10 weird and wonderful English idioms

10 weird and wonderful English idioms

As we covered in previous blog posts, the English language has some very interesting quirks . Let’s not beat around the bush, to go the extra mile in the English language means learning 24/7, and you might have butterflies in your stomach about either learning the language or teaching it to a near-native level.

See what we’ve done there? Idioms are everywhere in the English language, from everyday conversations to official documents, in government and in the street. While other languages can be very to-the-point, or conversely, have very unusual and beautiful turns of phrase, English is full of seemingly simple phrases that sound extremely normal to native-level speakers but bizarre to everyone else.

To let the cat out of the bag for a second, it’s something your students will have to deal with, come rain or shine (two more, there). Even more so if they’re interested in sports - there are whole podcasts devoted to the idiosyncratic language of football! You’d be sick as a parrot and have to dust yourself down if you didn’t know what football managers were talking about.

In the spirit of learning about idioms, we’ve selected some of our favourites, and how they’re used. Or, not used, as the case may be…

‘The Elephant in the room’

Just imagine you were learning English and someone said this? You’d be terrified.

When someone wants to talk about “the elephant in the room”, they mean the controversial or difficult topic that people are avoiding. It’s actually attributed not to an English writer, but a Russian one. Ivan Krylov is credited with popularising its use through the proverbial tale of a man who visits a museum, notices all the small trinkets, but not the elephant. Fyodor Dostoevsky then wrote in his book ‘Demons’: “Belinsky was just like Krylov's Inquisitive Man, who didn't notice the elephant in the museum…”

Alternative explanations for the phrase have cropped up, though. X Factor winner Alexandra Burke claimed she brought the idiom from the USA to the UK . Rumours swirled that her management wouldn’t bring up the elephant in the room: that it was already a very popular phrase.

‘You can say that again’ 

Here’s another one that could easily lead to confusion. If I told you that the coffee was expensive in this café, and you replied “you can say that again”, it would be, in fact, quite odd of me to repeat myself.

A phrase that goes a very wayward direction, when it’s a simple statement of agreement, this one’s common but has to be extremely confusing to English learners. Basically, if someone says this, don’t actually say it again.

‘Lose your marbles’ 

Perhaps more of a UK-based idiom, losing one’s marbles is the act of forgetting something, being frustrated by something, or confused by something. For example, I lost my marbles trying to pick the best idioms for this article.

Why marbles? If you’re not overwhelmingly familiar, they’re small, spherical toys that pre-date the Xbox. Competitive marble playing has been raging for centuries - enthusiasts of the more popular version of the game of marbles have taken in the annual British and World Marbles Championship, based in Tinsley Green, West Sussex with wild fervour. 

To the best of our knowledge, there haven’t been any scientific studies linking misplacing marbles with cognitive deterioration, but we’re happy to be corrected on this.

‘Butterflies in my stomach’

If you’re nervous about something, it’s very much the case* that insects (albeit, pretty ones) amass in your digestive system, causing you to feel “flutters”. This can be, for example, before a job interview, an exam, or checking your bank balance the day after a night out.

Where does this phrase come from? We’re going to defer to the Washington Post on this one:

“When people are stressed, they experience something called the "fight-or-flight" response. Let's pretend you came upon a lion on the African savanna… Fortunately, the human body is prepared to deal with this. Signals travel from the thinking part of your brain to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which are in your brain and responsible for controlling many bodily functions. The pituitary gland instantly signals the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and other chemicals into your blood stream… All of those effects are designed to help you fight the lion or run away. (I recommend the latter.)” 

“...At the same time that blood is flowing to your lungs and muscles, less of it is reaching other organs including your stomach. This and other hormonal changes may cause nausea. Even though man is unlikely to encounter a lion, a milder version of the same process kicks in in less stressful situations. That's "butterflies" in your stomach.”

So, lions? Butterflies? What’s going on? Essentially, when you’re nervous, your body kicks into fight-or-flight, and this causes a fluttering feeling in the stomach. There we go, case closed.

*it is not actually, the case. Clearly.

‘Easier said than done’

Explaining this phrase is, well… y’know.

If someone says this to you, it’s actual quite literal. For example, it’s easy to say “I’m going to climb Mount Everest”, but - according to reports - it’s actually quite an arduous thing to do.

In a learning context, you might say “I’m going to master irregular verbs this week”, but that’s much easier said than done. After the “butterflies in my stomach” entry, we thought we’d give you something a bit easier to, ahem, digest.

‘Let the cat out of the bag’

We’re big animal enthusiasts here at The TEFL Org, so this entry is prefaced by the following demand: please don’t put cats in bags.

What this idiom actually means is the revealing of a secret, often by accident . So, Judas revealing the location of Jesus wasn’t so much letting the cat out of the bag as an act of treachery. The Watergate scandal involved no cats being released. However, accidentally telling your friend about their surprise birthday party? Oh yes - you have just removed the feline from the receptacle. 

It has nothing to do with cats, or indeed, bags. 

‘Hit the sack’/’Hit the hay’

It’s been a long day. You’ve worked hard, night time has come, and now you’re going to hit the sack, or hit the hay, if you prefer.

Why? Why are English speakers acting with violence towards burlap or herbacioius plants? We’re not really, these are idioms which mean “going to bed”.

The origins of this are fairly self-evident. Beds weren’t always built in IKEA, so back in those sepia-tinged days, it wouldn’t be uncommon to rest your head on some kind of loose fabric, or indeed, some hay. Sounds itchy, to be fair.

Much like the cats and bags idiom, this is both literal and metaphorical. Letting a cat out of a bag would be quite a surprising (or even, strange) thing to do, so it sort of makes sense. The violence towards sacks is not the story here.

Writing this has made us tired.

‘The best thing since sliced bread’

Complex carbohydrates: is there nothing they can’t do?

Sliced bread first became commercially available in the 1920s - in the US at least - and was advertised as "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”. You can see where we’re going with this.

Inarguably, slicing bread was a good idea. For the sourdough enthusiasts amongst you, we hear and understand you, but the convenience of pre-sliced bread is inarguable. So, the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” started to apply to more modern conveniences until it became a ubiquitous everyday idiom.

You might say that this blog on idioms is the best thing since sliced bread. Please say that in the comments section below.

‘The bee’s knees’

Along with sliced bread, another popular movement in the 1920s was animal nonsense. Yes, we’re back with the animal kingdom and another odd idiom, “the bee’s knees”. In case you didn’t know, it’s a phrase that means something of high quality. 

Along with “the cat’s pyjamas” and the rather less popular “gnat’s elbow”, it’s a very simple phrase that’s stood the test of time. Really, it’s just a cute image, and a fun way to say that something is good. You’d probably get a wider smile from a dinner host if you described their meal as “the bee’s knees”, rather than a blunt “that was good”.

Also, there’s a nice little rhyme there, which is probably why “cat’s pyjamas” and “gnat’s elbow” didn’t quite take off in the same way. 

Also, if you’re wondering about whether bees actually have knees :

“Bees, like all insects, have six sections to their legs: the coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia, metatarsus and tarsus. Each is connected by a joint and the one most like a knee is between the femur and tibia.” Shout out to bees, the pollen-collecting legends.

‘It takes two to tango’

Want to sound like a native-level English speaker? Pulling this phrase (not a cat) out of the (proverbial) bag will help.

One of the more sophisticated idioms, this essentially means that the task or act in question required two people, as opposed to one. One person is not enough to have made such a thing happen, it takes two to tango.

Tango, here, doesn’t refer to the popular brand of fizzy juice, but instead to the dance. The tango originated in the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay, and was considered a very risqué and working-class dance when it first emerged. 

Interestingly, the Tango is now a UNESCO-approved cultural movement . And while there are probably scientists somewhere working on a solo tango, for now: it takes two.

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