A lesson in English slang

A picture of English Tutor Rod Murdison

The wonderful thing about English homestay with The Language List, is that as a student you can specify exactly what you want to learn.  Tutor Rod Murdison finds that many of his advanced adult students want to know about English slang.  Here Rod outlines how he responds to this request.  Note – this is not a word-for-word lesson.

The basic structure

Many nouns in British English have three forms which can usually be thought of as either, long familiar or short.

Long Familiar Short
‘educated’, formal, upper class words young, friendly, baby words (usually ending in –y/-ie) adult, crude, everyday, lower class words
Television Telly TV
Roderick Roddy Rod
William Billy Bill
Jennifer Jenny Jen


What’s in a name?

Notice that how you describe yourself can indicate the image of yourself you’re trying to portray:

“William Shakespeare” (implication – educated, upper class)

“Hi, call me Bill Clinton” (implication – trust me, I’m just like you, not really a multimillionaire)

Most men would rather be seen as ‘adult’ and straight talking; “Steve”; “Don”, “Rob”, etc. rather than “Stevie”, “Donny”, “Bobby”, as these could be considered rather childish.

By contrast, those women who would prefer to be thought of as young/cute tend to prefer the second version; Nikki, Jenny, etc.


There can be social class, formality and/or humour implications if someone insists on using a full name rather than its ‘short’ version.

(At this point I have a section on why personal names are chosen and their implications and compare it with their country).

A case study illustrating this: In the UK, you frequently see a home improvement case study in the property supplement of the ‘broadsheet’ newspapers involving parents who have ‘made it’ financially; they have ‘ordinary’ names like Michael and Elizabeth. (Note that these names will be the ‘long’, educated versions, not the lower class, familiar versions Mickey and Lizzy or Mick and Liz). The parents can’t change their names to indicate their improved social status but the proud family photo accompanying the article will show Michael and Elizabeth with their three children, Felix, Lydia and Rollo and their dog Max!


Some ‘long’ words and phrases have been reduced to their familiar form:

Full word or phrase Familiar form
Wellington boots Wellies
Cardigan Cardie
Coronation Street Corrie
Fish ‘n chip shop Chippie

So if you are watching British TV or reading a tabloid newspaper and you see a word you don’t recognise which ends in –y/i.e. there’s a distinct possibility it’s a shortened form of a longer word.


The right word for the situation…

Another odd thing about English is that there are very few neutral words for sexual or ‘toilet’ related words.  (The only real exception is “loo”, which is a common British English word for toilet/WC)

These words fall into the same three categories, for example;

Long Familiar Short
‘educated’, formal, upper class words young, friendly, baby words (usually ending in –y/-i.e.) adult, crude, everyday, lower class words
Excrement Poo poo Shit
 Urine  Wee Piss

This difference can be used for humorous purposes; for example, if when out with friends, you want to explain you are going to the loo, you could say you were going to urinate, which is much too educated a word in the circumstances and so could only be being said to make your friends smile.


Some everyday/slang words continued …

“To fancy” – if not talking about a person means, to like.

“What do you fancy to drink?” rather than, “what would you like to drink?” Or “What d’you fancy doing at the weekend?” rather than “What would you like to do at the weekend?”

Notice an important and useful difference in meaning if talking about a person:

“I like Ann but I don’t fancy her” means, I like her as a person but I don’t find her romantically/sexually attractive.  If a woman were at a party with a girlfriend and a man kept looking over, the friend might say “I think he fancies you.”


Whilst the American word ‘guy’ is used with increasing frequency in the UK, a more typical word would be ‘bloke’. “I was talking to this bloke yesterday”. Many jokes start with “A bloke walks into a pub and …”

Similar in meaning is “chap” but it has a much more upper class implication to it, something you might imagine an older man (especially of higher social status, e.g. a doctor or army officer) saying. Again, in everyday use, greeting a friend with “How are you, old chap?” would be said for humorous effect.


Talking about the future

Raymond Murphy grammar book

In English, the word “Will” is NOT always used for to express the future tense, when we feel something is certain to happen.  Instead we tend to use the present tense for something in these situations.  For example if today is Saturday, tomorrow is Sunday whether we’re alive or dead).

For example for an event which is organized for a given date, we use the present; “I’m playing tennis next week”; “The train leaves at 12.10” (I then lead in to Murphy’s grammar lesson on this subject, starting on page 19 of this book).

More frequently we say “going to”, shortened to something like “guhnna” in rapid speech and written ‘gonna’.

“What are your plans for the weekend?”

“Saturday morning, I’m gonna go to the shops, then I’m gonna meet my mates down the pub. Then on Sunday, I’m gonna have a lazy day and not do much”.

There are many of these ‘contractions’ in fast, spoken English:

‘want to’ – ‘wanna’

‘would have’ – ‘woulda’

(I have a big list of these)


This just touches on a few of the things I cover in lessons on slang.

If you’d like more –  you know where to come – click here to book a homestay with me!

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