I first started paying more attention to idioms after my girlfriend translated a French expression when I was being particularly annoying one evening, “Faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties”, or ‘don’t push granny in the [stinging] nettles’. After a pause, I asked for an explanation and learned I had gone a bit too far.
Idioms are expressions that often have a meaning differing from what is said. Present in every language, they can be one of the hardest parts to learn. Idioms are often hard to translate and can be difficult to understand for non-natives. For example, some British Idioms won’t be understood by Americans, and vice versa. When learning a language, understanding these expressions gives you further insight into the culture and allows you to engage with native speakers at a higher level.
Sometimes idioms have a clear origin story, such as the saying ‘out of left field’. This American saying, which uses baseball terminology, means that something is unexpected or odd. Other idioms have less clear origins. Used as a prompt for someone who has remained silent when asked a question, ‘cat got your tongue?’ has several theories discussing its creation. Here are a few other common examples:
Bob’s your uncle – A British phrase, it is often used to express that a task is complete, or to create emphasis in a way like ‘there it is’, or the French ‘voila!’
Getting up to speed means that someone is caught up on relevant details. For example, a new hire at a company will use the onboarding process to get up to speed on what the company’s values and goals are.
Not my cup of tea – It might surprise you to know that this British phrase is also quite common in the United States. It’s used to express that something is not to the liking of the speaker. One way I might use this phrase is to say: “festivals aren’t really my cup of tea, I prefer smaller crowds”.
Throw a spanner in the works – For those of you who, like me, had never heard of a spanner, it is a British-English word for wrench. This conveys that there has been a problem which interrupted someone’s plans – “Joan was ready to buy a house when the bank threw a spanner in the works and denied her loan”.
Back to the drawing board – a phrase used when a plan is scrapped and an individual or team has to start over. “Well, we won’t get the machine parts to make this work so it’s back to the drawing board”.
Lost the plot – Another British phrase, lost the plot means that the subject is unable to understand or cope with events. For example: “he lost the plot when his team lost in the championship round”.
Break a leg is a stand-alone phrase used to wish someone good luck before a performance. This is not to be confused with “pull[ing] my leg’, which is often used as a lighthearted way of recognizing that someone is teasing you: “you’re pulling my leg, there’s no way that your dog actually ate your homework”
Get the ball rolling is used in many situations to set something in motion, or to make a start. “We’ve got a lot to do today, so let’s get the ball rolling and finish on time”.
Want to learn more about idioms or improve your language skills in general? Take a look at the trainings we offer!