The Strange Origins of Some British Phrases that Americans will not Understand

Two countries divided by a common language

Håkan Dahlström and Vaughan Leiberum, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It may have been George Bernard Shaw, and it was definitely Oscar Wilde in “The Canterville Ghost” who observed that Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language. There is, however, enough media interplay between our two variations of the English language for there not to be too much confusion in the exchange.

When I watch a Hollywood film and a character talks about pants, I easily make the translation. He is referring to his trousers and not his underwear and neither, as in another British usage, saying that something is completely terrible. Equally when Paul McCartney, in his Liverpudlian accent, sang in Penny Lane, of “A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray”, it took little to work out he was not referring to offering small dogs up for sale.

In the UK, the tradition of raising money for veterans by selling poppies in the weeks that lead up to remembrance day on the 11th of November goes back to the aftermath of World War One. Blood-red poppies bloomed on the battlefields of France and Belgium, the killing grounds where hundreds of thousands of soldiers from all over the world perished. They serve as a poignant reminder of the tragic waste of life and the continuing debt of gratitude for the sacrifice.

My computer spell check insists I remove the letter “u” from colour and humour and I resist. It changes centre to center, and I change it back again, and I know for me, a cell phone is actually a mobile and that Americans call football, soccer. These are just a few of the many differences and most of us are bi-lingual enough to not be muddled and we can easily flit from one to the other. There are, however, some British phrases which make no sense to speakers of American English. These are phrases which sometimes have strange and often bizarre origins and most definitely need to be translated to avoid confusion.

To Pop One’s Clogs

Clogs, image by Jackhynes, CC BY-SA 3, via Wikimedia Commons

Talking about death it would seem is the last great taboo, and the English language has a plethora of phrases which bypass the actual word. Perhaps we use these euphemisms as death and dying are sensitive and heavy subjects to discuss, or perhaps we are superstitious about actually saying the word. Instead, we talk about “kicking the bucket” or “meeting your maker”. We may say someone has “given up the ghost” or quote Shakespear and talk of “shuffling off this mortal coil.”

One particular way of describing death which seems uniquely British and not understood stateside, is the expression “to pop one’s clogs.” I believe the phrase began around the turn of the twentieth century and the first appearance in print was in the Shipley Times from Yorkshire, England in 1914. It was common for nineteenth century factory workers, especially in the North of England, to wear wooden-soled shoes known as clogs, to protect their feet. Some argue that the phrase originated because if somebody died, their clogs could be “popped” meaning pawned or sold. Maybe the term “pop” simply meant to die, as in the phrase to “pop of” and it was used in this way as early as 1764. However, how a pair of wooden shoes became involved in the term will have to remain a matter of speculation.

Sweet Fanny Adams.

Peter Trimming / Alton — Grave of Fanny Adams Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

We shorten the term to “sweet F.A.” and it shares the F.A. part with an expletive. The origin of this phrase goes back to the gruesome murder of an eight-year-old child in southern England in 1867. On a sunny August afternoon, Fanny Adams, her sister Lizzie and friend Minnie were playing in fields near to their home in the small market town of Alton in Hampshire. The three girls met Frederick Baker, a twenty-nine-year-old solicitor’s clerk, who gave them money to buy sweets and stayed with them whilst they played and picked blackberries. Having previously seen Frederick at church meetings, they trusted him and had no fear as he joined in with their fun. Later, when tired and hungry, the girls wanted to go home. Frederick asked Fanny to accompany him on a short walk. She refused, wanting to return with her companions, so Frederick carried her away into a nearby hop garden. Frederick brutally murdered and dismembered the unfortunate child. A jury found him guilty at his trial and subsequently, on Christmas Eve, he was hanged for the crime outside Winchester Prison before a crowd of five thousand onlookers.

Two years after these horrific events, the British Navy introduced new rations of tinned mutton for sailors. The mashed up lumps of meat looked so revolting that in the grotesque tradition of military slang, they referred to any awful looking food as “Fanny Adams” meaning worthless and horrible leftovers. Over time, the phrase contacted from “Sweet Fanny Adams” to Sweet F.A and became the same as the abbreviation for the term “f**k all” So if you ask an Englishman what he is doing and you get the reply “Sweet F.A” he is telling you, in quite a rude way that he is doing nothing at all.

Cockney Rhyming Slang

China Plate image by Bjoertvedt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rhyming slang is not just a single phrase, but a whole lexicon and a lexicon which can be just as undecipherable to many British people as it is to Americans. It is a constantly evolving construction of slang words first used in the East End of London in the early 19th century. However, it is a matter of speculation how the slang originated, although it has been suggested that Londoners developed it as a way of confusing outsiders and maintaining a sense of community.

Rhyming slang works by replacing a common word with a sentence of two or more words, the last of which rhymes with the original word, for example, a “butcher’s hook’ rhymes with and means to take a “look”. This is where it gets tricky as the word that rhymes is then omitted, leaving the connection to the original word undecipherable to anybody not in the know. If a British person asks to “have a butcher’s” what he actually means is “can I look”.

Most Britons, especially those from the South East of the country will be aware of the most common rhymes such as “dog” which means “telephone” from the rhyme “dog and bone, or “china” which means friend, from the rhyming of “china plate” and “mate.” You would need a dictionary to translate the many thousands of words in Cockney rhyming slang, but there is just one more I will let you know, so you will be aware if somebody was being vulgar to you without you really realising it.

If they insulted you with what seems a very mild term for being foolish and called you a “berk”, the actual insult is far worse. “Berk” comes from “Berkshire Hunt” and you have in fact been referred to by the particularly nasty little expletive that begins with a “c” and rhymes with “hunt”.



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Dave Eldergill MA

Dave Eldergill MA


Dave Eldergill travels the long distance paths of the UK. He writes about art, music, history and the encounters he finds interesting on his journeys.