Do You Actually Know What These British Idioms and Common Phrases Mean?


By: Isadora Teich

6 Min Quiz

Image: Ben Pipe Photography / Cultura / Getty Images

About This Quiz

British English has been quite influential in the world, from Europe to New Zealand to North America to India, but how it's spoken around the world differs. In fact, even from one side of London to the other, the way people speak the same language can sound totally different. The slang, idioms and phrases used throughout the U.K. can differ from city to city and country to country. It can be hard to get a handle on all of the wacky phrases and sayings that are unique to British English.   

British English is known for its many fun and quirky idioms that are definitely completely British. Whether you are a total anglophile or merely curious, you probably have heard of some of these sayings and idioms. So, are you the bee's knees? Are you ready to take on this quiz, or are you a few sandwiches short of a picnic when it comes to common British sayings? 

Are you ready to pull an absolute bloody blinder? Or will the phrases in this quiz leave you absolutely knackered? Put yourself to the test and see how well you really know some of the more fun expressions in British English with this proper English quiz! 

What does it mean if someone has "over-egged the pudding"?

When someone "over-eggs the pudding," they have overworked something to the extent that they have ruined it. As an analogy, it refers to over-mixing or working batter, which leads to desserts with a poor texture. Note that the British use "pudding" to describe a number of sweet and savory dishes.


If you have to "tiptoe on broken glass" around someone, what are they like?

If you know someone who is incredibly easy to upset or anger, and you have to carefully monitor yourself to make sure that you don't say or do the wrong thing, then you have to "tiptoe on broken glass" around them. You don't want to get cut!


If someone asks you to "give them a tinkle on the blower," what are they asking you to do?

This phrase means "give me a call" and is sometimes shortened to "give me a tinkle." While it might seem off to English speakers in other parts of the world, "blower" refers to a communication device that was used on British naval ships before phones were invented.


The term "bog-standard" can be used to describe what?

"Bog" is British slang for toilet. Something described as "bog-standard" has no frills or extras, so it is the unglamorous and ordinary necessary minimum. A person might describe a hostel room or an old car in this way.


When someone "does a Lord Lucan," what have they done?

When someone runs off or disappears without a trace, they have "done a Lord Lucan." This is in reference to Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, who disappeared in the 1970s after being suspected of murder.


If a place is "chockablock," what is it like?

Something that is stuffed, crammed or full to the brim can be described as "chockablock." This is sometimes shortened to "chocka." For example, the road is chocka at rush hour.


Someone who is "carrying coals to Newcastle" is actually doing what?

You might hear a Brit say that someone is taking, bringing or carrying coals to Newcastle. This means that they are going to the effort of doing something that is totally unnecessary.


If something is "cheap as chips," what is it like?

Chips are what the British call fries. If something is cheap as chips, it is incredibly inexpensive, as potatoes are very famously cheap. This is an idiom that's more often used by the working class.


The idiom "pea-souper" is used to describe the weather. What kind of weather does it refer to?

This old idiom dates back to nineteenth-century England. It is used when smog creates a thick fog with an unnatural tinge. Over the centuries, London has struggled with pollution issues as it has become more and more populated.


If someone is "a few sandwiches short of a picnic," what do they lack?

If someone lacks in intelligence or logical decision-making, they might be described as "a few sandwiches short of a picnic." The first documented use of this phrase was in the BBC's "Lenny Henry Christmas Special" in 1987, but it was likely in use long before that.


The word "dench" can be used to indicate that something is which of these?

You can use the word "dench" the same way you would use the word "cool," as both an adjective and response to a question or situation. It's thought that this word was created by the British rapper Lethal Bizzle, who claims that the word can mean anything you want.


What do Brits use the phrase "a dog's dinner" to refer to?

You might hear British people say things like "you have made a dog's dinner of that" or "this whole thing is a dog's breakfast." This means that something is a total mess or a horrible fiasco.


What does it mean if someone has "caught the lurgy"?

When someone has "caught the lurgy," they have either a cold or the flu. It is thought that this might have come from the word "allergy." It originates from a 1950s British TV show called "The Goon Show."


How do Brits use the word "mint"?

The word "mint" is used roughly the same way in both the U.S. and the U.K. If something is in mint condition it is in excellent condition. Something that is mint in the U.K. is generally of very high quality.


If you nick something, you might end up in the nick. What is "the nick"?

To "nick" something means to steal it, in British slang. However, "the nick" is also slang for jail. No one is precisely sure how these slang words got their start, but it might be confusing for U.S. English speakers named Nicholas or Nicole who go by Nick.


If a situation has gone "pear-shaped," what is it like?

If a situation has suddenly and unexpectedly become a total mess, it can be described as having gone pear-shaped. This phrase is thought to have come from the Royal Air Force generations ago.


In British English, what does it mean if someone is "pissed"?

Brits are known for taking almost any noun or verb and using it as slang to mean "drunk." While "pissed" means "angry" in U.S. English slang, it almost always means "drunk" in U.K. English slang.


What does the idiom "Never wash your dirty linen in public" mean?

British people have a reputation for being quite buttoned up. In the past, especially, it was considered a breach of propriety to talk about your personal life outside of closed doors, which is what this saying refers to.


When someone "makes a mountain out of a molehill," how are they affecting a problem?

This phrase essentially means the same thing as "making something out of nothing." Someone who makes a mountain out of a molehill is taking a tiny problem and turning it into a huge one.


How is someone affecting a group of people if they have "put the cat among the pigeons"?

If you were to literally put a cat among some pigeons, it would agitate the birds. As an idiom, it refers to someone or something that's stirring up shock, anger or worry in a group of people.


The idiom "a drop in the ocean" is used to describe something that is what?

Compared to the vast contents of the ocean, one drop of water is very small and hardly matters. This is why this phrase refers to something that is insignificant in the context of a large situation.


If a Brit tells you that they are "just popping out," what does this mean?

If someone is "just popping out," they are leaving and will be back soon. They might be heading to the store or going outside to take a phone call. Usually they won't be gone for very long.


What does it mean to "go spare"?

Someone who is "going spare" is so angry that they are doing things that many people would consider kind of crazy. For example, if your partner is mad that you didn't do the dishes, so they start breaking them, they would definitely be going spare.


If someone "argues the toss," what are they doing?

If your friends all agree that they want Chinese food for lunch, but you fight with them about it, you are "arguing the toss." It means refusing to accept a decision and turning it into an argument.


What does it mean to "give [someone] stick"?

While this idiom might sound funny to American English speakers, it is not so funny in England. If someone gives you stick, they either criticize or punish you. This may be a reference to common corporal punishments of the past, which often involved hitting people with sticks.


When something is described as a banana skin, what does that mean?

You don't want to have a single banana skin. Something that is embarrassing can be described in this way. It can also refer to something that causes problems. This term is less commonly used in modern British English.


If a Brit tells you that you look like you have "been in the wars," what do you look like?

Someone who looks like they have "been in the wars" looks rough, hurt or like they have been through some kind of significant struggle. This British phrase is an exaggeration, referring to the horrors of war.


"Life is not all beer and skittles." What does this phrase say about life?

In the U.K., they say, "Life is not all beer and skittles," which means that life is not only about enjoyment and pursuing pleasure. "Skittles" refers to a pub game here, not to the popular candy. In the U.S., an equivalent phrase would be "Life is not all fun and games."


What does it mean if someone is "as bent as a nine-bob note"?

This expression refers to money in the U.K. before 1971. Ten-shilling notes (or ten-bob notes) existed, but nine-bob notes did not. This phrase compares someone to fake currency.


If a Brit "breaks their duck," what are they doing?

In British English, there are many unique phrases that are not used in American English. This is one of those. To "break your duck" means to give something a try for the first time.


A "champagne socialist" is a wealthy person who has what sort of views?

A "champagne socialist" is a mocking term for a wealthy person who says they have left-wing views. It is especially used when that person holds those views very shallowly or does not act in a way that lines up with the values they talk about.


What does it mean to "play a blinder"?

Someone who has "played a blinder" has achieved something very difficult, skillfully and against the odds. Often people use it when they are shocked that another person has achieved something.


If your new coat "cost a bomb," what does that say about it?

If an item "costs a bomb," it is incredibly expensive. It can be applied to jewelry, high-end cars and almost anything else luxurious.


When someone describes something as being the "bee's knees," what are they saying about it?

This phrase, "the bee's knees," was popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century, but it actually has British origins. It was first documented in the U.K. in the 18th century, when it was used to refer to the small details. Today it means something is good or desirable.


How do the British use the word "bloody"?

"Bloody" is a quintessentially British word with disputed origins. Someone might say a dessert is "bloody good" or that they are "bloody tired." It was actually considered profanity until about the middle of the 20th century.


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