What's the difference between

  • shady,
  • dodgy,
  • sketchy,
  • fishy,
  • shifty, and
  • suspicious?

To me as a non-native English speaker it's quite hard to know the subtle difference between these words.

  • 3
    There isn't much 'subtle' difference. They are all informal and conversational except for the last, 'suspicious'. Possibly 'dodgy' and 'shifty' are mainly British, and 'sketchy' is mainly American, and has another more formal meaning in both American and British English, namely 'partial or incomplete'. Mar 9 at 21:27

1 Answer 1


At least some of these are exclusively British slang or have meanings which are so. I'm going to answer on the basis of their use in British English, slang or otherwise.

Shady means there is some hidden, possibly malevolent side to something or someone. For example, you can describe a person as 'a shady character, or a suspicious transaction as 'a shady deal'.

Dodgy is very similar to 'shady' and can be used about a person or something else, but suggests something explicitly illegal. A separate use of the word can also mean unreliable, broken, or liable to break, eg "the starter motor on my car is a bit dodgy".

Sketchy can mean 'questionable', but it isn't often used to mean that. Its primary and most recognisable meaning is vague, and you wouldn't use it about a person unless you were referring to something vague that a person had said, eg "he was a bit sketchy about the details".

Fishy basically means 'suspicious'. 'Suspicious' is not a slang word so a dictionary should give you a good definition'. Although often used in connection with someone suspected of a crime, anything could be 'suspected' and it wouldn't be unusual to say you thought something nice was 'suspicious' or 'fishy' - for example, if your friends had been acting odd because they were hiding a nice surprise from you, you might say in retrospect "I thought something fishy was going on!"

Shifty also means suspicious but is generally only said about a person. I wouldn't say that something was 'shifty'.

I fully expect endless discussion to ensue from this answer - not everybody agrees on slang words and the use can vary from region to region.

  • Thanks a lot for your detailed and easy to understand answer! This really helps.
    – miu
    Mar 10 at 6:38

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