20 bizarre English idioms and how to explain them
We've all heard a few hilarious, odd and (at times) useful foreign idioms ('Not my circus, not my monkeys', anyone?) and gain infinite amusement from translating them into English. But have you ever stopped to consider how strange our own English idioms can sound? The year abroad might just force you to confront our rather bizarre use of metaphors, especially if you use them within earshot of a non-native speaker...
1. Bob's your uncle
Definition: Usually used to conclude a set of instructions, much like the French 'et voilà!'.
Example: "Just add a dash of salt and Bob's your uncle!"
Origin: No one's quite sure, to be honest. One theory suggests it refers to the supposed nepotism of the 20th British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (whose first name was Robert), who appointed his nephew to several political posts in the 1880s. Another credits it to the slang 'all is bob', meaning 'all is well'.
Tricky to explain?: Even the etymologists can't explain this one, so good luck trying. It might be easier just to pack it in altogether and switch to 'et voilà'. Also, my uncle's not actually called Bob, he's called Ian.
2. A different kettle of fish
Definition: Referring to an alternative/a different thing altogether
Example: "I loved the first film but the sequel is a different kettle of fish."
Origin: To clarify, in this instance, a kettle doesn't refer to the water-boiling contraption, but to a long, thin saucepan used to poach salmon. I hope that clears everything up.
Tricky to explain?: Firstly you'll have to deal with the fact that the modern kettle is pretty much unheard of in many places outside of our tea-obsessed island. You're on dangerous territory with this one. Your well-meaning flatmate may end up attempting to spice up your cuppa with a tin of tuna.
3. Donkey's years
Definition: A very long time.
Example: "I haven't read that book in donkey's years."
Origin: The phrase probably originated from 'donkey's ears' (from the rhyming slang, donkey's ears/years, often shortened to 'donkey's'). Donkeys are believed to live a long time; plus, their ears are quite long.
Tricky to explain?: I'm not sure the whole 'donkeys ears are long and they live forever' thing stands up to scrutiny. Translating that dodgy logic may pose a few problems.
4. All mouth and no trousers
Definition: Used to describe a person (usually male) who is boastful but can't back himself up or makes idle threats. Often used in a sexual context, for obvious reasons.
Example: "If you don't make your bed, I'll kill you!". "Oh Mum, you're all mouth and no trousers."
Origin:Bit confusing this one, mainly because all the literature on the subject focuses on whether the correct phrase is actually 'All mouth and trousers'. No conclusions reached.
Tricky to explain?We reckon you might be able to get there, mainly because it's pretty easy to mime. Give it a go.
5. Pardon my French
Definition: Employed in order to excuse the user of a swear word by indicating that said word is part of a foreign language. Or for comic effect before saying something really filthy.
Example: "Pardon my French, but you're an asshole" (to quote the inimitable Ferris Bueller's Day Off).
Origin: Sources suggest the phrase originated around the 19th century as a literal excuse for using a French phrase in conversation with one who didn't speak the language.
Tricky to explain?: If you're spending your year abroad in France, things might turn a bit meta.
6. Cat got your tongue?
Definition: Used to compel someone to speak or to point out their silence when they're being unusually taciturn.
Example: "You're a bit quiet. Cat got your tongue?"
Origin: No one really knows where this comes from. Some say it's just a light-hearted image, whilst others favour the idea that it's a reference to sailors being punished with the cat o'nine tails.
Tricky to explain?: This one is completely bizarre. Maybe if you're a very gifted mime artist you could demonstrate a cat holding your tongue with its teeny tiny paws, but I'll believe it when I see it.
7. Chew the fat
Definition: To gossip or make friendly small talk. A bit old-fashioned.
Example: "I could sit and chew the fat with you for hours."
Origin: The phrase began to be used to refer to a light gossip in the early 20th century. One theory suggests that the phrase comes from the convention of chatting whilst chewing on the leftover fat after a meal. Another refers to sailors chewing salted beef and pork on deck whilst they complained about life.
Tricky to explain?: Not if you use the analogy of talking over a meal, which is a pretty common activity. Even in other countries, I hear.
8. Under the weather
Definition: To feel ill or tired.
Example: "Sorry I'm not my usual charming self today, I'm feeling a bit under the weather."
Origin: This is actually really interesting. Back in the disease-ridden days of yore on ye olde sailing ships, the number of sick sailors often exceeded the space in the log to list their names. When this happened, the excess names of the sick were recorded in the column usually reserved for noting down the weather conditions. Hence 'under the weather'. Clever, non?
Tricky to explain?: This one has a rational etymological root, so you'll be fine if your language skills are good. If your vocab is a bit shaky, stick with 'I'm a bit ill' for simplicity's sake.
9. To go pear-shaped
Definition: Describing something that has gone wrong
Example: "Good thing you left when you did - it all went a bit pear-shaped after Andy started handing out Jägerbombs."
Origin: There are a few clashing explanations for this phrase. One dates back to RAF pilots in the 1940s who would get frustrated if their attempt to form a perfect aerial route went 'pear-shaped' rather than being perfectly circular. Another theory relates to observational balloons during WWI, which occasionally refused to inflate as designed and would go 'pear-shaped'.
Tricky to explain?: As with 'Under the weather', it's perfectly possible to explain these etymological theories with the right vocabulary. Or you could just say 'it went wrong' and save yourself the hassle.
10. A piece of cake
Definition: It's really easy.
Example: "Flying a helicopter may look difficult but it's actually a piece of cake once you know what you're doing."
Origin: It's thought that this phrase originates from the 1870s; in some parts of the USA at the time, slaves would participate in a game where couples would perform a dance imitating the mannerisms of their masters. The most graceful couple would receive cake as a prize.
Tricky to explain?: Not particularly. What's easier than eating a piece of cake? Makes perfect sense to me.
11. Damp squib
Definition: Something that fails to meet expectations, an anti-climax.
Example: "I was so excited about the series finale but it turned out to be a damp squib."
Origin: Contrary to popular belief, the phrase is not actually 'damp squid' (damp squids probably wouldn't be considered failures, judging by their watery abode). This one apparently comes from the name of a dud 19th century explosive mining device. A damp squib was a squib that failed to perform because it got wet.
Tricky to explain?: This one's a really odd phrase with a very logical explanation behind it. Worth explaining just to hear non-natives attempt to pronounce 'squib'.
12. Cold turkey
Definition: Describing the actions of a person who abruptly gives up a habit or an addiction
Example: "My Nutella habit was getting out of hand so I decided to go cold turkey."
Origin: Again, there are a few different explanations for this one. One notes that the phrase means 'suddenly' or 'without preparation', just as cold turkey is a dish that takes little preparation. Another compares the symptoms of a withdrawing addict (cold sweats, goose bumps) to a cold turkey carcass.
Tricky to explain?: This is actually a really bizarre phrase that we use all the time without thinking. You can have a go at explaining it, but be prepared to fend off a load of questions about why we say 'cold turkey' and haven't plumped for other low-key meat dishes, such as 'cold chicken' or even 'cold jamón'.
13. My neck of the woods
Definition: The area where I live.
Example: "Let me know next time you're in my neck of the woods and we'll go for a pint"
Origin: A 'neck' could originally be a narrow stretch of wood, pasture or marsh, for example. This then evolved to refer to a settlement in a wooded country and then more generally to a neighbourhood.
Tricky to explain?: Although simple in principal, the use of the word 'neck' may throw people a tad. If you really want to get them to your neck of the woods sharpish, it might be quicker to avoid the metaphor. If you're not that bothered, though, throw it out there and leave them to work it out.
14. Give someone stick
Definition: To criticise or mock someone.
Example: "He's been getting stick for that jumper all day".
Origin: Apparently it comes from the literal sense of beating someone or something with a stick - lovely.
Tricky to explain?: Once they understand the basic concept of a stick, this should be pretty easy to mime. Not so easy to translate the subtle British idea of 'I'm being mean to him because I like him' though.
15. Send someone to Coventry
Definition: An old-fashioned phrase meaning to deliberately ostracise someone by ignoring them and generally pretending they don't exist.
Example: "The old boy cheated at croquet so we sent him to Coventry."
Origin: Coventry obviously refers to the West Midlands city. The most popular explanation is that this phrase refers to events in the English Civil War in the 1640s, in which Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry.
Tricky to explain?: I doubt it'll ever come up.
16. Thick as thieves
Definition: Close friends who share each others' confidences
Example: "I bet if I could just meet Beyoncé, we'd be thick as thieves in no time."
Origin: In the 18th century, 'thick' was used to mean 'closely allied with', and thieves were thought to be people who were generally conspiratorial. Pretty simple really.
Tricky to explain?: Nah. You've only got 3 words to deal with. You'll cope.
17. Throw a spanner in the works
Definition: To do something that complicates a plan or even prevents it from succeeding
Example: "I was almost ready to go out but losing one of my shoes really threw a spanner in the works."
Origin: This is quite literal - it refers to the detrimental effect of throwing a spanner into the gears and pistons of an engine.
Tricky to explain?: Spanner is quite an unusual word to know in a foreign language (unless you're partial to a bit of DIY) and that's before you get to the part where 'works' refers to an engine.
18. Wipe the floor with someone
Definition: To defeat someone very easily
Example: "Pixie should never have gone home in that Dance-Off. She wiped the floor with Simon."
Origin: This means what you think it does - someone has been defeated so completely that you might as well have used them to clean the floor.
Tricky to explain?: Comparing someone to, at best, a Dyson and at worst, a dish cloth, is a bit of a low-blow in any language.
19. Wouldn't touch it with a barge pole
Definition: Used to describe something so unappealing that you wouldn't want to go anywhere near it.
Example: "She fancies herself a bit of a chef but I wouldn't touch her lasagne with a barge-pole."
Origin: A barge pole is a long pole used by bargemen to fend off other boats on canals and rivers. To really spell it out, if you were to touch something with a barge pole, you'd still be very far away from it. So this expression is quite harsh.
Tricky to explain?: The imagery is very straightforward. Once you've explained what a barge actually is (are you sure you know?).
20. Pot calling the kettle black
Definition: Used to point out hypocrisy.
Example: "You're calling me obsessive? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black."
Origin: There are a couple of theories, but they're not wildly different. Shockingly, both pots and kettles. The first states that both old-fashioned (e.g. cast-iron) pots and kettles turn black on the bottom when hung over a fire, and so the pot would be accusing the kettle of a fault it shares. The second theory is a tad more convoluted. It states that a cast-iron pot would be sooty (having been placed on a fire to warm), whilst a kettle would remain clean and shiny (being placed on coals only). Thus, when the pot accuses the kettle of being black, it is the pot's own dirty reflection that it sees.
Tricky to explain?: As in point 2, this may require the initial explanation of what a kettle actually is, before you even get to the idiom itself. Then you have to deal with the personification of the inanimate objects...