One of my favourite things about the English language is all the great expressions it contains. These expressions tend to be regional – common British idioms might leave an American or Australian just as confused as a non-native speaker – and if you haven’t heard the phrase before, they can leave you wondering what on earth the person you are talking to is on about.
Idioms are a nightmare for non-native speakers and translators alike – I wrote about the joy of translating idioms in another blog article, which you can read here. Interpreted literally, idioms make no sense at all. The only way to understand one of these beauties is to know its true meaning.
So, without further ado, here is a handy guide to some of my favourite idioms, starting with the wonderfully expressive “put a sock in it”. This guide also explains the meaning of the following 10 English idioms:
- Cutting off your nose to spite your face
- Like talking to a brick wall
- It cost an arm and a leg
- Speak of the devil
- Bob’s your uncle
- Full of beans
- Take the biscuit
- Strike while the iron’s hot
- Play it by ear
- Driving me up the wall
- Bite off more than you can chew
- Blow your own trumpet
Great English idioms and their meaning
“Put a sock in it”
This is a great phrase, particularly if you are faced with someone who just won’t stop talking or who is being annoyingly loud. It simply means “stop talking” or “quieten down”. When I say it, I like to imagine stuffing a sock into the mouth of the person I am talking to and the look of utter bemusement on their face.
There are two theories about the origin of “put a sock in it”: one is that it refers to people stuffing a sock into early gramophones to quieten the music in the absence of a volume control. The more likely origin, however, is from the trenches of the First World War, when it was used by soldiers, along with “put a bung in it” and “put a cork in it” to mean “shut up”.
“Cutting off your nose to spite your face”
Another extremely expressive phrase commonly used in Britain. I love the imagery of it, even if it is a little violent! It means overreacting to a situation in a way that is actually more damaging to yourself than to the person to whom you are trying to take revenge. Say, for example, someone has bought you tickets to see your favourite band, but you have a petty argument the day before and so you say you are not going to go anymore. That is basically cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just resolve the argument and go enjoy your favourite band in concert!
Its origins are rather disconcerting. The phrase dates back to the 12thcentury and may refer to legends of pious women disfiguring themselves in order to protect their virginity. One particular legend involves Saint Ebba, who, in 867 AD, apparently told all the nuns in Coldingham Priory to disfigure themselves to put off Viking raiders who were on their way from Zealand and Uppsala and thus protect their chastity. Saint Ebba cut off her nose and upper lip and the other nuns did the same. Legend has it that the Vikings were so disgusted they burned the whole priory to the ground with the nuns inside. Not a great outcome for the nuns.
The other possible origin is the medieval practice of cutting off the noses of others as punishment or revenge. Back then, cutting off someone’s nose was the way of expressing spite. [from Wikipedia]
“Like talking to a brick wall”
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone and at best received a blank face in response? Some people don’t listen, some people just don’t understand what they are being told; in both cases, you can refer to the conversation as “like talking to a brick wall”. Sometimes talking to a brick wall can be more satisfying…
“It cost an arm and a leg”
Having looked up the origins of some other idioms in this blog, I am slightly worried where this one is going to lead, but it is a common phrase used in the UK. The basic meaning? That something is expensive.
“Did you buy that top in the end?” “No! It cost an arm and a leg!”
Now on to its origins…
It is apparently an American phrase, coined after the Second World War, and it refers to the high cost that servicemen paid by losing limbs for their country.
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“Speak of the devil”
This phrase comes up a lot in day-to-day life. Perhaps you are talking about someone and they suddenly appear or happen to phone or text at that precise moment, then you say “speak of the devil”. According to Wikipedia, it can also be used about a topic that quickly becomes relevant, such as the onset of rain or a car breaking down. Used in this sense it can be seen as an alternative to the phrase “tempting fate”. I’ve only ever used it to refer to people though.
The phrase is the short form of the English idiom “Speak of the devil and he doth appear!”.
“Bob’s your uncle”
This phrase has a personal significance for me and always makes me chuckle, as Bob is actually the name of my stepfather. It is the English equivalent of “et voila!” and means “and there you have it”.
It dates back to 1887, when Conservative Prime Minister Robert (or Bob) Cecil appointed his nephew as Chief Secretary to Ireland, much to the bemusement and surprise of most. Popular opinion was that his main qualification for the job was the fact that Bob was his uncle. Et voila!
“Full of beans”
Commonly used to refer to children, pets and anyone who is behaving in a highly energetic and enthusiastic way. “Full of beans” just means that someone has a lot of positive energy. The origins are fairly self-explanatory here: beans are full of protein and give you lots of energy.
“Take the biscuit”
“Well, that really takes the biscuit” is a great phrase used to refer to something that is remarkable, but in a bad way. If you are complaining about someone and want to describe the most annoying or irritating thing that they have done, this phrase is a great way of doing so.
Given the varied meaning of the word “biscuit” (as discussed here), I presume this idiom is limited to Britain. If you know a different regional version of “take the biscuit”, feel free to share it on the LEaF Facebook page!
“Strike while the iron’s hot”
Another common and pleasingly expressive saying. So common, in fact, that I used it just a couple of hours ago. If you are anything like me and your motivation, energy and inspiration comes and goes, striking whilst the iron is hot can be a key tactic to ensure things actually get done. It basically means that if you have an idea, you should act on it quickly whilst the momentum is there.
The phrase has its origins in blacksmiths or farriers needing to shape the iron while it is hot, as once it has cooled the opportunity has passed. A lesson for life.
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“Play it by ear”
A highly versatile and commonly used phrase, meaning to wait and see what happens or improvising rather than making plans in advance.
“Are you going to get food when you are out?” “I’m not sure, I’ll play it by ear” – a frequent conversation in our household…
The idiom has its origins in the world of music. When playing from memory, musicians need to use their ears to make sure they are playing the music correctly – in other words, they have to “play by ear”.
“Driving me up the wall”
This idiom evokes a great image. It is used to express rage or intense irritation with someone or something – “he’s driving me up the wall!” The phrase is based on the idea of having to climb a wall to get away from someone or something, but its precise origins are unknown.
“Bite off more than you can chew”
This is a great phrase for people who tend to take on too much work or spin too many plates. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” are common words of warning to not do too much and not overextend yourself.
Apparently, the phrase dates back to 19thcentury America, when people used to chew tobacco – it is a warning not to put too much in your mouth at once. Makes sense.
“Blow your own trumpet”
Like “bite off more than you can chew”, this phrase is mainly used in the negative: “Stop blowing your own trumpet!” It is a great response for someone who is smugly going on about their achievements or boasting about how great they are.
We are so familiar with it in our family that we don’t even say the words anymore, we just mime a trumpet when someone starts to brag!
The origins are debated: it could date back to medieval times when important people (men, who are we kidding!) had a herald to share stories of how great they were – the whole process would begin with the herald blowing a horn. Alternatively, it could simply be due to the fact that trumpets are loud and anyone blowing a trumpet is going to attract a lot of attention!
So, there you have it! Eleven great English idioms and sayings commonly used in Britain. Your homework: to try and fit as many of these as possible into everyday conversation over the next few days! Let us know how you get on with a post on the LEaF Facebook page. And, if you want more chat about awesome sayings and to read more about how to translate idioms, check out The Ultimate Guide to Translating Idioms.