15 British Insults to Add Color to Your Conversations
photo: JohnnyGreig / E+ / Getty , hat graphic: TheresaTibbetts / DigitalVision Vectors
It will probably come as little surprise to learn that many British insults trace their origins to words referring to private parts. “Pillock” is one such example. While originally describing the male reproductive organ, today it describes a stupid, simple or uncultured person. You could say it’s like calling someone a dum-dum.
Example: James is a total pillock. He’s not going to figure it out.
Images of blue birds might come to mind if you make the connection to Twitter. But, as an informal British term, a “twit” is a silly or foolish person. Depending on context, you could be commenting on their lower level of intelligence or you might be saying how they’re annoying.
Example: Stop being such a twit and pick up your rubbish!
As you might imagine, Jim Henson’s iconic characters inspired the term “muppet.” As an insult, a muppet is a person who is incompetent, dimwitted or incapable of independent thought. They’re brainless, like the literal pieces of fabric and foam that make up Kermit, Animal and Miss Piggy.
Example: You, sir, are a proper muppet.
Yes, a lot of British slang words have to do with insulting a person’s intelligence. If a person is a “numpty,” they are a stupid, foolish or ineffectual person. From a linguistic perspective, “numpty” appears to be a relatively new term, only showing up as a common British insult in the 1980s.
Example: Haha! You can’t do that, you numpty.
As an adjective, to be “daft” means to be silly or foolish. It’s easy enough to add the word “daft” in front of other British insults for extra sting. You can also use “daft” as part of other slang sayings, like saying that someone is “daft as a bush.” That simply means they’re being silly or acting crazy.
Example: You’re such a daft twit.
Words like barmy can sound like old-timey slang insults. They’re both classic and timeless, with that little dash of nostalgic culture. In this case, if someone is “barmy,” they’re crazy. You can also use “barmy” as an adjective to modify other words, like talking about a barmy choice.
Example: I think you’ve gone positively barmy.
Social classes play a big role in British society, just as they do in many other cultures. A “chav” is a young hooligan, particularly of lower socioeconomic status, who acts aggressively. They provoke others. Chavs tend to wear tracksuits and other sportswear, or sometimes gaudy jewelry. British slang insults with similar meanings include “charger” and “scally.”
Example: Kevin’s acting a chav again. He’s always fixing for a fight.
Appropriate for describing objects, locations and people alike, “dodgy” means shady or unreliable. You might meet up with a “dodgy” character at a “dodgy” looking building in a “dodgy” part of town. In New York slang, the equivalent term could be “sus.” If you suspect someone is a con artist or a habitual liar, you could say they’re dodgy.
Example: Andy has always been rather dodgy, if you ask me.
Back to discussing people’s intelligence (or lack thereof), “gormless” is another one of those British insults that means someone is stupid or slow-witted. A person who isn’t with the program, who lacks basic understanding of something, is gormless. They might be clumsy or naive.
Example: Pat is a gormless old twit, ain’t she?
Putting on a bit too much makeup or wearing an outfit that’s a tad too loud? Equivalent to saying someone (or something) is tacky, “naff” indicates that someone (or something) is in poor taste. It’s ugly, bad or unsuitable for one reason or another. Naff can also be used as a verb meaning to go away.
Example: Those bright orange trousers are a bit naff, don’t you think?
A more colorful way of saying someone has “gone mental” is to call them a nutter. In American English, the slang use of “nut” or “nuts” works in the same kind of way. A nutter is a crazy or eccentric person.
Example: You’re really some kind of nutter, skinny dipping in December like that.
While the double-Z in “wazzock” might make you think it belongs on a list of popular rap words alongside “fo shizzle,” it’s actually informal British slang. A “wazzock” is a stupid or annoying person. They’re worthless idiots. The term originates from the northern English dialect, related to urination or the smelly linens used for offal.
Example: Stop messing around, you daft wazzock.
Another playful word you can use when poking fun with your mates, a “ninny” is similar to a “nitwit.” This is a foolish person, someone who is especially silly and acting out. Naturally, it’s pretty insulting to call someone a ninny,” but gentle ribbing among good friends is par for the course.
Example: Look at Ricky dancing on the bar! He’s such a ninny.
Yes, a gannet is a seabird. And northern gannets live and nest in Scotland, among other places around the North Atlantic. But when you use “gannet” as part of your arsenal of British insults, you’re calling someone greedy. The bird has an unfounded reputation for stealing food, and that reputation has extended into British slang. This is similar to how “vulture” is slang for a person who preys on the misfortune of others.
Example: Stop being such a gannet. Leave some for the rest of us!
Coming from the world of British rock and roll, a “ligger” is a lazy freeloader. This is the kind of person who hangs around during the setup or soundcheck before a gig, but doesn’t actually help out with getting anything ready. They might sneak into parties or sweet talk their way backstage.
Example: Look at all these liggers crowding around the food table.
A Few Sandwiches Short of a Picnic
When you’re ready to take your British slang insults to the next level, throw in some daft phrases too. Tell your best mate that he’s as “thick as two short planks” (stupid). Or maybe she’s “all mouth, no trousers” (all talk, no action). And to say someone is a few sandwiches short of a picnic means a person is either stupid or mentally deficient.
Want to expand your vocabulary into other subcultures? Read through some popular gaming terms that are now in the dictionary. Many of these are slang you can play in Words With Friends and other word games!
Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 14 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.