Words at Play

Please Don't Whinge About Being Knackered, You Prat

10 of M-W's favourite British words


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Although Merriam-Webster is a dictionary of American English, it contains a range of words rarely heard outside Britain. Here are some of our favourites.

Definition - a stupid or foolish person

Prat has been British slang for the sort of person with whom you’d rather not share a long train journey since the middle of the 20th century. Prior to this the word served a number of other useful functions, with such meanings as “the buttocks” and “to nudge or push (as a person) with the buttocks.” A pratfall, now commonly used to mean “a humiliating mishap or blunder,” originally meant “a fall on the buttocks.”

”His father was ailing and Ravel dearly wanted him to see the première.” (Silly prat: did he not know why the father was ailing? Could he not have stopped his febrile pacing and enquired whether there might be any connection between the father’s illness and this opera?)
— Frank Delaney, Punch (London, Eng.), 26 Aug. 1987

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Definition - to complain fretfully: whine

Whinge and whine may look like simple variants, but the two words are fairly distinct, with meanings and histories that are independent. Whinge comes from an Old English word, hwinsian, meaning “to wail or moan discontentedly,” whereas whine comes from the Old English hwinan (“to make a humming or whirring sound”). Whinge, in use since the 12th century, has always had a meaning related to complaining; whine, on the other hand, did not begin to have its now-familiar meaning until the 16th century.

O it is a sweet thing ay to be whinging, and crying, and seeking about Christ's Pantry Doors, and to hold ay an Eye upon Christ when he goes into the House of Wine, into His Fathers fair Luckie Wine-Celler where there are many Wines, and bout in at Christ's back.
— Samuel Rutherford, Christs Napkin, 1660

top-10-favorite-british-words-vol-1-knackered

Definition - tired, exhausted

As is the case with many of the other Britishisms on this list, the “tired or exhausted” sense of knackered is fairly recent, in use only since the latter portion of the 20th century. The word has been in slang use as a verb, meaning “to kill,” since the 19th century, and is possibly related to an earlier noun form of knacker meaning “horse-slaughterer” or “saddle-maker.”

You’ve got to give others the impression that you’re not really as tired as you are, a bit of kidology—try to maintain form, even maybe smile sometimes, drop your hands down loose as if you’re relaxing—when in actual fact you could be absolutely knackered.
The Sunday Times (London. Eng.), 22 Mar. 1970

top-10-favorite-british-words-vol-1-jiggery-pokery

Definition - dishonest or suspicious activity; nonsense

The English language has hundreds of reduplicative formations such as jiggery-pokery. A number of these, such as hocus-pocus and flimflam, and claptrap also have meanings related to “nonsense.” Jiggery-pokery comes from the earlier joukery-pawkery; both joukery and pawkery are English regionalisms for “trickery.”

Under other measures the averages could be altered either by intrigue or treachery to suit speculators in foreign grain, but, under the present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery of the sort.
Morning Post (London, Eng.), 22 Dec. 1845

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Definition - used to express amazement, surprise, or perplexity

Blimey is labeled chiefly British in our dictionary, which is one way of saying ‘mainly used by the British, but occasionally used jocularly by Americans who put on a bad Cockney accent and pair it with words such as guvnor.’ Blimey is a shortening of Gorblimey, which itself is a euphemism for “God blind me.”

”After a bit, seeing as no one come, I ups with the knocker again to give a fair ole belt wiv it, and—“ he paused while they all leant forward anxiously—“blimey! if a blinkin’ Jack Johnson didn’t blow the ‘ole ‘ouse out of me…”
The Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Can.), 5 Jan. 1916

top-10-favorite-british-words-vol-1-chunter

Definition - to talk in a low inarticulate way: mutter

Chunter, like bebop and bisbigliando, is a word of imitative origin. In use since the 16th century, it is one of a fine number of synonyms the English language possesses for “mutter.” Should you need additional obscure ways of saying mutter or grumble you may use channer, mammer, or [mussitate]/dictionary/mussitate).

And nanny, notwithstanding her chuntering, as John said, made him a good wife, and he declared that he had never been so happy in his life, for he had no care but to do as Nanny bid him.
— Anne Bowman, Esperanza, or, The Home of the Wanderers, 1855

top-10-favorite-british-words-vol-1-twee

Definition - affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint

Twee may look as though it is related to tweet, but the latter word is imitative in origin and the former is thought to be a kind of baby talk variation of sweet. Other English words which probably come from baby-talk are [mama]/dictionary/mama), nanny, and cockyolly bird (a pet name for any small bird).

But in spite of a cast with, on the whole, more spirit than talent, some twee little numbers satirising some twee big numbers, and a nippy tap routine or two, this broadly brushed-in cartoon of the musicals of the thirties was at no point of the compass my noggin of rum.
— Caryl Brahms, The Guardian (London, Eng.), 28 Aug. 1969

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Definition - lacking intelligence: stupid

If one can be gormless, does that also mean that one can be gormful? While the temptation is very strong to tell you that you can be anything you want to be if you wish hard enough, we would be doing you a disservice if we said you could be gormful, for we have no record of such a word ever seeing use. Gormless comes from the dialect word gaum, which means “attention” or “understanding.”

Here a pale-faced, heavy-looking boy with long hair, and what is called in the North a “gormless” expression of face, strolled slowly up.
Chumes: An Illustrated Paper for Boys (London, Eng.), 27 Apr. 1898

top-10-favorite-british-words-vol-1-boffin

Definition - a scientific expert and especially one involved in technological research

Boffin is a mysterious word, one which—although it entered common use but recently (around World War II)—has an etymology that is unknown. Although the word’s roots are unclear it does appear to have begun being used largely in reference to scientists in the RAF (Royal Air Force). Shortly after entering common usage boffin began to broaden somewhat, and to be applied next to scientists in general, and thereafter to academics of many varieties.

Sir Henry Tizard, the chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, had to admit in his speech at yesterday’s lunch of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee that he had failed to discover why the many scientists attached to the R.A.F> were call “Boffins.” One R.A.F. man whom he asked could only reply, “Well, what else could you call them?”
The Daily Telegraph (London, Eng.), 4 Feb. 1942

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Definition — used to express farewell

Pip-pip, that particularly cheery of old-fashioned British farewells, is said to have been formed in imitation of the sound made by a car horn. Pip-pip should not be confused with ta-ta, toodle-oo, toodle-pip, or any other largely British modes of saying “good-bye.”

Well, of course, you may say that, having deposited female and suitcase at their destination, old Freddie should have uttered a brief, courteous "Pip-pip!" and legged it.
— P. G. Wodehouse, Fate (in The Most of P. G. Wodehouse), 1960

Want more? See Favorite British Words, Vol. 2




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