The British are renowned for their colorful use of language. Combine all those whimsical expressions with a dizzying range of regional accents, and it’s no surprise that visitors to the British Isles are often left bewildered and amused. Among the strangest—and funniest—British expressions are British exclamations of surprise, which may come in handy the next time you need to express excitement or astonishment. You may even reserve one or two for when you’re feeling a bit “miffed” (annoyed).
So, put on your best Downtown Abbey accent or Peaky Blinders persona and get ready to practice some very British expressions of surprise. Even if you don’t manage to impress your British mates, you’ll surely have a good laugh!
- My goodness!
- Goodness gracious!
- Hells bells!
- Bloody hell!
- Well, well, old chap!
- You what mate?
“Blimey” is an expression you might hear a British person use when they are really surprised or impressed by something — but not exactly shocked or horrified. It originated in the London area and is a short version of “cor blimey,” which is also sometimes used. (The original “God blind me” has fallen out of use.)
This expression is used to the best effect with a strong cockney accent, but you will also hear it all over the south of the UK, as well as in parts of New Zealand and Australia.
Example: “Blimey! How did she get onto the roof?”
2. My goodness!
“My goodness” is a common interjection used to express surprise, amazement or shock. While it is used across the English-speaking world, it’s somewhat more common — and certainly used more emphatically — in Britain.
“My neighbor James fell off the ladder while painting his house.”
“My goodness! Is he alright?”
3. Goodness, gracious!
“Goodness, gracious” or occasionally “goodness, gracious, me,” is a typically polite and posh expression of alarm (or perhaps dismay). This phrase was perhaps originally an allusion to the good grace of God, but it has largely lost any religious meaning.
Example: “Goodness, gracious, Margaret! I’ve never seen so many scones in my life.”
4. Hells bells!
This expression is mildly vulgar and is used to express frustration, outrage or extreme surprise. It may date back to the mid-19th century, when a bad situation was likened to a bell-shaped poisonous plant such as the “devil’s trumpet” or “devil’s snare.” But that’s just a theory, and the real meaning may simply be lost to time.
Example: “Hells bells, Larry! How did you manage to forget the eggs?”
5. Bloody hell!
“Bloody hell” (often pronounced “bloody ‘ell”) is perhaps the most common of traditional British blasphemies. Use it liberally in pubs and among good friends, but try to refrain in more formal settings.
Example: “Bloody hell, Harry! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
6. Well, well, old chap!
This phrase is perhaps more likely to be found in an Agatha Christie novel than on the streets of London or Bristol. All the same, you’re likely to come across some variation of it if you engage with historical British media. “Old chap” is an old-fashioned and affectionate term of address for men.
Example: “Well, well, old chap! It seems the butler was the culprit all along!”
“Gobsmacked” is British slang for “astounded” or “astonished.” It originates in Gaelic languages, where “gob” means “beak” or is used casually (or rudely) for “mouth.” The expression suggests the look on someone’s face right after they’ve been smacked in the mouth!
Example: “You should have seen his face when Jackie turned up at the wedding. He was absolutely gobsmacked.”
8. You what mate?
“You what mate?” (or, as it is often pronounced on the streets of Northern England, “You wot mate?”) is a confrontational phrase that is often said in response to some kind of provocation. It is shorthand for, “You’re going to do what, mate?” As you might imagine, this expression tends to escalate an already tense situation, so handle it with care.
“I’ll give you a right thrashing if you try that again.”
“You what mate?”
“Cripes” and “Crikey” are very British expressions of mild astonishment. They may be a euphemistic corruption of “Christ” or “Christ kill me.” “Crikey” is also very common in Australia and New Zealand — perhaps even more so than in Britain.
Example: “Cripes! I’ve never seen a fish that large before!”
While there are many regionally popular exclamations to be found across Britain, this list is a good introduction to some of the more common exclamations you’re likely to hear. So, the next time a British friend is taken by surprise, their exclamations won’t be any surprise to you at all!
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.