Up until right now, after looking up the word ‘foreigner’ in a few dictionaries and finding nothing relevant, I would never have guessed that it is British slang. I have always assumed that the word ‘foreigner’ was an homonym, since it's use in the context of “doing a foreigner” is quite universally understood by most Brits.

The most relevant "source" (and I use that term very loosely) that I could find was Urban Dictionary, which defines it as:

Common British slang for unofficial work, often making use of company equipment/ time/ premises but solely for personal gain, unrelated to the interests of the company [..] but DOES NOT hold racist connotations in this context. With notable exceptions, doing Foreigners is a fairly accepted part of British working life and, depending on the workplace, can even be done with managemental consent.

I'm not coming to the pub this lunchtime, I'm staying at work to do a Foreigner for a mate of mine.

Wiktionary's definition isn't quite as clear (unless this is a different meaning again):

A private job run by an employee at a trade factory rather than going through the business.

I also found a thread on Word Reference asking the same question.

According to this webpage, the phrase "doing a foreigner" may originate from the 18th century practice of Liverpool ship owners registering their ships abroad and carrying slaves for other countries, in order to flout the ban on the slave trade; although this isn't verifiable.

What actually prompted me to wonder if there is another way of saying "I need to do that foreigner" is that I said it recently to a colleague in a restaurant, but it was overheard by a nearby waitress who was not a native English speaker, who - judging by the shocked look on her face - clearly misunderstood the meaning and seemed to think that I wanted to have sex with her.

What is a less ambiguous way of saying this?

As an aside, is there a word which means the misunderstanding of two phrases that sound identical but have completely different meanings?

  • Sounds like a "Swiss Navy project".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 3:51
  • 3
    I wouldn't say it was 'quite universally understood' - I'm British and have never come across the word in this context - but then, I've never worked in factories except for a brief summer job as a teenager. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 9:37
  • @KateBunting I’d say the most common circle it is used in is manual labourers like: builders, bricklayers and handymen; but I’m not in that profession myself. My colleague and I are in IT, where it is used to mean using a company computer outside of work hours to do work for a personal client unconnected to the company. In the case of a builder they could be using their employer’s tools to build their friend a house. Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 17:53
  • I don't know of a phrase that works, but you must stop saying "doing a foreigner." From it's murky slave trade origins to the insinuation that no good Brit would use the Queen's fax machine to your accidental come-on to your co-worker... That phrase no longer works!
    – Roister
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 21:34
  • That waitress didn't need to not be a native English speaker to misinterpret that sentence she overheard you say as meaning: I must have sex with that foreigner. Many a native English speaker would make the exact same misinterpretation she did upon overhearing you say that sentence. I'd even go so far as to say far more would than wouldn't, even in England. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 16:41

2 Answers 2


I think there's a couple of options, none fitting perfectly. First, for a one-word close synonym I think of the verb:

  1. Moonlighting
  • Defined by M-W as an intransitive verb meaning "to hold a second job in addition to a regular one".

Secondly, due to my legal background as an American lawyer, your example of using company equipment for your own activities makes me think of the legal term of art 2) "a frolic and detour"

-So, at least in America if you use company equipment for activities OUTSIDE the scope of your employment and without the companies consent, you are going to be on the hook for any damages you cause if you're negligent and injure someone and also might be fired. (I say this because of the Urban dictionary definition stating: "doing Foreigners is a fairly accepted part of British working life and, depending on the workplace, can even be done with managemental consent")

So, for example let's say you get in a car wreck driving the company car home on your commute from work while, and your job policy states that employees like you can only use the company vehicle for 1) company travel, 2) family-related activities (such as school pickup of children, medical care, etc.) , 3) to go to the gas station, or 4) to get groceries. I would venture that so long as you were driving merely negligently, not with gross negligence or "reckless disregard for human life" or intentionally hit someone with your vehicle, your Employer is going to be on the hook for damages not just you in all likelhood.

On the other hand, if you let's say crash your company car at a strip club on a Saturday night, a victim likely wouldn't be able to recover from your Employer due to the common law principle of respondeat superior (Latin for: "the master must answer" (for the reasonably foreseeable mistakes of his servants), despite the accident involving your with your Employer's car. Thus, in this scenario where your "frolic and detour" with the company car wasn't in the scope of your employment or reasonably foreseeable, your Employer likely wouldn't be jointly and severally liable to the victim under the legal concept of respondeat superior and therefore on the hook for payment of damages. Rather just you, the tortfeasor, could be found to be "personally" liable to the victim, which isn't as good for the victim because you don't have "as deep as pockets" as the huge company that employs you. A company since it's a "juridical person" (i.e. a non-human legal entity) and not a "natural person" would be vicariously liable only through the actions of its officers and never personally liable. Sorry for getting into American tort and employment law concepts too much, but it seemed à propos.

An American HR person would tell you it's a "misuse of company resources" unless it's within the scope of your employment or OK'ed by the proper party.

  1. Lastly I think of the phrase: doing something "off-the-books"
  • M-W defines "off-the-books" as: "not reported or recorded". And you'd definitely be doing "something off-the-books" if it's with company resources/on their property but not within the scope of your general employment or something you have implicit, written, or verbal consent for.

In sum, as your internet lawyer, be careful "doing a foreigner" because you might end up getting fired for that foreigner you did if it's not with your work's consent (and something goes wrong!)


As an aside, is there a word which means the misunderstanding of two phrases that sound identical but have completely different meanings?

Yes, that's a "homonym", or if you want to split even more hairs there are "homophones" and "homographs", homophones sound the same but are spelled differently like "there" and "their", and homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings like "lead" (the metal) and "lead" like to lead others.

However, here I would call this phrase an "idiom": which M-W defines: "as an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements."

Interesting question, I like learning strange British expressions I would never otherwise hear as a Yankee!

  • 1
    Moonlighting is the antonym of doing a foreigner.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:44
  • 1
    I think those who are commenting about moonlighting, side hustles and the like are talking about something different from working on a foreigner, which I have always heard used to describe a personal project done at work in works time. As a UK native English speaker, I have never heard it described as 'doing' a foreigner. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:59
  • My father told me that such jobs in Portsmouth Dockyard were known as 'rabbits', from an occasion when somebody was challenged by a Dockyard policeman with 'What have you got in the bag?'. When I worked in a Power Station which had four generating Units it was known as 'working on Unit 5'. In the military electronics industry it was known as a 'Home Office job', the Home Office being a government department. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 21:01
  • You realise you can ask your boss for permission to use company equipment for non-company use right? 😆 Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 21:24

Foreigner is the most used term in uk colloquial slang. I'd suggest that "Side Hustle" would be usable too in a social context. (UK Resident and primary language).

Professionally, you could say that "Freelance tradesman available outside of normal working hours". (Marketing industry experience and education).

  • 1
    Side hustle is just one of several phrases using side, such as "work on the side", "side job", etc.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 23:19
  • As in the comments to @attorney Alexander Hurd, "side hustle" and similar mean doing outside work outside the office. Your 'foreigner' is staying in the shop.
    – Roister
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 21:37

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