There’s no doubt about it, English is a challenging language to learn, and that’s largely because it’s full of bizarre idiomatic expressions that, when you stop and think about them, they don’t appear to make much sense to anybody.
As native speakers, we use them without even thinking about where they come from; but if you are a student trying to learn English, they can be really confusing. If you know something about the origin of these expressions than it can help with remembering them easier. In this blog, we’ll look at ten of these interesting idioms and teach you where the expressions came from and more importantly, how to use them.
1. Play it by ear
You might also say, “let’s see how things go”.
Meaning: Playing something by ear means that rather than sticking to a defined plan, you will see how things go and decide on a course of action as you go along.
Example: “What time shall we go shopping?” “Let’s see how the weather looks and play it by ear.”
2. Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: We Brits are known for our obsession with the weather, so we couldn’t leave out a rain-related idiom from this list. It’s “raining cats and dogs” when it’s raining particularly heavily.
Example: “Listen to that rain!” “It’s raining cats and dogs!”
Origins: The origins of this bizarre phrase are unknown, though it was first recorded in 1651 in the poet Henry Vaughan’s collection Olor Iscanus. Speculation as to its origins ranges from medieval superstition to Norse mythology, but it may even be a reference to dead animals being washed through the streets by floods
3. Can’t do something to save my life
Meaning: “Can’t do something to save your life” is an exaggerated way of saying that you’re completely useless at something. It’s typically used in a self-deprecating manner or to indicate reluctance to carry out a task.
Example: “Don’t pick me – I can’t draw to save my life.”
Origins: Anthony Trollope first used this expression, in 1848 in Kellys and O’Kellys, writing, “If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”
4. Driving me up the wall
Meaning: This expression is used when something (or someone) is causing extreme annoyance. A similar expression meaning the same thing is “driving me round the bend”.
Example: “That constant drilling noise is driving me up the wall.”
Origins: The saying evokes someone trying desperately to escape something by climbing up the walls. However, it’s unknown when it was first used.
5. Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: If someone is “barking up the wrong tree”, they are pursuing a line of thought or course of action that is misguided.
Example: “I’m certain that he was responsible.” “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. He was elsewhere at the time.”
Origins: The saying refers to a dog barking at the bottom of a tree under the mistaken impression that its quarry is up it, suggesting that the phrase has its origins in hunting. The earliest known uses of the phrase date back to the early 19th century.
6. Bite off more than you can chew
Meaning: If you “bite off more than you can chew”, you have taken on a project or task that is beyond what you are capable of.
Example: “I bit off more than I could chew by taking on that extra class.”
Origins: This saying dates back to 1800s America, when people often chewed tobacco. Sometimes the greedier people bit off too large a chunk – hence the warning not to bite off more than they could chew
7. Fat chance
Meaning: We use the expression “fat chance” to refer to something that is incredibly unlikely. Bizarrely, and contrary to what one might expect, the related expression “slim chance” means the same thing.
Example: “We might win the Lottery.” “Fat chance.”
Origins: The origins of this expression are unclear, but the use of the word “fat” is likely to be a sarcastic version of saying “slim chance”. A similar expression is “Chance would be a fine thing”, which refers to something that one would like to happen, but that is very unlikely
8. In stitches
Meaning: If you’re “in stitches”, you’re laughing so hard that your sides hurt.
Example: “He was so funny – he had me in stitches all evening.”
Origins: Presumably comparing the physical pain of intense laughter with the prick of a needle, “in stitches” was first used in 1602 by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. After this, the expression isn’t recorded again until the 20th century, but it’s now commonplace.
9. Blow one’s own trumpet
Other music-related idioms include “music to my ears” (usually said of very good news) and “to face the music” (facing the consequence of an action, normally a punishment or scolding).
Meaning: “Blowing one’s own trumpet” means to boast about one’s own achievements.
Origins: Though phrases meaning the same thing had been in use for centuries, the actual expression is first recorded by Anthony Trollope in his 1873 work Australia and New Zealand.
10. Larger than life
Meaning: The phrase “larger than life” refers to a flamboyant, gregarious person whose mannerisms or appearance are considered more outlandish than those of other people.
Example: “His colourful waistcoats and unusual taste for hats made him a larger-than-life character in the local community.”
Origins: First recorded in the mid-20th century, the phrase was famously used by The New Yorker to describe wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill
So, there you go 10 English idioms and their meanings,
It's a near impossible task learning all the idioms in English but with our guided speaking course we can help you to start using idioms naturally. Why not join our speaking course and start advancing your spoken English.
If you enjoyed our blog and found it useful, please leave a comment below! Thanks, Matthew