Spending time in a foreign country can provide enough language barrier difficulties without making it even harder for yourself. We British are proud of our language – it’s the Queen’s English, don’t you know! – but there are some phrases which should be left at home. Ditch the colloquialisms abroad to ensure that you’re understood, even by your fellow English speakers.
- Let’s have a knees-up!
We think this is just an informal way of suggesting a party, but to the unaccustomed mind seeking to find meaning in a literal sense, there is definitely room for rude miscomprehension. “Shindig” and “booze-up” should also probably be avoided.
- Itchy feet
You might be innocently explaining to a new foreign friend why you decided to embark upon this latest holiday, but to them, it could simply sound like you have an unpleasant (and perhaps contagious!) skin condition.
- Bob’s your uncle
It doesn’t get much more British than referring to the brother of the father of the person to whom you are speaking when trying to say something as simple as “there you go”.
- Cheap as chips
This will almost definitely nonplus anyone you say it to who is not from Britain, even though it makes far more literal sense than most of the idioms on this list. Be particularly wary of using it in restaurants or you might end up with an extra order – even though “chips” are almost universally “fries” overseas.
- Can I bum a fag?
Though this is an innocent enough expression to borrow (without any intention of returning) a cigarette, “fag” abroad is a slur in many places, and should be avoided. It’s also easy to see how the verb in that sentence could be misconstrued… leading to some uncomfortable silences.
- The dog’s bollocks
Again, this one is likely to cause red faces. Though “bollocks” is not universally used elsewhere, most non-Brits do understand it is a synonym for testicles. What they don’t understand is why that would be an acceptable phrase to describe something particularly good… and nor do I, though there are some interesting theories as to its derivation.
- Where’s the loo?
It doesn’t get more British than the word “loo”. Avoid confused faces by simply saying “bathroom” – or the even more Americanised “restroom”. “Toilet” will usually be understood, but is a bit literal to be polite in many places.
Perhaps due to the popularity of the TV show, “Cheers” abroad is synonymous with drinking. Whilst it is widely used in place of “thanks” in the UK, overseas it will cause confusion, especially if not said in a bar or with a drink in your hand. Most Americans will respond with a bewildered “Cheers!” of their own, before hurrying away from your vicinity to avoid any more baffling non-sequiturs.
Making yourself understood
If you want to sound equally colloquial in other languages, there is now an iPhone app specifically designed to meet your needs. As well as translating your chosen phrase, it will even search for the local slang to make you sound like a native. Beat that, dictionary!
Of course, avoiding these gaffes is usually more of an exercise in saving face than saving lives. However, when ordering food, any allergic conditions that are lost in translation could be a more serious matter. But fear not! This handy crash course in communicating food allergies around the world will make sure you get the message across in the local lingo.
Interestingly, a recent study has shown that Brits are coming out of their cultural shells while abroad. 75% of those asked said they wanted to learn at least 15 phrases in the native language of their destination, while two-thirds rated immersing themselves in local culture and history as a major factor in their break.
It seems that perhaps Britons are leaving behind the stereotype of ignorant drunks when abroad – don’t undo that good work by “dropping clangers” overseas! Some are offensive in other cultures; some just bamboozle. Either way, avoid confusion by leaving these Britishisms at home.