Can You Finish These Bloody Brilliant British Phrases?

EDUCATION

Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: Gu/ Cultura/ Getty Images

About This Quiz

English is unique among languages in that not only is it the lingua Franca of global trade and government, but it lends itself particularly well to dialects with unique, idiomatic phrases, resulting in different versions of English from all over the globe. Just within England, there are idioms distinct to regions or even specific cities. In the United States and Canada, the region determines if a generic carbonated beverage is a "soda," "pop" or "coke." Some areas of the world, usually former colonies, preserve versions of English closer to the version spoken in England at the time England colonized the region. Jamaican English, for example, hews fairly closely to Elizabethan pronunciation, though, of course, it diverged from that dialect centuries ago.

Britain, as a whole, has adapted English to both national needs and regional needs. It has taken the language of Shakespeare and added to it a lexicon of idioms far larger than the ones it inherited, creating a vast landscape of linguistic variation unusual to the British Isles. Americans often believe that speaking English is enough to understand Britons. Still, such a superficial reading of language leads only to confusion when Americans need to go about movements of daily life in the UK. How well do you know classic British phrases? Test your knowledge with this quiz!

What part of a bee's anatomy is objectively the best part?

The original meaning of this expression dates back to England in the 1700s, wherein it referred to something very small and of little importance. In the 1920s, America changed its colloquial meaning and popularized the expression in Britain, which has firmly held on to the expression despite it disappearing from common usage across the pond. Today it means "the best."

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If you heard that someone you suspected lived on a trust fund was "absolutely _________," what would you suspect belongs in the blank?

While calling someone "absolutely minted" is a description of their good fortune, it isn't exactly a compliment in the UK. Since Britain has a class system, no one lives under the false belief that if one is born wealthy, one has in any way accomplished anything by possessing that wealth. As such, this isn't the sort of thing one would say to the face of someone absolutely minted, but rather, a descriptor meant for third parties.

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If you were in distress and needed a fresh supply for which you would call through a locked door, you'd be asking for what kind of "roll"?

Many Americans may be familiar with the expression "water closet" or "WC." Still, a much more common (especially these days) and more casual way of describing a lavatory is "the bog." As such, the roll of paper one uses in the bog can be referred to either as "loo roll," or, very colorfully, as "bog roll."

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How many "shakes of a lamb's tail" is considered fairly quick?

The expression "two shakes of a lamb's tail" means when something will be done in a moment. The UK is a nation that keeps a lot of sheep, and foreign travelers may find that rack of lamb and leg of lamb are both much cheaper there than they are in some other parts of the world. The observation that lambs' tails shake quickly is just a natural extension of having them around.

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If you were "________ to bits" about something, you'd feel pretty good about it. What's missing though?

While the term "chuff" was used as far back as the 16th century to describe someone so self-satisfied they came across as unpleasant, the term has since steered in another direction. Today, to say one is "chuffed" or very commonly "chuffed to bits" means that one is very satisfied with one's fortune, be it the result of luck, work, or something else. Typically, this is not a term used by the upper classes.

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How would you begin the phrase "________ the mickey"?

"Taking the mickey" is an expression meaning "to make fun of someone." Its origins lie in Cockney Rhyming Slang, a very old and very regional sub-dialect traditionally spoken in London by certain quarters of the working class. Without going into the colorful details, It comes from "Mickey Bliss," which rhymes with another often spoken Britishism "taking the ..." Well, we can't fill in all the blanks for you now, can we?

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What word is missing from "give me a _________ on the blower"?

"Give me a tickle on the blower" or "give me a tickle" both have to do with getting a call. The euphemism "blower" comes from the British Navy, who use a "voice pipe" or "speaking tube," a device built into ships to allow communication between decks without using electronics, and resembles an old fashioned telephone microphone.

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Who is your uncle when things are all sorted out?

The expression "Bob's your uncle" means "everything is sorted out in your favor," and seems to come from an event in the 1800s. In 1887, Arthur Balfour, the nephew of Lord Salisbury, a powerful force in government, was made Chief Secretary for Ireland despite his youth and inexperience. Lord Salisbury's given name was Robert, and thus was born "Bob's your uncle."

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What's missing from the phrase "Taking coal to ___________"?

The expression "taking coal to Newcastle" or also "bringing coal to Newcastle" refers to situations when one is doing something unnecessary. This is because, as part of the industrial north of England, Newcastle sits amid coal country, and thus bringing coal to Newcastle is a bit redundant.

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How would you fill in the blank in "He _________ to Coventry"?

The expression "to send someone to Coventry" seems oddly specific, since it means "to prevent someone from taking part in something, probably out of dislike." It's an old expression and a useful one when the right occasion comes up, but why the town of Coventry was singled out for this, no one knows for sure.

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If you were saying something took forever, what would you say you were doing to the Forth Bridge?

The Forth Bridge is a very long railway bridge crossing an estuary (called a firth in Scotland), which is part of the Forth, a river. The Firth of Forth is so wide where the bridge crosses it, and the bridge itself is so massive, that painting it takes so long that as soon as the crew finishes painting it end to end, they have to start repainting it where they began, making it a hopeless task that will never end. This is what it means to be "painting the Forth Bridge."

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If one is traveling abroad without foreign goods, how would one complete the statement "I've nothing to declare but ___________"?

Author Oscar Wilde visited the U.S. in 1882. While there is no evidence he actually said this upon his arrival in New York, possibly due to the success of his tour with regards to its impact on his reputation, the phrase is attributed to him. Knowing Wilde, it's not impossible that he came up with the quote himself sometime later in recounting the successful trip, but it's equally likely it was one of his admirers who coined it and attributed it to him.

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How would you complete the phrase "a few sandwiches ___________ picnic"?

This expression is part of a multitude of similar expressions so common across the English speaking world that even if one isn't familiar with the specific idiom, it tends to come across easily as meaning "slightly off." Similar expressions include "a few cards short of a full deck" and " missing a few screws."

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When you're told something is "standard," what adjective might you hear attached to that word?

The term "bog standard" means "average," but this is about all we can say for sure about the expression. One theory of its origins is that it is a corruption of the term "Box Standard," the basic version of the toy Meccano, a toy known in the U.S. as an Erector Set. Another theory has to do with a rivalry between the BBC and ATV, a rival in the 1960s, ATV's head, and a complicated rhyming chain.

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How would you finish the request "budge _________"?

The phrase "budge up" is a very casual and familiar was of asking someone to move over a little from where they are seated. This expression is something one might use at home, asking someone on a couch to move over a little, but not on public transport, with strangers.

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If you make a tea that's strong and has milk in it, what kind of tea is it?

"Builder's tea" is the term applied to strong tea with milk, usually made with a teabag in a mug, as opposed to using a tea kettle and loose leaves. Its name derives from the fact that this is the sort of tea that one would often find builders (read: construction workers, etc.) drinking on their breaks because it is easy to make, and provides some energy. Ironically, these days, many builders prefer coffee.

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What would you slot into the phrase "When John came to the party uninvited, it put Beth's _____ up"?

If someone were to "put your back up," it would mean they did something very annoying to you, but usually its use is specific to when one does something to create a situation of awkwardness or embarrassment, rather than simply saying or doing something offensive. Arriving uninvited to a party would certainly put the host's back up.

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How would you complete the unfortunately constructed phrase "_______ whispers," meaning "a story distorted through poor communication"?

This expression is taken directly from the name of the game Americans call "Telephone." It refers to the way a story, passed from one party to another can come out so distorted; it is as though the person telling the story was speaking a language other than English, and thus not understood by their audience. In life, stories are often distorted in this way, and so this strangely constructed expression remains in common use.

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How would you finish the phrase "After the game, the two of us had a good, long chin _____"?

"Chin wagging" or "a chin wag" is a very visual way of describing an animated conversation. More specifically, a chin wag is usually a positive conversation, not usually an argument or shouting match.

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If someone went to the barber, how would they finish asking for a trim with the phrase "short back and _______"?

"Short back and sides" is a simple, straightforward descriptor of the conservative haircut many men request at the barber, akin to asking for "a trim" in the U.S. While similar, it isn't the same as "a trim," and American men with specific haircuts should be prepared to be disappointed should they confuse the two expressions.

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What do you think is missing from "_____-a-block"?

The term "chock-a-block" has its origins at sea. While it could be used to describe a traffic jam ("The roads are chock-a-block with cars."), the term comes from when two blocks (meaning pulleys) on a ship are so close together that they are touching. The term is popular across the English-speaking world, but very much so in England, from where it seems to have come.

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If you were told that your watch looked expensive, a Briton might say it "looks like it cost a _______." How should that sentence finish?

The expression "cost a bomb" is a distinctly British way of saying something was expensive. Similar constructions from other parts of the English-speaking world include "it cost an arm and a leg."

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What would a gossip be accused of doing with curtains?

The colorful expression "curtain twitcher" refers to a gossip, conjuring the idea that they sit by their window, peeking through the curtains for any signs of good gossip, and then quickly ducking when someone looks, causing the curtains to twitch. For an excellent example from popular culture, see Hyacinth Bucket from the television show "Keeping Up Appearances."

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What possession of a dog would one have, but not want because it always means trouble?

The expression "dog's dinner" or "dog's breakfast" means trouble. More specifically, usage might refer to how "My latest work assignment is a real dog's dinner," or "I thought Brexit would be easy, but it's turning out to be a real dog's dinner."

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What word fits into "_______ around" when describing someone wasting time?

The late 1700s gave English this lovely expression, which comes from Scotland and the north of England. The original meaning refers to how the wind blows (puffing or faffing) and then uses this to describe the act of wasting time, metaphorically. Thus, "faffing around" is akin to blowing on things, which does nothing.

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When someone does everything they can possibly do, what are they adding to the blank in the phrase "the _________ Monty"?

Anyone familiar with British cinema should have at least heard the expression "the full Monty" from the film by the title "The Full Monty," but the phrase doesn't just mean "getting naked." It actually means "doing everything possible" and goes back to the 1980s. It is believed that it comes from either gambling (Monty meaning "the pot") or the military, either from a clothier supplying ex-soldiers or from the breakfast habits of WW2 leader Field Marshal Montgomery.

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How would you fill in the blank when describing someone energetic as "full of _________"?

If anyone ever accuses you of being "full of beans," don't worry, it's not a bad thing. It just means they think you are noticeably energetic. The likely origins of this date to the 1840s, when horses were fed beans and would be noticeably livelier after a full meal of them. It has nothing to do with coffee.

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If someone perambulated someplace with haste, you might say "they ______ it." What's missing?

Some idioms rely on complex constructions stemming from literature or history or both. This one is fairly straightforward, describing the act of running by way of the part of the body responsible for the task. Thus, "legging it" means "running."

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If you were arrested, you might hear "You're _______." What's missing from that phrase?

Not to be confused with the expression meaning "to steal something," this usage of the verb "nick" means quite the opposite of committing a crime. It means when someone has been arrested. On that occasion, a copper might tell you, "Oy, you're nicked, mate."

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How would you complete the phrase "This weekend I'm going _______ to London"?

The origins of "up to London" as a way of describing going to the capital city are murky. On the one hand, London is the capital, and thus it is important, which would seem to make going "up" a term of importance. On the other hand, students at Oxford would also go "up" to Oxford, making trips between the two cities an ever-increasing journey upward. Likewise, train operators refer to going to London as "up" and away as "down."

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If you were asked to do something and answered in the affirmative you might say "On it like ______." What would go in the blank?

Not a part of Cockney Rhyming Slang, this expression comes from Newcastle, and is akin to the phrase "on it like white on rice." A regional saying, it seems to have reached popular culture via the reality show "The Geordie Shore," Geordie meaning either a person from or the region in the north of England around the towns of Tyneside and Newcastle.

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If describing a tragic loss, what would you say your grandfather did to his clogs?

An expression that is reliably dating to the 1970s, it's unclear why it came into being. Clogs were not a popular style of shoe in the north of England, from where this expression originates, nor does the verb "pop" have clear origins. Never the less, the phrase refers to when one dies, but in a fun way.

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If you were out for the night looking for romance, what would you "be on"?

While "trying to get one's leg over" means the same thing as this expression, the correct answer is "to be on the pull." The etymology of this expression isn't clear, but once understood, its meaning is.

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How would you fill in the blank in the phrase "quid's ___" if you meant something akin to "the die is cast"?

"Quid" is a way of saying "a British pound" (£) or a large collection of pounds. For example, 10 quid would mean 10 pounds. The term comes from the Latin "Quid Pro Quo," meaning to do something in exchange for something. "Quid's in" means "the investment is in" with the suggestion it will pay off.

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What would one be doing to the pudding to ruin it by working too hard?

"Over-egging the pudding" is an expression that relies somewhat on knowledge of cooking traditions in England, where cakes and other puddings (read: "treats") often involve the inclusion of eggs. Ask any chef if adding too many eggs to something will ruin it, and you will get an answer in the affirmative.

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