British slang

I’m currently working on a book that involves a British character. He’s a bit eccentric. He spent most of his adult life working for a major criminal organization, mended his ways and turned himself in, and is now in prison. He grew up in Leeds, but has spent most of his life in London. Though not really rich, he has always been well-off.

He’s the type of fellow who wouldn’t bother with proper speech. Unfortunately, I’m not too familiar with British slang. I want to be able to do his dialog realistically, but the only exposure I’ve really had is from T.V., which I’ve been told doesn’t portray the speech very realistically much of the time. So does anyone know a good source for studying up on this (short of spending time in England, which unfortunately I can’t afford)?

Well, first off, he is most decidedly a bloke, not a fellow!

He probably hangs out in a pub smoking fags (well, before he got banged up, of course). Given that he’s well off, he probably slums it occasionally by eating fish and chips from the local chippie, but will drink German lager rather than an old fashioned pint of ale. He will probably swear a lot. If he is from Leeds, his vowels may be flat; but then again maybe not as a good number of folk I’ve met from Leeds speak received pronunciation because they no doubt went to a public school (in England, “public schools” are actually private schools). How well off was he? If he was that well off, how did he end up in a criminal organisation?

Hmm… It’s amazing. I’m from the North Midlands of England and have spent most of my adult life in London, but I am having a hard time thinking up slang. Must’ve been a long day. If you could provide the sort of words you want slang for, or sentences, my brain might start working…


I’d be careful not to overuse it, but seems pretty extensive. I haven’t heard much rhyming slang in a long time, but who knows - if your character is old enough…


You might also want to look at The series by Gillian Lane-Plescia is supposed to be quite good. The CDs are an hour with a variety of speakers on them. You may not hear much slang but it will give you a fine sense of speaking rhythms, etc.


Good idea Dave, but avoid the Robert Blumenfeld, the accents are often atrocious - way off base. Dialect Accents by Gillian Lane-Plescia is more reliable, though imperfect. We always lock actors in a room - or a pub - with a native speaker. Since your work is for the page, you might benefit more from reading fiction by Brits set in the milieu your character comes from. It’s not theft, it’s research. You should also be able to get your hands on transcripts of interviews with prisoners in English jails. Go to the source.

Poverty is not a prerequisite for crime. Many of the worst criminals in history were comfortably well-off, or even filthy rich. If this guy lived where I do, he’d be raking in about $200 grand a year. I’m not sure how much that would be in other countries.

Mostly what he does is order people around. A couple of his new crew are friends of his, but most he hardly knows. Also I need to know how he would refer to foreign members of his crew—Americans, Chinese, Russians, and Australians, specifically.

A sample sentance in plain American might be, “Your American friends have arrived, boys. Go grab them and bring them back here, and make it quick.” That sort of thing.

He’s about sixty years old. That website has a lot of good stuff, thanks for that and the other suggestions! Hopefully I won’t slaughter his speech too badly. :slight_smile: :slight_smile:

That’s gaols, of course. Innit.

That’s funny, I came this close to spelling it that way. :slight_smile:

Now, if you really want some fun (oh dear, distraction), go to a used bookstore and pick-up some of Leslie Charteris’ “The Saint” books. No, not the movie, not the TV series, the early books. They read well and there are simply delicious bits of 20’s & 30’s English slang in them.


What class is he? What class does he aspire to? That, more than money will determine how he speaks, or more interestingly, how he wants people to think he speaks…

He’s used to being in a position of leadership. All of his crew refer to him as the Governor (which some people have told me should be written ‘Gov’na’ and others have said should be ‘Guv’nor.’ But I’m not certain that’s even a proper usage of the term at all. Would a different word be better?)

And speaking of ‘crew,’ how would he refer to his underlings as a whole? Right now I just have him calling them his ‘lads.’

Thanks for humoring a Britilitterate American!

Whoops, duplicated my last post, sorry.

Or more likely ‘guv’, but it’s becoming a bit of a cliche, especially in police dramas. ‘Boss’ would be another possiblity - either without the ‘the’.

Class is important though Khad. If he was Yorkshire working class (and he could be that and fairly well off), he’d be way different, and his authority and aggression would come out very differently, than if he was Yorkshire upper class. And he could be poor in both cases.

Welcome to the English class system…

I’m not really sure what kind of ‘class’ you mean, or if they mean different things there than they do here. He wouldn’t be considered working class, I don’t think. If he had gone into legitimate areas instead of crime, he probably would have been a politician (although ‘politician’ and ‘legitimate’ are generally mutually exclusive terms :slight_smile: ) I doubt he ever would have run for Prime Minister, but maybe a seat in Parliament. He could have had a great deal of dignity and class, but he chose not to go that route. He was fairly high-ranking in the organization he worked for.

About the most concise thing I can say about him right now is this: He doesn’t care to get his hands dirty, but he likes to mingle with - and directly command - those who do.

I think your best bet is to just write it as though Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone or Michael Caine was going to play him.

Please take this as friendly advice (as opposed to, say, trolling):

While the advice you’ve been given so far is interesting and intelligent, I think the one thing no one is saying is, “Maybe not so much with the British accent until you’ve immersed yourself in the culture.” Dialect is an awfully tough thing to fake – take a look at Strunk and White, pages 78-79 (paperback) for some concise thoughts on exactly why. Not trying to be negative; just a heads up to let you know trains may be colliding. With great velocity.

Some posters mentioned using movies to train your ear. That’s not a terrible idea. On this note, there was a quick mention of rhyming slang (not really your character, but whatever). Terrence Stamp’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent The Limey is a fun example of this at work. It won’t help your book, but you get to watch The Limey.

Good luck.

I’ve certainly been trying to get more of the culture lately (watching movies, reading books, etc). The problem I’ve run across is that I’m never sure if what I’m reading or watching is really accurate. A lot of books written by British authors (or movies made in England, for that matter) are kind of Americanized for audiences here in the US, in much the same way it’s very hard to find authentic Mexican food in Mexican restaurants here too (if you’ve ever had REAL Mexican food, Taco Bell doesn’t even remotely resemble it :slight_smile: ). So I was hoping people could point me to some reliable sources that I could peruse.

I’ve gotten some great suggestions, too. Thanks all, you’ve been a great help.

My 2 cents,

I’m not sure it’s possible to be “really accurate” from a distance. Given the range of English dialects even English authors will often aim for plausible and not too jarring instead. I suggest you err on the side of caution and let your reader’s imagination fill in the blanks as much as possible. Trying to write out an accent is almost surely a mistake - focus instead on the rhythmic and lexical differences in speech.
Is your character in the U.S. in your book? If so, you might find it easier to have him speak fairly neutral English - at least as written – and occasionally have him getting Americanisms (slightly) wrong rather than Britishisms right – especially if he’s trying to fit in.
If he’s in a British jail set in the present, remember that the population is linguistically incredibly diverse nowadays and that would have affected him.

just a thought,