25 English Expressions You Might Encounter (But Which Now Seem Out Of Date)
Textbooks often contain relics of bygone expressions.
It’s tricky to write a textbook targeted at teenagers. The basic curriculum might not have changed in five or ten years, but whether you should have your cartoon teens say “wicked”, “awesome” or “sick” definitely will have done. But this isn’t just about the rapid evolution of teen slang; words and phrases that were in common usage when the textbook was first written might be less common now, especially if new editions didn’t update everything. You might well end up learning expressions that you’ll come across in novels from 20 years ago, or in journalistic cliche, but that are seldom used in day-to-day conversation.
The expressions listed below fall into that category; they might have been commonly used once, but now, if you hear them at all, it’s likely to be ironically, in a particular dialect where they’ve been preserved, or by people over the age of 60. That’s not to say that they’ll never come back. For instance, this article is fascinating on the fall and rise of the phrase “hey-ho”, which dates in current usage to the 16th century, began to die out of the course of the 20th century, and made a comeback with the advent of the internet. But for now, it’s safe to say these are expressions you may have been taught, but that you’ll seldom hear used.
1. Cut to the chase
“To cut to the chase” is to get to the point, and of all the items on this list, it’s the one that’s most often still used today. All the same, you’re much more likely to see it in print than spoken aloud. It’s a phrase reminiscent of impatient, big-ego businessmen, or swaggering cops – “OK, pal, I get the idea. Cut to the chase – did he do it?”
Alternatively, “oops-a-daisy” or “ups-a-daisy”. “Whoops” as an expression of surprise dates to the 16th century, but this charming or twee variation (depending on your point of view) is only about 90 years old. Mostly the only people who still say it are 90 years old as well, with the exception perhaps of primary school teachers trying to avoid saying anything stronger when they’ve dropped a heavy box on their foot. It might be followed by “silly me!” for maximum tweeness.
3. Humble pie
Eating “humble pie” is apologising, but with the implication that the apology is humiliating (“I missed another deadline, so I had to eat some serious humble pie in order not to lose the contract”). It’s a phrase that’s most often preserved in journalistic cliche (“the Foreign Secretary was today forced to eat humble pie after admitting his statements were misleading…”), and appears to have derived from “umble pie”, an actual kind of pie made from venison offal. But there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly humbling about umble pie, so it’s unclear how one came to be substituted for the other.
4. Know your onions
To “know your onions” is to “know your stuff” or “know what you’re talking about.” Why the phrase refers to onions isn’t clear, but it’s probably that onions have the ring of practicality and solidity; “he knows his onions” conveys the sense of being in a safe pair of hands in the way that “he knows his kumquats” does not. Despite the sense of rustic history that the phrase suggests, it only dates to the 1920s.
5. Make whoopee
An Americanism that’s seldom made it across the Atlantic, to “make whoopee” is to have a great time, usually in the context of something exciting like a party; you wouldn’t describe birdwatching as “making whoopee” no matter how much you were enjoying it. This is another 1920s phrase that got passed on for one generation, but failed to last any longer – there will be more of those still to come on this list.
To some, Squares are a cereal bar made of Rice Krispies. But in the sense we’re discussing here, squares are people who are not cool; “you’re such squares!” is something a teenager might shout at her parents after they had refused to let her go to a party. It’s a 20s term that survived into the 80s, but by the time that the band Huey Lewis and the News were declaring “It’s Hip to Be Square” in 1986, it was clearly on the decline, and you won’t hear it used much today.
7. A red-headed stepchild
There are some terms where it seems like a good sign for our society if they’ve fallen out of use. A “red-headed stepchild” is something that is unwanted, ignored or abused (“climate change policy has long been the red-headed stepchild of the current government”), on the basis that stepchildren were unwanted, redheads were unwanted, and the combination of the two was even worse. Now that blended families are increasingly common, this expression has thankfully fallen into disuse.
“Dork” means much the same sort of thing as “geek” or “nerd”. Yet while the word geek is alive and well, and being a geek is itself increasingly celebrated (try googling “year of the geek” for evidence), no one wants to be a dork to the extent that scarcely anyone even says the word “dork” any more.
9. Mum’s the word
To “keep mum” is to stay quiet – “mum” is a Middle English word meaning silent, which has passed out of use except in a handful of expressions. To “keep mum” is one of them, and “mum’s the word” is another, meaning “don’t give up the secret”. You might have seen the Second World War poster “keep mum, she’s not so dumb”, meaning “keep any secrets you know to yourself, as the women around you might share them with the enemy.”
10. Trick cyclist
Slang for professions appears to have fallen out of favour. You might have heard of a “shrink” to mean psychiatrist, but have you heard of a “trick cyclist”? (If you don’t see the connection, say it out loud). Its origin is unclear, though Google’s ngrams suggest it came into use in the late 1890s, peaked in the 1950s, and has been falling out of favour ever since.
11. Bean counter
This is an interesting example of an expression that is in the process of changing meaning. If in the 60s, you heard someone referred to as a “bean counter”, that was likely to refer to their job, usually as an accountant or something similar. Now, the phrase has shifted in meaning, to refer to anyone whose job involves controlling budgets, and who is particularly bureaucratic or difficult about releasing funds.
12. Close, but no cigar
“Close, but no cigar” means – as you might guess – close, but not quite there. You might hear it, for instance, if an answer you gave in class wasn’t quite right, but a good attempt all the same. The origin of the phrase isn’t known for sure, but it seems to have come from late 19th and early 20th century carnivals in the US, where cigars were given as prizes. But now that smoking is increasingly rare – especially cigars – the idiom has become less clear, and died out.
13. Just your bag
If something is “just your bag”, it’s “just your thing” or exactly the sort of thing that you like. You might also hear that something is “not my bag”. It’s hard to track the phrase, but it seems to have come into use in the late 60s, peaked in the early 70s, and then fallen out of favour again – a phrase for the Baby Boomer generation that doesn’t seem likely to outlast them.
14. A sticky wicket
A literal “sticky wicket” is when, in cricket, the ground is damp and the ball doesn’t bounce properly, instead seeming to stick to the ground. In slang, it’s a difficult situation, and it’s the kind of phrase you might hear from an upper-class character in a detective novel (but seldom in real life).
15. Painting the town red
If you’re “painting the town red”, you’re probably also “making whoopee” – this is another expression for having a good, wild time. The earliest recorded use is 1884, from the US, though it’s been used in the UK as well. You might still hear elderly people asking if their grandchildren are off painting the town red.
16. Everything but the kitchen sink
If you’ve got a bag packed with “everything but the kitchen sink”, then you’ve got a bag that’s very full indeed (imagine a stereotypical dad complaining about the amount of luggage his children propose bringing on holiday). Increasingly, the “everything but” part is being lost, so you’re now more likely to hear “you’ve got the kitchen sink in here!” when there are problems in the Ryanair queue.
17. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail
Lambs shake their tails quickly – so if something will be done in “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”, it will be done very soon. The phrase is first recorded in 1840 but seems to have already been commonplace by then. Scientists working on the atom bomb, perhaps inspired by this idiom, then chose to call the unit of time equivalent to 10 nanoseconds a “shake”.
18. Kick the bucket
A key moment of Monty Python’s celebrated Parrot Sketch goes like this:
“He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!”
Or to put it another way – to “kick the bucket” means to die.
19. Pleased as punch
Punch and Judy is a puppet show, usually performed for children at the seaside, but increasingly out of fashion given it involves a great deal of violence, mostly inflicted by Punch on Judy. Punch enjoys himself thoroughly, and so we say that someone who is very pleased is “pleased as punch”, in a phrase that dates to the early 1800s.
20. As easy as pie
Making pie might not seem easy, but this expression is thought to refer to how easy it is to eat pie. It comes from the late 19th century, in a time that seems to have been full of pie-themed expressions (as nice as pie, as polite as pie, pie in the sky and so on).
21. Spill the beans
To “spill the beans” is to give up a secret, and it’s the kind of thing that you might imagine schoolchildren saying to each other in Enid Blyton novels. “Spill” meaning “give up information” dates back to the 16th century, but the addition of beans is more mysterious. “The soup” and “your guts” were other early alternatives, but “beans” seems to have caught on better.
22. Pardon my French
It’s long been a tendency in Britain to attribute anything even a little bit rude to the French – one mild example is “French kissing”. In the same vein, “pardon my French” is something that you would say to apologise for swearing. The phrase originates from people genuinely apologising for using French (which their audience might not understand), but came to refer only to rude words.
23. Send them to Coventry
Coventry is a pleasant city in the West Midlands that doesn’t really deserve to be in this expression. To be “sent to Coventry” is to be ostracised, ignored, or more casually, given the silent treatment. Various historical reasons for the phrase have been suggested, but none can be proven.
24. If you please
“If you please” is a slightly prim-sounding expression that means “if you wouldn’t mind”, and is shortened more usually to “please”. Now, using the full version makes you sound old-fashioned or strange or both, and saying it is likely to make you sound as if you’re being sarcastic.
If everything is “tickety-boo”, then everything is fine. It’s an adjective that people use particularly of their health and of mechanical devices (“how’s the car?” “Quite tickety-boo, thank you!”). It’s from the early 20th century, and may have come from a mispronunciation of Hindi during the British Raj. It’s now fallen almost completely out of use, except by people deliberately choosing to use an archaic phrasing.
Image credits: men chatting; textbooks; daisies; onions; kitten; unicyclist; cigar; sink; punch and judy; coventry transport museum