or excitement.
Football's a game of two halves
If something's a game of two halves, it means that it's possible for someone's fortunes or luck to change and the person who's winning could end up a loser.
For donkey's years
If people have done something, usually without much if any change, for an awfully long time, they can be said to have done it for donkey's years.
For England
A person who talks for England, talks a lot- if you do something for England, you do it a lot or to the limit.
Full Monty
If something is the Full Monty, it is the real thing, not reduced in any way.
Gardening leave
If someone is paid for a period when they are not working, either after they have given in their notice or when they are being investigated, they are on gardening leave.
Get it in the neck
If you get it in the neck, you are punished or criticised for something.
Get out of your pram
If someone gets out of their pram, they respond aggressively to an argument or problem that doesn't involve them.
Get the nod
If you get the nod to something, you get approval or permission to do it.
Give it some stick
If you give something some stick, you put a lot of effort into it.
Give someone stick
If someone gives you stick, they criticise you or punish you.
Give the nod
If you give the nod to something, you approve it or give permission to do it.
Go doolally
If someone goes doolally, they are behaving irrationally.
Go down like a cup of cold sick
An idea or excuse that will not be well accepted will go down like a cup of cold sick.
Go down like a lead balloon
If something goes down like a lead balloon, it fails or is extremely badly received.
Go pear-shaped
If things have gone wrong, they have gone pear-shaped.
Go spare
If you go spare, you lose your temper completely.
Gone for a burton
If something's gone for a burton, it has been spoiled or ruined. If a person has gone for a burton, they are either in serious trouble or have died.
Gone pear-shaped
If things have gone pear-shaped they have either gone wrong or produced an unexpected and unwanted result.
Grasp the nettle
If you grasp the nettle, you deal bravely with a problem.
Greasy pole
The greasy pole is the difficult route to the top of politics, business, etc.
Green fingers
Someone with green fingers has a talent for gardening.
Grey pound
In the UK, the grey pound is an idiom for the economic power of elderly people.
Hairy at the heel
Someone who is hairy at the heel is dangerous or untrustworthy.
Hard cheese
Hard cheese means hard luck.
Have a riot
If you have a riot, you enjoy yourself and have a good time.
Have your collar felt
If someone has their collar felt, they are arrested.
Hear something on the jungle telegraph
If you hear something on the jungle telegraph, you pick up some information or informal gossip from someone who shares some common interest.  ('Bush telegraph' is also used.)
Heath Robinson
If a machine or system is described as Heath Robinson, it is very complicated, but not practical or effective, named after a cartoonist who drew very complicated machines that performed simple tasks.
Hold the baby
If someone is responsible for something, they are holding the baby.
Hold your hands up
If you hold your hands up, you accept responsibility for something you have done wrong.
Home, James
This is a cliched way of telling the driver of a vehicle to start driving. It is supposed to be an order to a chauffeur (a privately employed driver).  The full phrase is 'Home, James, and don't spare the horses'.
I don't give a pin!
If you don't give a pin, you don't care about something, someone, or a situation.
I should cocoa
This idiom comes from 'I should think so', but is normally used sarcastically to mean the opposite.
If you'll pardon my French
This idiom is used as a way of apologising for swearing.
In a tick
If someone will do something in a tick, they'll do it very soon or very quickly.
In rude health
If someone's in rude health, they are very healthy and look it.
In spades
If you have something in spades, you have a lot of it.
In the clink
If someone is in the clink, they are in prison.
In the club
If a woman's in the club, she's pregnant. 'In the pudding club' is an alternative form.
It's as broad as it is long
Used to express that it is impossible to decide between two options because they're equal.
Jam tomorrow
This idiom is used when people promise good things for the future that will never come.
Jersey justice
Jersey justice is very severe justice.
Keen as mustard
If someone is very enthusiastic, they are as keen as mustard.
Keep your chin up
This expression is used to tell someone to have confidence.
Keep your wig on!
This idiom is used to tell someone to calm down.
Kick your heels
If you have to kick your heels, you are forced to wait for the result or outcome of something.
Kitchen-sink drama deals with ordinary people's lives.
Laugh like a drain
If you laugh very loudly, you laugh like a drain.
Laugh to see a pudding crawl
Someone who would laugh to see a pudding crawl is easily amused and will laugh at anything.
Laugh up your sleeve
If you laugh up your sleeve, you laugh at someone secretly.
Leave the field open
If you leave the field open for someone, you withdraw from something to allow another person to succeed.('Leave the field clear' is also used.)
Like a bear with a sore head
If someone's like a bear with a sore head, they complain a lot and are unhappy about something.
Like giving a donkey strawberries
If something is like giving a donkey strawberries, people fail to appreciate its value.
Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves
If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves, meaning that if someone takes care not to waste small amounts of money, they will accumulate capital. ('Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves' is an alternative form of this idiom.)
Lose your bottle
If someone loses their bottle, they lose the courage to do something.
Lose your lunch
If you lose your lunch, you vomit.
Make a good fist
If you make a good fist of something, you do it well.
Make a song and dance
If someone makes a song and dance, they make an unecessary fuss about something unimportant.
Man on the Clapham omnibus
The man on the Clapham omnibus is the ordinary person in the street.
Money for old rope
If something's money for old rope, it's a very easy way of making money.
More front than Brighton
If you have more front than Brighton, you are very self-confident, possibly excessively so.
New man
A New man is a man who believes in complete equality of the sexes and shares domestic work equally.
Nod's as good as a wink
'A nod's as good as a wink' is a way of saying you have understood something that someone has said, even though it was not said directly.  The full phrase (sometimes used in the UK ) is 'a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse'.
Noddy work
Unimportant or very simple tasks are noddy work.
Nosy parker
A nosy parker is someone who is excessively interested in other people's lives. ('Nosey parker' is an alternative spelling.)
Not cricket
If something is not cricket, it is unfair.
Not give a monkey's
If you couldn't give a monkey's about something, you don't care at all about it.
Off on one
If someone goes off on one, they get extremely angry indeed.
Off your chump
If someone is off their chump, they are crazy or irrational.
Off your rocker
Someone who is off their rocker is crazy.
On Carey Street
If someone is on Carey Street, they are heavily in debt or have gone bankrupt.
On the blink
Is a machine is on the blink, it isn't working properly or is out of order.
On the blower
If someone is on the blower, they are on the phone.
On the cards
If something is in the cards, it is almost certain to happen.
On the dole
Someone receiving financial assistance when unemployed is on the dole.
On the fiddle
Someone who is stealing money from work is on the fiddle, especially if they are doing it by fraud.
On the game
A person who is on the game works as a prostitute.
On the knock
If you buy something on the knock, you pay for it in instalments.
On the knocker
If someone is on the knocker, they are going from house to house trying to buy or sell things or get support.
On the never-never
If you buy something on the never-never, you buy it on long-term credit.
On the nod
If something is accepted by parliament or a committee majority, it is on the nod.
On the nod
Someone who's on the nod is either asleep or falling asleep, especially when the shouldn't or are are in a position unusual for sleep, like sitting or standing.
On the nod
When a horse runs, its head moves backwards and forwards alternately - in horse racing, if 2 horses cross the line together the one whose head happens to be going forward often wins and is said to win 'on the nod'.
On the take
Someone who is stealing from work is on the take.
On the trot
This idiom means 'consecutively'; I'd saw them three days on the trot, which means that I saw them on three consecutive days.
One over the eight
Someone who is one over the eight is drunk.
One over the eight
Someone who has had one over the eight is very drunk indeed. It refers to the standard eight pints that most people drink and feel is enough.
Out in the sticks
If someone lives out in the sticks, they live out in the country, a long way from any metropolitan area.
Over-egg the pudding
If you over-egg the pudding, you spoil something by trying to improve it excessively. It is also used nowadays with the meaning of making something look bigger or more important than it really is. ('Over-egg' alone is often used in this sense.)
Pin money
If you work for pin money, you work not because you need to but because it gives you money for extra little luxuries and treats.
Pink pound
In the UK, the pink pound is an idiom for the economic power of gay people.
Plain as a pikestaff
If something is as plain as a pikestaff, it is very clear.
Play gooseberry
A person who tags along with two people who are in a romantic relationship when they would rather be alone is playing gooseberry. The American English equivalent is "third wheel".
Pull your finger out!
If someone tells you to do this, they want you to hurry up. ('Get your finger out' is also used.)
Quart into a pint pot
If you try to put or get a quart into a pint pot, you try to put too much in a small space. (1 quart = 2 pints)
Queer fish
A strange person is a queer fish.
Quids in
If somebody is quids in, they stand to make a lot of money from something.
Rake over old coals
If you go back to old problems and try to bring them back, making trouble for someone, you are raking over old coals.
Rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic
If people are rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, they are making small changes that will have no effect as the project, company, etc, is in very serious trouble.
Right royal
A right royal night out would be an extremely exciting, memorable and fun one.
Rivers of
Rivers of indicates a large amount of moving liquid, like rivers of sweat running down someone's brow. It can be figurative like saying that rivers of blood will flow to indicate serious conflict.
See you anon
If somebody says this when leaving, they expect to see you again soon.
Send someone to Coventry
If you send someone to Coventry, you refuse to talk to them or co-operate with them.
Shanks's pony
If you go somewhere by Shanks's pony, you walk there.
Shy bairns get nowt
An idiom primarily used by those from the North East of England, used to emphasize the fact that children who fail to ask for something (usually from an older person) probably won't succeed in obtaining it. (bairn = child, nowt = nothing)
Slip through the cracks
If something slips through the cracks, it isn't noticed or avoids detection.
Sound as a pound
if something is as sound as a pound, it is very good or reliable.
Spanner in the works
If someone puts or throws a spanner in the works, they ruin a plan. In American English, 'wrench' is used instead of 'spanner'.
Spend a penny
This is a euphemistic idiom meaning to go to the toilet.
Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar
If someone spoils the ship for a ha'pworth (halfpenny's worth) of tar, they spoil something completely by trying to make a small economy.
Square Mile
The Square Mile is the City, the financial area of London.
Sticky end
If someone comes to a sticky end, they die in an unpleasant way. ('Meet a sticky end' is also used.)
Sticky wicket
If you are on a sticky wicket, you are in a difficult situation.
Stiff upper lip
If you keep your emotions to yourself and don't let others know how you feel when something bad happens, you keep a stiff upper lip.
Swing the lead
If you swing the lead, you pretend to be ill or do not do your share of the work.
Take the biscuit
If something takes the biscuit, it is the absolute limit.
Take the Mickey
If you take the Mickey, you tease someone. ('Take the Mick' is also used.)
Take up the reins
If you take up the reins, you assume control of something- an organisation, company, country, etc.('Take over the reins' is also used.)
Tally ho!
This is an exclamation used for encouragement before doing something difficult or dangerous.
Tears before bedtime
This idiom is used when something seems certain to go wrong or cause trouble.
Teething problems
The problems that a project has when it is starting are the teething problems.
Ten a penny
If something is ten a penny, it is very common. ("Two a penny" is also used.)
Thick as mince
If someone is as thick as mince, they are very stupid indeed.
Thin blue line
The thin blue line is a term for the police, suggesting that they stand between an ordered society and potential chaos. (Police uniforms are blue.)
Three sheets in the wind
Someone who is three sheets in the wind is very drunk. ('Three sheets to the wind' is also used.  'Seven sheets' is an alternative number used.)
Throw a spanner in the works
If you throw a spanner in the works, you cause a problem that stops or slows progress on something that was going well.
Tired and emotional
This idiom is a euphemism used to mean 'drunk', especially when talking about politicians.
Up sticks
If you up sticks, you leave somewhere, usually permanently and without warning- he upped sticks and went to work abroad.
Up the duff
If a woman is up the duff, she's pregnant.
Up the spout
If something has gone up the spout, it has gone wrong or been ruined.
Up the stick
If a woman is up the stick, she's pregnant.
Vicar of Bray
A person who changes their beliefs and principles to stay popular with people above them is a Vicar of Bray
A woman politician given an unimportant government position so that the government can pretend it takes women seriously is a wallflower.
Watering hole
A watering hole is a pub.
Who wears the trousers?
The person who wears the trousers in a relationship is the dominant person who controls things.
Wipe the floor with
If you wipe the floor with someone, you destroy the arguments or defeat them easily.
With child
If a woman's with child, she's pregnant.
Wood for the trees
If someone can't see the wood for the trees, they get so caught up in small details that they fail to understand the bigger picture.
Wouldn't touch it with a bargepole
If you wouldn't touch something with a bargepole, you would not consider being involved under any circumstances. (In American English, people say they wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole)
Yeoman's service
To do yeoman's service is to serve in an exemplary manner.
You do not get a dog and bark yourself
If there is someone in a lower position who can or should do a task, then you shouldn't do it.
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