If you’ve been reading the Bespeaking blog for a while, then you’ll know that we think learning idioms (turns of phrase, set phrases in a culture) are a great way to learn a language. One of the issues (problems) with learning English, however, is that there are a few different kinds of English you can learn. American English and British English are the two leading types of English for non-native speakers to learn, but people in Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other English speaking countries have different ways of saying things, different slang, and different idioms from each other. That’s why there are some British English idioms that may be common to people in the UK, but you may not know if you’ve been learning American English.
Some British English idioms have been adopted (taken, used in) into American English, so are familiar to – and used by – native speakers in the United States. but there are many that we AE (American English) speakers don’t know about! With this in mind, here are some great British English idioms that you may not know…
At the end of your tether (ət ði ˈɛnd əv ˈjɔːr ˈtɛðɚ)
There is a variation of this idiom in American English, but you may not have heard the British English version before. If someone is at the end of their tether (or the end of their rope, as we say in the U.S.), they are at the limit of the patience or endurance (ability to withstand something). You may hear this idiom in the office, when people are very stressed out or frustrated (annoyed) with how things are going. Do you have a similar idiom to this in your language?
- I’ve really been at the end of my tether, lately. Things are just nonstop at work, and I haven’t been able to get a break.
- He couldn’t wait for his vacation. He really needed it because he was at the end of his tether. He couldn’t wait to relax!
Bob’s your uncle (ˈbɑːbz ˈjɔːr ˈʌŋkəl)
I have always found this British English idiom quite (very) funny, because my dad’s name is Bob. So for all my cousins, Bob really IS their uncle! But what does the idiom itself mean? You would say Bob’s your uncle when something is seen as definitely being successful. This idiom is generally used when something is going to be easily successful without a lot of work behind it.
- He likes easy-to-make meals. All he had to do was pop a frozen lasagna in the oven, and Bob’s your uncle, lunch was ready.
- Tell Steve I gave you his name, and Bob’s your uncle, he’ll be able to find some tickets for you.
Damp squib (ˈdæmp ˈskwɪb)
This is a British English idiom that we definitely don’t have in the United States, so if someone said this to me in conversation, I would have to think about what they meant. If something is a damp squib, it was expected to have a large impact, but didn’t. Things such as laws can be a damp squib, especially if they were expected to help a lot of people and make things much better, but it turns out that they didn’t have much impact at all.
- Her birthday party was a bit of a damp squib. Only about half of the people who were invited showed up.
- I thought the book was a damp squib. Everyone was saying how good it was, but I thought it wasn’t very well written and just ok.
For donkey’s years (ˈfɔːr ˈdɑːŋkiːz ˈjɪrz)
Do you have an idiom in your native language that you use if something has been going on for a long time? In British English, this phrase is for donkey’s years. It’s a great little idiom, and it’s really fun to say! What is something that you have been doing for donkey’s years?
- She’s been a vegetarian for donkey’s years. She became a vegetarian when she was 12.
- He’s been working there for donkey’s years. Customers love him because he’s so knowledgeable about everything they have in the store.
Gone pear-shaped (ˈɡɔːn ˈpɛrˌʃeɪpt)
This is another British English idiom that I think is really fun to say. However, the meaning isn’t as fun. If something goes pear-shaped, things have either gone wrong, or something has made unwanted results. Big things, such as the economy can go pear-shaped, but small things can go pear-shaped, too, such as a small mistake at work. I hope that nothing goes pear-shaped for you this week!
- The news networks always call him up to talk on their shows when the economy goes pear-shaped because he’s an expert in the field.
- Our team started out pretty well in the tournament. But things quickly went pear-shaped when our star player got injured.
Have you used any of these British English idioms before? Have you heard of any of them before? Share with us in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and loves learning new idioms!