16. November 2023

What a kerfuffle! 10 funny words in British English

woman wearing sweater and giggling

“What a palaver!”

I shouldn’t be laughing right now, as I am talking to my sister about a fall she just had while out running, which resulted in 14 stitches in her knee and a night in A&E. Not funny at all.

But it’s just the word “palaver”. For reasons which I can’t quite fathom, I have to snigger when I hear it. Maybe because it seems so close to “balaclava”, which, to be fair, is about as ridiculous an item of clothing you could ever imagine. Hilarity-by-association, if you will.

“Palaver” actually means an unnecessarily elaborate or complex procedure – much ado about very little.

Funny words in British English are, as we like to say, ten-a-penny. Here is my personal selection of the most giggle-worthy words from Great Britain.


1. Kerfuffle

Meaning: a commotion or a fuss, especially if caused by conflicting views.

If there were ever to be a nationwide vote on the funniest word in British English, I am absolutely certain that “kerfuffle” would make the top three.

And it is just a comedy word, right?

It is supposed to be an amalgamation of the Scottish Gaelic word “car” (meaning to twist or bend) with the English word “fuffle”, meaning confusion or disorder. “Carfuffle” was already great enough, but has undergone a further transformation since the 19th century to bring us to the marvellous “kerfuffle” – surely one of British English’s greatest achievements.

2. Gubbins

Meaning: paraphernalia, junk, a collection of items of no use

At home, my mum quite often referred to superfluous junk cluttering up the house as “all that gubbins”.

“Gubbins” comes from the Old French word “gobon”, meaning a bite of food or a piece of something. As the word went outre Manche and into the English language, it also attached to references to the mouth, which many British people will still call a “gob” in an informal context.

3. Thingummy

Meaning: a thing, the proper name of which I cannot remember, or cannot be bothered to use right now.

Variants: thingummy-jig, thingummy-doo-dah, thingummy-bob

Thingummy is probably the most versatile of all the funny British words listed here, as it can be applied to any inanimate object. Shake your finger at said thing, call it a “thingummy”, and everyone will know exactly what you mean. Magic!

4. Chump

Meaning: silly or foolish person

It’s a firm fixture in my dad’s repertoire: he frequently signals his dismay at someone’s daft behaviour (mine included) by saying “What a chump!”

5. Hecky-thump!

Meaning: exclamation of surprise

I think this must be a Northern English thing, as I’ve never heard anyone from outside that part of the country use it. It must also be outmoded: I could probably count the number of times I’ve heard it in the last 30 years on one hand.

It was a great favourite of Mrs. Simm, our Class 3 teacher at primary school who, when not teaching, would tell us the most wonderful, entertaining stories – always punctuated by exclamations of “’ecky thump!”

6. Faffing, to faff around

Meaning: to dither, mess around and/or waste time doing small or ineffectual things, especially when you don’t have the time to do so or should be doing more important things.

Funny British English at its finest. The word derives from the word “faffle”, meaning “small gusts of wind”. Modern usage may have been influenced by the use of “faffle” as a way of saying “stuttering” or “stammering”.

7. Skew-whiff

Meaning: not straight, askew.

Can be used in a literal sense (“That picture frame’s a bit skew-whiff”) or a figurative sense (“Our plans went a bit skew-whiff”).

Comes from “skew weft”, a phrase used by handloom weavers in Northern England in the 1800s to describe fabric which was out of alignment. The “whiff” in “skew-whiff” has nothing to do with the word “whiff”, meaning a slight smell or puff of air. Rather, it comes from a corruption of “skew-wift” which developed from the original “skew weft” through colloquial usage.

8. Codswallop

Meaning: nonsense, untruth

I am very fond of expressing my disdain for certain statements by labelling them “codswallop”.

The origin of the phrase has been hotly contested, with theories ranging from it being a reference to imitation beer made by a Mr Hiram Codd to something to do with testicles.

However, I am most convinced by the more literal explanation: a cod walloper was someone who dealt with or handled fish, including having to “wallop” (= hit) them on the head to kill them. A lot of these cod wallopers were women who probably chattered a lot while working: the term gradually came to mean an overly talkative woman or a gossip. Its current meaning probably comes from its use in the popular comedy series “Hancock’s Half Hour” in the 1950s.

9. Pillock

Meaning: foolish or inept person

I would use this word far more often if I could actually say it without breaking out into laughter, which somewhat undermines the point I am trying to make by using it.

It comes from “pillicock”, a 16th century word of Scandinavian origin meaning “penis”.

Other synonymous terms worthy of praise are “plonker” and “wazzock”.

10. Brolly

This is what a lot of Brits call their umbrella – a highly necessary piece of kit if you are going to spend any length of time on the island. This one got onto the list due to a Canadian-American friend of mine who thinks it is the best word that the British ever invented (coming in just ahead of “snog”). This is for you, Kathryn!

Controversial honorary mention: shenanigan

Meaning: underhanded tricks, questionable/devious behaviour, high-spirited behaviour/mischief

“Shenanigans” regularly comes out tops in informal online surveys about funny words in British English. Except that it’s probably more an American creation which has been adopted so eagerly by the British that they prefer to think of it as their own.

The earliest known use of shenanigans was in the gold rush San Francisco in the 1850s. The exact origins of the word are as mischievous and as hard to pin down as the phenomena to which the word itself refers. Wiktionary comes to our rescue by suggesting the following:

  • French: ces manigances (“these fraudulent schemes”).
  • Spanish: chanada, shortening of charranada (“trick, deceit”).
  • Irish: sionnachuighim (“I play the fox”).
  • Rhine Franconian: schinägeln (“to work hard”), from the peddler’s argot term Schenigelei (“work”).
  • East Anglian dialect: nannicking (“playing the fool”).
  • 18th century German: Scheinheilige (“sham holy men / sham holy actions”, noun plural), scheinheilig (“hypocritical”)

Whatever the origin is – let’s all go out on Friday night for some drinks and general shenanigans!


If you enjoyed these funny words in British English, you might also enjoy these related articles:

15 fabulous British slang words

11 obsolete words in British English that are ripe for revival

Old-fashioned words & phrases in English

10 Northern English words from Old Norse

The word the English language has been waiting for


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