Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

Knickers in a Twist

A Dictionary of British Slang

by Jonathan Bernstein

“Hilarious and entertaining.” –Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date November 23, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5834-7
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.13"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Got your knickers in a twist? Or are you completely chuffed? With the cheekiness of Austin Powers and the tidbit quotient of Schott’s Miscellany, don’t dream of visiting the UK, dating a Brit, or truly understanding what Jude Law is saying without this handy, hilarious, and informative guide to Britspeak.

“Take a butcher’s at me new daisy roots. They’re the business!”

If a rather large British bloke directed the previous demand at you, and during your puzzled silence he took offense and offered to “sort you out,” waving his fist in your face, perhaps it’s time you studied up on the intricacies of everyday British slang. Screenwriter Jonathan Bernstein’s collection of Cockney rhyming slang, insults culled from British television shows of yore, and regional and “high British” favorites provides hours of educational, enlightening, even lifesaving hilarity.

Brits and Americans dress the same, eat at the same chain restaurants, pass music back and forth across the Atlantic, and our national leaders are practically conjoined twins. But the second the Brits open their mouths, all bets are off. The aim of these unscholarly pages is to guide you through the jungle of British slang, uncovering the etymology but also illuminating the correct usage. And if it doesn’t accomplish that, at least you’ll be aware that when a British citizen describes you as a “wally,” a “herbert,” a ‘spanner,” or a “bampot,” he’s not show­ering you with compliments. Knickers in a Twist is as indispensable as a London city guide, as spot-on funny as an episode of The Office, and as edifying as Born to Kvetch and Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Sweet as a nut: Okay, fine, things are great.

The Filth: The police.

To pull someone’s plonker: Pull someone’s leg. And by leg I mean leg. Not what you were thinking. Cheeky monkey.

Wanking chariot: Bed.


“Indispensable.” –Vanity Fair

“Hilarious and entertaining.” –Chicago Tribune

“Will probably do more for revolutionizing the way you and your nearest and dearest address one another than any other book out this year . . . Often bring[s] an overt chuckle.” –J. Peter Bergman, Edge New York



If you like plonk, are you a plonker? If you have a minge, does that make you a minger? If you are a slag, does that mean you should be slagged? If you’ve got bottle, is there a chance that you might bottle it? If you’re a slapper, does that automatically make you a happy slapper?

As a Los Angeles–based, green card–carrying Scot who returns with reasonable frequency to his native land, I’m in a pretty good position to comment on the similarity between the United States and the UK. Walking the mean streets of Glasgow, I see a Gap, a Subway, a McDonald’s, an Arby’s, a Borders, a Burger King, a Starbucks, and a Blockbuster. Online, I order goods from Amazon.com. On TV I can, if I wish, watch Lost, Desperate Housewives, ballroom-dancing D-list celebrities, and Simon Cowell crushing the dreams of deluded crooners. Hollywood’s fear of piracy has made the international release date more frequent with the result that the lineup of entertainment at the British multiplex is similar to that on offer in any American mall.

America’s presence both in the mercantile and in the social lives of the British is pervasive enough to inspire dark thoughts of cultural imperialism.

Then the British open their mouths and all such thoughts vanish. It’s not just the accents that render non-posh Brits all but incomprehensible to the majority of Americans. It’s the euphemisms, the abbreviations, the colloquialisms; it’s the slang. American sitcom writers looking to amuse themselves have made a practice of slipping the epithet “wanker” into otherwise innocent chunks of dialogue. Mike Myers successfully propelled ‘shag” into the U.S. lexicon. But beyond that lies a vast and teeming morass of head-scratchers. What’s an ASBO? Or a bovver boy? A chav? A bell-end? What’s the difference between a bap and baps?

The aim of these unscholarly pages is to guide you through the jungle of British slang, uncovering the etymology but also illuminating the correct usage. After all, British slang is largely class-based. You have to be aware of how to utilize it with the appropriate degree of condescension, belligerence, or glee. In the following pages, the mysteries of cockney rhyming slang, of Polari (the secret gay code of the 1950s and “60s), of TV catchphrases, of the criminal classes, of the sports field, and of the bedroom will be dispelled in order to bring about greater communication and understanding between our two great nations. And if it doesn’t accomplish that at least you’ll be aware that when a British citizen describes you as a wally, a herbert, a spanner, or a bampot, he is not showering you with compliments.

Oh yes, and the answers to the opening questions are: sometimes, not necessarily, only in extreme circumstances, no, and I hope not.

Jonathan BernsteinLos Angeles, January 2006

Fighting Talk
A Bit of a Barney

A carry on
A loud argument or commotion

A good rollicking
Tell someone off

“I gave him a good rollicking”.

A punch up the bracket
A punch aimed in the region of the nose and mouth

“You’ll get a punch up the bracket if I catch you looking at my pint!”

A tanner

Argument leading to violence

Hostile and argumentative. Corruption of invented slang from Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, in which the author concocted a convincing futurist British slang that mixed Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, and sheer neologisms to great effect. In the book, “bolshy” was used in its original Russian derivation, to mean “great big,” or some approximation thereof.

Brass neck
Cheek, impudence, nerve, sass (seemingly a term of admiration but rarely applied without disdain)

Blood (from the color of claret, which is bloodlike)

Hit someone with the intent of knocking some sense into them rather than causing them physical damage

Dead leg
Knee someone on the side of the thigh (a common assault during the school years, very painful). U.S. version: charley horse.

Ding dong

“I don’t know what he said but one minute we were just having a bit of a natter and the next there was an almighty ding dong, fists flying, the whole bit!”

Do one

Done over
Beaten up

Down the tubes
An expression indicating that an object or situation is no longer functioning or proceeding according to plan

“I can’t pick you up at the airport. The motor’s gone down the tubes’.

Get knotted
A brusque dismissal

Go off on one
Throw a fit

Go spare
Become unreasonably angry

Hard nut
Aggressive, tough person

He gets on my wick
He annoys me to the point that I may have to chastise him in a brutal fashion

I don’t give a monkey’s
I don’t care

Knuckle duster
Brass knuckles

Lace into
Attack, either verbally or physically

Hit somebody

“I lamped him”.

Leave it out
Stop that

Lose your rag
Lose your temper

Make it snappy
Hurry up

Make mincemeat of somebody
Beat someone up

Mob handed
Be part of a group, usually looking for trouble

Head butt

Offer someone out
Challenge someone to a fight. Equivalent to the standard U.S. challenge, “Let’s take it outside.”

On my uppers
Flat broke, destitute

A rage or tantrum

‘don’t get in a paddy”.

Put a sock in it
Be quiet

A chewing out, being torn off a strip



‘don’t get shirty with me, mate!”

Shove off
Go away

Shut your cakehole
Shut your mouth

Sling your hook
Leave, go away

Stick one on someone
Hit someone

“He looked at me funny so I stuck one on him. Turns out he was blind, but still, he was asking for it”.

Stitch that!
Soccer hooligan war cry shouted while delivering a head butt or similar act of violence to an adversary, rival, or innocent passerby; a contemporization of the more genteel cry to arms “Take that!”

A bad mood

‘don’t throw a strop just because you got a bad pint”.

Also, stroppy.

Throw a wobbler
Similar to throwing a strop but somehow more petulant; the sort of behavior you might expect from a truculent D-list celebrity expecting to be instantly seated at a restaurant even though s/he hasn’t made a reservation

To box someone’s ears
To give them a slap around the head for misbehaving

The V-sign
The infamous “up yours’ gesture achieved by extending the first and middle fingers at the same time as raising the hand upward; now sadly supplanted by the middle finger

Well “ard (well hard)
(1) Someone who is tough

“You don’t wanna get in a ruck with that geezer, he’s well “ard”.

(2) An exclamation of enthusiasm

“You got in a ruck with that geezer and you gave him what for. Well “ard!”

What for
Speak roughly to someone or threaten to deal with them physically

“I gave him what for”.

You’re having a laugh
You’re enjoying a joke at my expense and this is causing me increasing displeasure that will result in physical confrontation . . .

©2006 by Jonathan Bernstein. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.