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22 Apr 2013

S is for Slang...

One pet peeve of mine is how British characters may be portrayed as talking from some non-British authors.  I see a lot of slang that is a bit old-fashioned or stereotypical for British teens to speak like.  It's hard because slang constantly changes and there's no way anyone could travel around the whole of England to see how people in different county's speak and what different terms they may use.  But I thought I'd ask a few British blogger friends to share the sort of slang that they also hear just to show how different language can be in England and what kids today (or at the moment) speak like.  Coz we're down with the kids, yo!

This started after I was reading a YA book (not going to be naming) and the British character in the book said sausages were always called bangers in England.  To an extent that is true.  You can hear the term when someone is referring to the meal bangers and mash.   But the rest of the time Brits will refer to sausage as simply "sausage".   Honestly, if you try walking into a sandwich bar in England and ask for a banger and bacon butty (butty = sandwich) you're going to get some right odd looks. 

One thing to watch out for is that slang and terms change wherever you go in England.  When I was at school and dressing in rock band t-shirts and baggy jeans I would be called a grunger.  And when I was in Yorkshire, the term was mosher.  

Subcultures have changed a lot during the years in the UK.  From the mods and the rockers to chavs and goths.  While the term chav wasn't known until early 2000s Colin helped me out with what a chav to him may have been like in the 80s:

"What I think of as a chav in the 80s--I'm thinking of a guy in school who tried to look like Don Johnson (Miami Vice). had a nice watch, rings, tried to look expensive, but was a troll with the girls--didn't have an "expensive" attitude. We had "Duranies"--Duran Duran fan-girls who looked like the singers from Human League and gushed over Simon Le Bon...Of course, we didn't have the term "chav" back then... but as I understand it, the personality type's the same."

Nowadays the term chav is officially recognised in British language/slang and the idea of a chav now is a person who tends to go for more sportier appearances but they're not the US equivalent to jocks.  Tracksuit bottoms, sport brand attire, trainers.  Hairstyles are usually quite short, spiky and full of gel.  The chavs that I've known have a roughness to how they speak (example here which is Kelly from misfits).  For the girls, they also wear sporty gear with large hoop earrings.  Scrap their hair back in high ponytails.  Generally the stereotype has a bad reputation.  If you see anyone on the streets in England being ill-mannered, swearing a lot loudly, and causing trouble people do tend to think: oh, what a chav.  You usually hear them saying things like 'innit' (isn't it) or 'bruv' (brother) - both words are quite London/Southern slang.  They do this weird hand gesture that looks like a gun and go 'brap brap'.  Apparently it's to imitate a gun shot.  I just... I don't know why.  They've got a whole different language to themselves. But the idea of a chav has evolved a lot throughout the years to the stereotype and word we know now.  So have a look at what era your UK character is in.  Chavs haven't been around for very long and the term was only officially recognised in 2005, I think?

So you can see how quickly slang changes for teens in Britain.  Language easily becomes old-fashioned.  In my grandma's childhood (would have been the 30s) she said her and her friends used to call hiding 'getting hiddy' but you'll never hear that term used by a modern day teenager or even my aunts and uncle who were born between 1948 and 1958.

There's still a lot of slang out there that I've not heard off which may be to do with the region of England a person is in so be careful on where your British character is from in the UK.  These examples came from Cole, Laura, and Emma.

 "yo-lo' I don't even know what it means, but there we go." (from Laura). 
I looked YOLO up and apparently it's an acronym for You Only Live Once. I'm 23 and I didn't even know about this motto craze.  I haven't heard teens say this (yet) in Yorkshire so there's always that possibility it is slang that's typical in a different county.  Always remember that. 

The ones that I know and hear are 'mint' which means something good or amazing.  I showed an event to a friend once and they replied "Oh, wow that's mint!".  The same applies to the term 'sick'. Sick = good, awesome, excellent. "That's sick!"

In Yorkshire we have a habit of replacing anything and nothing with 'owt' and' nowt'.  Not something to say in an interview but for informal use you'll hear people in Yorkshire using those words. Eg, "I didn't say owt." and "there were nowt going on". Was and were usually get mixed up as well in my lovely area.  "I were saying that" "They was having a laugh." Also, mum is usually pronounced as 'mam' up North.  It's 'mum' down south.

Further up North (County Durham, Newcastle) I hear people putting 'like' at the end of a sentence.  I've heard it extend down here in Yorkshire but not as much as these counties further up.  Examples: "Where are you going, like?",  "Is this for pudding, like?" or "it's a bit late, like".  I haven't found any meaning to it, at the moment I'm guessing it's just a random emphasis on the end of a sentence.  Maybe if there's anyone from County Durham or Newcastle you'll have a better idea than me.

I could on for ages but this post is already long enough.  If you're not a British reader and have any questions about British slang - whether you want to know if we really use a certain word or the different terms and language in regions feel free to ask! And to any British readers, if you have more slang words to add to this new or old, come and list them in the comments! =D

Thanks to everyone who has helped already!


  1. Newcastle? You mean Newcassle! ;)

    This is actually a very important topic for writers. These days, you can count on the fact that your work will be read outside of your native country. So, if you're a US writer, know that Brits will more than likely be reading your English character, and anything that sounds "wrong" on their lips will jar the ears like fingernails on a blackboard (i.e., US chalkboard). The same applies the other way round for UK writers.

    UK writers need to be very careful about not falling prey to US stereotypes. Not all Americans are gun-toting Texans. But not all are New York liberals either. Not everyone from the Southern States are illiterate hicks (indeed, Central North Carolina has one of the highest concentration of PhDs in the country--by virtue of the fact there are three major universities there, as well as a major research park). And not everyone from the Northern States is intellectual and enlightened. It's easy to fall into these stereotypes because Hollywood falls into them frequently. And, let's face it, that's where most Brits are getting their ideas of Americans from--it was my main point of reference before I moved here.

    What you say about regional variations in the UK are very true, and I would concur that the biggest mistake most Americans make is to transpose outdated, "cute" Britishisms into the modern context. Brits don't commonly call sausages "bangers." And they don't call policemen "bobbies" anymore (and haven't for many years). And I don't know of many British teenagers that would refer to something bad as "beastly." That kind of antiquated language is normally associated with public school (i.e., private school) education. I went to an English public school, and I could count on one hand the number of my peers who would refer to someone or something as "beastly." Most of the times, my peers used the kind of colo(u)rful language you would expect on the lips of teenagers. Yes, even in a public school with posh accents (which few of my peers had). :)

    Tip: This might make some of my Brit friends cringe, but US writers should spend some time watching BBC America and British dramas. Pay attention to where the drama is set, or where characters come from. Listen to the language. BBC America will censor (US television is a lot more conservative than Brit TV), so you won't necessarily get the full flavo(u)r, but it will help. Even watching a few episodes of the British soap EastEnders (check your PBS listings) is better than nothing for getting an idea of regional speech patterns. Just bear in mind, the East End of London is not representative of the country. :)

    Great article, Robin. :D

    1. Haha, Eastenders isn't also a representative of British people as well. ;) There's a murder there every week!

      Actually our UK soaps would be quite good for accent/language research. Coronation Street for a Manchester accent, Emmerdale for Yorkshire (although bear in mind a few actors are from Bolton), Old Brookside episodes for Liverpool, and Eastenders from London obviously. We've got quite a few set spread about the country.

    2. Did you notice that all the soaps you mention apart from Eastenders are set in the North? Are there any UK soaps set in South? Or even the Midlands? The Brummie accent's one of my favo(u)rites. :)

    3. Ah luv Newcassle ones, like ;)

      I was about to say Hollyoaks but Chester is near Liverpool. Maybe I should add to research geography as well for those like me who apparently fail at places. ^^ There's Doctors which is set in a fictional Midlands town close to Birmingham. :)Crossroads was set in Nottingham. Skins is a teen soap kind of programme. And that's set in Bristol. But I want to point out that it isn't the best portrayal of teenagers. Just a warning to anyone outside of Britain wanting to use it as research.

      Not a soap but Lightfields was set in Suffolk. Great accents there. :)

  2. These are great points I thing it is important to be as authentic as you can with your writing.

    1. You definitely need to do your research when creating a character who is from a different state, county or even country. Accents and language changes so much even in the next region to you. I see this a lot with American authors who attempt to make a character sound British and just get it completely wrong and I bet America readers get the same pet peeves when a British author attempts an American character. And so on with any other country.

      You just have to listen. Best research you can do. :)

  3. Never in my life have I referred to a sausage as a banger outside of bangers and mash... and I don't like to eat bangers and mash :P

    I do slip into the occasional "innit" when I'm being lazy ^^;

    Chavs here were called Townies for ages. Schoombers too, but that referred to people from the Moulscoomb area of Brighton.

    I do think slang can be something you grow out of. You're so exposed to it at school and university, but when you leave that behind, you probably won't pick it up as much. I suppose the slang I use is either outdated or only makes sense online. I love how online slang unites us despite our different nationalities.