Do You Know These 8 Very British Idioms?

Do You Know These 8 Very British Idioms?

You’re about to learn 8 British idioms. Also check out 5 Common British English Words.

So you can express yourself beautifully in English (partly thanks to our big tenses review, right?!).

You know the tenses, your vocabulary is awesome, you know how to feel comfortable in different situations and you can describe the awesome and terrible people around you.

So you feel more comfortable and start joining in English conversations more.

Good for you! You rock!

Then someone throws an idiom at you, and you look like this:


Idioms are not only a wonderful way of expressing yourself like an expert English speaker, but they also give you a great insight into how the culture of the language works.

So today I want to introduce you 8 very British idioms.

For each idiom, you’re going to:

  • See an example of the idiom in a natural situation
  • Learn the meaning of the idiom
  • Know how to use it
  • Know when to use it

So let’s get started, shall we?

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British Idiom #1: That’s not on

British Idioms: That's Not On

What does it mean?

This is a modern version of an even more British-sounding idiom, “that’s not cricket.”

It means “that’s not acceptable” or “that’s not OK.”

OK. How can I use it?

The formula here is pretty simple:

That’s not on!


It’s not on!

We usually use this phrase with “it” or “that.”

Great. When can I use it?

You can use it in any situation when you’re feeling (at least a bit) angry about something.

But be careful: If you’re angry with someone, don’t say this idiom to their face — it might seem aggressive.

Of course, if you really want to show your anger, then go ahead. But don’t blame me if they hit you, yeah?

British Idiom #2: Not my cup of tea

British Idioms: Not My Cup of Tea

What does it mean?

When you say “it’s not my cup of tea,” you mean that it’s not something you particularly like. (We usually shorten the phrase to “not my cup of tea.”)

It’s something you don’t enjoy.

We can also say “it’s not my thing,” which is a bit more common these days.

OK. How can I use it?

In the 1800s, this idiom was commonly used in the positive, as in, “Oh, giraffe tennis? That’s just my cup of tea!”

But sometime in the 20th century, we started using it to describe things that we DON’T like.

You can use pronouns:

That’s not my cup of tea.

No, it’s not my cup of tea.

Or you can specify the subject:

Dolphin football’s not really my cup of tea.

Running 10 miles in the winter wearing just a baseball cap isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer giraffe tennis.

Great. When can I use it?

Good news. You can pretty much use this in any situation.

It’s not rude. It’s not super formal but it’s not super informal, either. It’s right in the middle ground.

So you can use it with the Queen of England when you meet her. (We all meet her all the time, right?)

But you can also use it with your best friend’s strange cousin. Possibly after he’s invited you to some more giraffe tennis.

British Idiom #4: On the back foot

British Idioms: On the Back Foot

What does it mean?

This idiom is usually used in competitive situations, like sports, politics or business.

It means “in a defensive position” or “in a losing position.”

OK. How can I use it?

The formula for this is pretty simple: be + on the back foot

Manchester has been on the back foot for the whole match.

Or we can use the phrase “put someone on the back foot”:

Wow! The Prime Minister called a snap election!* That’s really put the opposition on the back foot.

*sudden election

Great. When can I use it?

You’ll be happy to hear that you can use this one in pretty much any situation.

It’s particularly popular in the world of politics. You can see why, right?

British Idiom #5: It’s all gone Pete Tong!

British Idioms: Gone Pete Tong

What does it mean?

It means “it’s all gone wrong!”

OK. How can I use it?

This is one of those idioms that you can only really use one way, and that’s by using all the words.

So you need to say:

It’s all gone Pete Tong.

That’s it!

Great. When can I use it?

This one is definitely not one to use at work or with that weird-eyed woman I mentioned above. She really is weird.

That’s because this one is very informal. So stick to using it with your friends and that very nice cousin!

By the way, this is an example of Cockney rhyming slang.

It’s a sophisticated form of slang. Here’s how it works:

You take a word. Let’s take the word “phone”:


What rhymes with phone? Let’s use that instead:

Phone → bone

OK. And what can we say with this word “bone”?

Dog and bone

Now this phrase, “dog and bone,” can be used instead of “phone.”

Sorry I didn’t answer the door, I was on the dog and bone.

However, we usually remove the second word, so we're left with:

Sorry I didn’t answer the door, I was on the dog.

Fun, isn’t it?

British Idiom #6: Keep your wig on

British Idioms: Keep Your Wig On

What does it mean?

“Calm down!” “Don’t get so angry!”

I like this one, because it’s easy to imagine someone getting so angry that he loses his wig.

OK. How can I use it?

Use this idiom when you want to tell someone that they’re getting angry unnecessarily.

Don’t change any of the words. This idiom only works with the exact words:

Keep your wig on.

Great. When can I use it?

Be a bit careful with this one.

If you use this with someone you don’t know well, they might get even more angry.

Use it when you actually want to show that you’re getting annoyed with someone for getting angry.

British Idiom #6: Have a bun in the oven

British Idioms: Have a Bun in the Oven

What does it mean?

This just means “pregnant”!

That’s it!

I guess the bun is the baby and the oven is the womb.

OK. How can I use it?

We usually use this one with “have got”:

She’s not drinking. She’s got a bun in the oven!

Great. When can I use it?

This is quite informal, but not too “street.”

You can use this in almost any situation except for formal ones.

This one is, however, a little old fashioned, so you might want to avoid using it with your trendy 17-year-old niece (who, hopefully, doesn’t have a bun in the oven!).

British Idiom #8: On the blink

British Idioms: On the Blink

What does it mean?

When something’s “on the blink” it means it’s not working properly. Probably because it’s too old.

There’s also a strong implication that it’s come to the end of its life. Like a computer from the ’80s or the hipster movement (I hope!).

OK. How can I use it?

We usually use this idiom to refer to things that use electricity, like computers, elevators or phones.

Great. When can I use it?

This is quite informal but totally inoffensive.

So just like “bun in the oven,” you can use it in any situation apart from when you have to go and meet the Queen of Sweden. Like you do every week, right?

So these are 8 of my favourite British idioms.

How many did you know?

Do you know any other British idioms? Tell me about them in the comments!

25 thoughts on “Do You Know These 8 Very British Idioms?

      1. If someone really made you angry, for instance, they ran over your cat or stole your biscuits, pooped in your yard, what would you say then? I have recently moved to the UK, and I am finding it difficult to find appropriate ways to express my frustrations completely to strangers when they misbehave.

        1. Here’s a little secret:

          If you really want to show your anger or disgust at an English person, say “sorry” in a very tense voice, then walk away.

          But be careful. When you do this you’re SERIOUSLY making a point. ;)

  1. As an American English teacher, I’m less familiar than I probably should be with British idioms. I only knew 6 of these 8 idioms. Thanks for sharing!

    By the way, which expression do you think is the most frequent? Least frequent? Will you be sharing more short groups of useful British idioms?

    1. Thanks Eric.

      I don’t think I can make a call on which ones are most/least frequent. I mean … I don’t get to use “bun in the oven” so often due to circumstances. I get to use “on the blink more” but that’s also down to the situations I find myself in!

      Glad you enjoyed these!

  2. Wonderful post, just love to learn these great British idioms. Couple of them I’ve never heard before.
    Really interesting, thanks a million Clark and Miller.

    Regards from Australia

  3. As an English person, I’d avoid saying “beyond the pale” with someone from Ireland due to the history of that expression.

    I’d also say ” keep your hair on” not keep your wig on.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Absolutely good call about the use of “beyond the pale.” It brings up an interesting concept: When a phrase has established its own meaning beyond its original meaning, do the associations with that original meaning still continue?

      I like “keep your hair on,” too. Sort of more extreme. I mean — imagine getting so angry that your hair fell off…

  4. Interesting. I suspect some of these might be geographically restricted – I’m Scottish and I’ve never heard Pete Tong before, or keep your wig on – it’s always keep your hair on. I would also be quite careful in using beyond the pale, but I have a lot of Irish connections, and it’s so easy to offend people.

    1. Good points all round Caroline. Especially with the Beyond the Pale one. Might not be cricket!

      And yes — there’s no escaping the fact that the Britain’s so damned linguistically diverse. As teachers I think the best we can do is teach what we’re familiar with and encourage our students to keep an open mind to alternatives.

    1. Thanks.

      Some advice: don’t treat phrasal verbs differently from any other vocab.

      Would you try and memorise a list of random words?

      It’s the same with phrasal verbs — just learn them as they come (from reading, TV, talking, lessons or wherever you usually pick up vocab).

      Much easier.

      Thanks for the support!

  5. Now I am curious about the history of Beyond The Pale, not to mention a lot of the other ones. I’m also an American in the US, so a lot of these I’m not so familiar with. Is Pete Tong a person? Obviously, I could research these, but it might be interesting to have them be a footnote of this article. Thank you for publishing it It was wonderful!

    1. Yes. The phrase “beyond the pale” actually has some echoes from colonialism.

      “The Pale” was the area around Dublin originally under British (well, Norman at that time) control when they invaded in the 12th century. The implication is that anything outside their jurisdiction was uncivilised and wild.

      Pete Tong, I think, was a DJ back in the … was it late 90s? The Cockney rhyming slang doesn’t imply that he was terrible or anything like that. It’s just that his surname conveniently rhymed with “wrong.”

      Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you enjoy the posts!

  6. Thanks a lot! I’m a foreign learner from Russia. I’m keen on idioms, so about half of them were familiar to me. But there were also some I’ve never heard about! And I like your style and brilliant sense of humor! Thanks! Useful, amusing, helpful!

    1. Hi Irene,

      It’s great to hear from people who are fond of idioms! I’m really glad that even with your keenness of them, I was still able to help you out.

      And thanks for the positive feedback — much, much appreciated!

  7. Hi Gabriel,
    You’re a wonderful teachers & I’m glad by the way you teach things. I’ve a few British friends who often use X, XX and XXX in their messages… If you could please share an article on this one, I would highly appreciate that

    1. Hi Vicky.

      Thanks for the positive comments.

      Yes — emails, SMSes and chat language is something that’s becoming more and more part of our language.

      Expect to see a post on this soon — and thanks for the suggestion!

      And Happy New Year! :)

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