You'll love this Briticism.
In the United States, we consider “a treat” something pleasant and unexpected. A pint of ice cream at the end of a long day, or a surprise trip to the pool on a hot weekend. In the United Kingdom, however, the expression has a different meaning.
In the UK, people use a treat to mean that someone has done something especially well. They might say that a footballer played a treat, for example, or that a cup of tea went down a treat. This use was first spotted in Britain as early as 1898, and it continues to this day.
A 2006 episode of Dr. Who, the British science-fiction series, uses the term. After placing human brains inside robot bodies, a lab assistant reports to an evil scientist on his progress. “They’ve grafted on a treat, these have,” he says. He means that the brains have grafted on to the metal bodies very well.
A 2014 Daily Telegraph story shows how frequently the term is used when discussing fashion. The story features a slideshow of Princess Kate Middleton’s “fashion hits and misses.” One entry read like this:
Kate eschewed shamrock green for this Catherine Walker coat … Her Lock & Co hat matched its rich, chocolate hue a treat, as did the Irish Guards brooch that belonged to the Queen Mother.
Here’s another enthusiastic entry:
We loved everything about the double-breasted Mulberry coat Kate chose for her last engagement … Its powerful pink hue and flattering hemline ticked all the right boxes … and topped off the Duchess' slew of stylish maternity outfits a treat.
Sounds like Kate’s got more hits than misses.
In all of these cases, you could replace a treat with very well. Instead of saying Kate’s hat matched her coat a treat, you could say that it matched very well.
So if you’d like to give this Briticism a try, just swap out those words. Tell your best friend that her hair color matches her skin a treat. Tell your husband he’s cleaned the house a treat. Or tell your lunch lady that today’s meal looks a treat.
You might get a glare, or you might just get a “thank you.”
That’s your tidbit for today: if you’ve done something “a treat,” you’ve done it extremely well.
Ayto, John. Treat. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://bit.ly/1PG9DjJ (subscription required, accessed May 24, 2015).
Cute Toddler Girl Eating Ice Cream image courtesy of Shutterstock.
[Note: Although this article focused on the different meaning of a treat in Britain, a treat is also used to mean "a nice surprise" in Britain too. The "very well" meaning is an additional meaning in British English.]