British slang, like any slang for that matter, represents “unconventional words or phrases that express either something new or something old in a new way.” In this case, it is English language slang “ used and originating in the United Kingdom.” It is also used, “to a limited extent,” in Anglophone countries such as the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, especially by British ex-pats.
To a limited extent, there are users of British slang in the United States too. Slang words come and go quickly. Some stick, some disappear, some change their meaning and sense on the go. So you need to communicate with Britain on a general level. Like casual users, tourists visiting Britain, being aware and knowing some or any British slang words might not really matter.
But what about any businesses or other organizations that want need to have daily communication with Britain or want to spread their business interests there? If you, your company or organization fall into that category, knowing a bit about British slang and its constant changes might come in quite handy.
What is slang1 “to one generation may not be slang to the next generation, since language is constantly changing, and words and expressions can move from one form of it to another.” Being aware and referencing slang, British slang or any other can sometimes be crucial to properly reach certain target groups, particularly among younger generations.
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
Slang, its key elements, and origins
As Encyclopaedia Britannica (above) notes, the origins of the word slang itself are a bit obscure. “ It first appeared in print around 1800, applied to the speech of disreputable and criminal classes in London. The term, however, was probably used much earlier.”
By a general definition, slang is “the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker’s dialect or language.” Slang has strong connections with areas of the lexicon that refer to things that are taboo. People use it to identify with one’s peers. Although it may be common among young people, it is used by people of all ages and social groups.
A number of occupations have their own slang and use it to create an identity or sense of belonging. Most notable are the armed forces slang, or Forces or Service slang. It is also in use in the construction industry.2
As FluentU, points out, “language is always changing, and new words are often added. A lot of the time, these words are slang. Slang is informal or casual language and is commonly in use particularly by teenagers and young people. Certain areas may have their own slang words that are not used in other areas where the same language is spoken.”
Practically any subculture has its own slang. Most of those tend to draw words and phrases from the contiguous language (rather than creating many new words) and to give these established terms new and special meanings; some borrowings from foreign languages (Britannica).
With the advent of media and particularly social media, slang ‘invaded’ the media and its use and development are now widespread.
The specifics of British Slang and Cockney
Having in mind that slang is characteristic of certain age groups or subcultures, it is no wonder that there is a significant difference, between the British and say American slang. When British television shows are sold to America, they are often remade to make them more understandable to American audiences (FluentU).
The use of slang in Britain according to some accounts dates back to before 15th century. Its first traces are connected to cant, a term that defines the specialized speech of criminals in that country. This term is still in use today and has become a ‘mainstream’ word. Like in many other languages, in British slang word becomes mainstream if it is used persistently.
Since slang words originate in different subcultures, age or social groups some become widespread and some remain characteristic only for that group of users. There is no difference there for words in British slang. Some are in use throughout the country (e.g. knackered, meaning “exhausted”), some are limited to some regions or even smaller groups of users.
Probably the most known type of British slang is Cockney, also known as Rhyming slang. Cockney originated in East End part of London and as Pedersen (above) notes, became even more commonly known through British films like Snatch, Lock stock and two smoking barrels, Football factory and Mean machine.
It got the subtitle of Rhyming slang because certain words are replaced with a phrase that rhymes. For example, bees and honey instead of money or Apples and pears instead of stairs. There are also expressions that are even harder to understand as they demand some kind of pre-knowledge, such as, “can I have a butcher’s”, which means ”can I have look” and has originated from butcher’s hook which rhymes with a look (Pedersen).
Variations in British slang abound, and any social or age group comes up with news slang words every day. One article from British press notes the slang the prisoners in Britain use to fool their guards.3
On the other hand, Polari is a specific slang used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. Linguists track their existence back to the 19th century.
Still, currently, the use of slang in Britain is mostly among the younger generations. In that respect, there is no difference to other young generations elsewhere.
Some British slang words enter into use from other languages or American English but are gain a different meaning when they become common. On the other hand, some British slang words or terms are so specific that even the speakers of other English language variants cannot understand them.
For example, Lost In The Pond came up with a list of 17 British slang words and phrases most Americans don’t understand. One of those is ‘to witter on’. “I do this myself a lot. I witter on about all sorts and I mentioned to a friend that I was ‘wittering on’ and she thought I was talking in past-participle (or such like) about tweeting. Social media has a lot to answer for.”
When should you pay attention to British slang?
Of course, one day you might visit London, Glasgow the other and end up in Manchester. You will get a chance to hear different people give you directions using completely different words. And it is still the same English language.
But there are more reasons to pay attention to British slang. This is particularly true if you need to communicate with people in Britain on a more intense level.
While the official communication might not involve many slang words, it is also good to note that there is also a difference in ‘standard’ terminology between British and American English. This can particularly occur in the use of saying legal or medical terminology.
For businesses and organizations trying to reach audiences and customers in Great Britain, this can become important. The knowledge and precise use of British slang terms could sometimes differentiate between success and failure. This is particularly true of the younger generations.
This is true even with a more general audience which is often familiar with more than one British slang variant. ‘Hitting the right note’ with a most current British slang term can be that element that makes a difference.
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- Pedersen, Tim, The Use of Slang in British English – A Study of the Slang used in Football Factory and Little Britain, The University of Kalmar, 2007 ↩
- Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press. 1994. p. 364. ↩
- James Tozer (8 June 2009). “Convicts use ye olde slang to fool guards | Mail Online”. Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 28 April 2013. ↩