5 expressions that are just the tip of the idiom iceberg
(Tip of the iceberg means a small part of something much larger. See, we’re learning already!)
Idioms are like a secret language within a language. There’s something about our collective understanding of phrases that don’t make sense that connect native and new English speakers.
Once you’ve mastered a couple, using them in everyday interactions gives you a rush. But if you’re pursuing idiom fluency, I’m sorry to break it to you; it’s close to impossible.
For example, here are five widely used idioms you might not yet know.
- Every cloud has a silver lining
- Let someone off the hook
- Spill the beans
- Go on a wild goose chase
- Your guess is as good as mine
(Scroll to the end of the article for their meanings)
However, because English is a broadly spoken and ever-evolving language, even the most common of phrases can return odd looks when you use them in real life.
But what’s that got to do with becoming fluent in idioms?
Well, here are the challenges you’ll face in pursuit of perfection.
UK vs USA vs Australian Idioms
As we touched on, English is spoken natively by some 360 million people dotted across the planet.
While England had significant influence over countries like Australia and the United States, their native populations and neighbouring countries also shaped their culture and language.
For example, most people in Australia live near water populated by mullet fish, so the idiom “Like a stunned mullet” developed to describe someone who is dazed or confused.
Meanwhile, in the southern USA, “I smell what you’re steppin’ in” confirms you understand what someone is saying. This one evolved thanks to the large cattle farms and the numerous cowpats there were to step in.
Some American Idioms like “You can hang your hat on that”, meaning to depend on something, are understood by most English speakers but friends and colleagues may question you if you used them in England or another English speaking country. The same goes for the expression “Look like death warmed over” which is used in North American but is changed to “Look like death warmed up” in England.
Essentially, just because an idiom is in English, it seldom means all English speakers use it.
We’ve already explored how “I smell what you’re steppin’ in” evolved from American farming communities. A large number of idioms evolved from professions. While they have permeated most of the English-speaking world, plenty still feel inappropriate when used outside of their original work-based context.
“Ahead of the curve” means something is innovative or before its time and is typically used in technology and engineering professions.
“On the back burner” comes from the cooking profession, where chefs would typically have a lower flame at the back of their hob. It’s a polite way to tell someone you are putting something at a lower priority than the immediate tasks.
You can use both of these in everyday language, but they may feel formal or avoidant outside of the workplace.
Some idioms have clear origins or are semi discernible based on context. Take the expression “bless your heart”, which expresses fondness.
But for any of the 1.3 billion people who speak English as a second language or for neurodivergent individuals, certain idioms may feel uncomfortable to decipher.
For example, “break a leg” sounds violent and unkind. But it means the speaker wishes someone good luck.
Similarly, “As right as rain” may sound like a bad thing in the modern-day, but it means something is perfect, as rain would have been a blessing to farming communities gone by.
What’s a marketing team to do when it comes to translating their phrases into English?
The key is proper localisation. This means breaking your content down by location in addition to language. If you’re a French brand trading globally, you will want your English adverts translated separately for American, Australian, and UK audiences.
To buy into localisation, you need to see that translating content isn’t just about being understood. Your goal should be to make your audience feel seen and give readers a way to connect to your content. Idioms are a great way to achieve that feeling of connection, so experienced localisation translators will consider the greater context and switch your idioms for locally appropriate ones.
We have a whole team of translators and localisation experts so feel free to contact us if you have localisation questions about your upcoming marketing campaigns.
Five English idioms you might not know
Congratulations on becoming that much wiser in the wonderful world of idioms!
Here are the meanings of the five idioms we mentioned earlier.
Every cloud has a silver lining ⛅️
Speakers frequently use this idiom as a complete sentence. It refers to the silver glow around a cloud when the sun is behind it and implies something good has come from a bad situation.
Example: “Well, every cloud has a silver lining!.” Or simply, “Every cloud!”
Let someone off the hook 🎣
Letting someone off the hook means not holding that person responsible for something they have done. Some individuals also use it jokingly after realising they have wrongly accused someone of something.
Example: “I let Tom off the hook after apologising to his sister.”
Spill the beans 🤭
This one sounds similar to an expression we covered in our ten great English idioms blog, but it has an entirely different meaning. To spill the beans means to reveal a secret accidentally or otherwise.
Example: “Steve spilt the beans on your new job!”
Go on a wild goose chase 🦢
Going or being sent on a wild goose chase means you’ve been chasing after something that doesn’t exist or was unnecessary.
Example: “He sent me on a wild goose chase!”
Your guess is as good as mine 🤷
This idiom means the speaker does not know the answer to a question or situation. Usually, the receiver of the idiom is also unlikely to know the correct answer. Again this idiom is often used as a complete sentence.
Example: “Your guess is as good as mine”, often accompanied by a shoulder shrug.