If you’ve ever been to the UK for business or pleasure, you’ll know we really do all talk like we just stepped out of a Dickens novel onto the set of Downton Abbey. Well, maybe not – but if you’re hiring a Brit (or about to start working with one), there are some British English turns of phrase that might help you make them feel at home.
And if at any point you think I’m making these up, I can assure you I am not. In fact, I was taught these things at school. Fair enough, by a teacher who was as old as Methuselah, but I can still recite traditional English phrases (and the collective nouns of multiple animals) and drop them into any conversation at will. We Brits really do know the value of education, after all.
1. Fine words butter no parsnips
So you’re thinking that someone is all words and no action? Or maybe you’ve spotted some empty flattery. This lovely old saying is well overdue a renaissance, meaning that words alone – and especially empty praise – do not yield results.
If you’re subjected to somebody trying to get into your good books with hollow words, try this phrase to properly put them in their place, and bond with your new British colleague all at once – because, after all, nobody wants unbuttered parsnips, do they?
2. All fur coat and no knickers
So you’ve prepared your report. It’s on time and beautifully presented. You hand it over, but the verdict from your Brit colleague is "fur coat, no knickers." It’s not good news, I’m afraid.
This particularly vivid turn of phrase implies somebody thinking too much about the first impression – perhaps a case of style above substance. Regardless your view on wearing fur, pairing a fur coat with a commando approach to your undergarments suggests a focus in the wrong place. And a criminally bad dress sense.
3. It's not cricket
This phrase is possibly better understood, even amongst Brits, than the game of cricket itself. And if you are unfamiliar with the gentle subtleties of the game, you might think that it refers to the interminable length of the matches, their reliance on the notoriously fickle British weather, or complex scoring systems.
But no, it’s all about fairness. Cricket is an inherently gentlemanly sport. Where else would the players own up if their mistakes aren’t spotted by the umpire, or stop their winning celebrations to commiserate with their opponents? If something is unfair or immoral, it is, therefore, "not cricket".
4. Many a mickle make a muckle
Technically, this is a Scottish phrase – try it with your best Glasgow accent, and see how it goes down. Or not.
The important thing is the meaning – a mickle is a small amount of something, and a muckle a large amount; so you can gather up a great deal of something in small increments. Try this exchange for a more modern office context: "I can’t honestly see how recycling this single sheet of paper will help save the rainforest". "Ah ha, but, my good friend – many a mickle makes a muckle". You will fit right in with your new British team member.
5. Bob's your uncle
What do you mean? You don’t have an uncle called Bob? Think of this as more of a moment of unveiling, a "ta da!", if you will. But without quite the showmanship that this implies.
Understated as usual, it’s not really the British way to reveal some great idea, achievement or truth with any fanfare – so if your new colleague is explaining something, you might get to hear this phrase.
Ask for some help or an explanation, for example, and you might get a response like "Ah, creating pivot tables in Excel?" (or performing brain surgery/making a lemon meringue pie – depending on your field, of course), "Well, you just do this, and this – and Bob’s your uncle!"
Got all that? Perfecting your British English phrases so you can talk seamlessly with your new British colleague is easy, right? Well, then, "Bob’s your uncle!"