20 English Idioms with their Meanings and Origins | Oxford Royale Summer Schools
As native speakers, we use them without even thinking about where they come from; but to a student trying to learn English, they can be deeply confusing. Knowing a bit about the origins of these sayings is helpful in cementing these language nuggets in the mind. In this article, we’ll look at a number of these interesting idioms and teach you where the expressions came from – and more importantly, how to use them.
1. Play it by ear
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.”
Origins: This saying has its origins in music, as “playing something by ear” means to play music without reference to the notes on a page. This sense of the phrase dates back to the 16th century, but the present use only came into being in mid-20th century America, primarily referring to sports. These days, the expression has lost this focus on sports and can be used in any context.
2. Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: We Brits are known for our obsession with the weather, so we couldn’t omit 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 obscure, 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 a hyperbolic way of saying that you’re completely inept at something. It’s typically used in a self-deprecating manner or to indicate reluctance to carry out a task requested of one.
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. Turn a blind eye
Meaning: To “turn a blind eye” to something means to pretend not to have noticed it.
Example: “She took one of the cookies, but I turned a blind eye.”
Origins: Interestingly, this expression is said to have arisen as a result of the famous English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is alleged to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye, thus ensuring that he would not see any signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.
5. 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.
6. Pot calling the kettle black
Meaning: We use this expression to refer to someone who criticises someone else, for something they they themselves are guilty of.
Example: “You’re greedy.” “Pot calling the kettle black?”
Origins: First used in the literature of the 1600s – notably Don Quixote by Cervantes – this expression has its origins in the Medieval kitchen, when both pots and kettles were made from sturdy cast iron and both would get black with soot from the open fire.
7. Once in a blue moon
Meaning: The phrase refers to something that happens very infrequently.
Example: “I only see him once in a blue moon.”
Origins: Confusingly, a blue moon doesn’t refer to the actual colour of the moon; it refers to when we see a full moon twice in one month. This happens every two to three years. It’s thought that the word “blue” may have come from the now obsolete word “belewe”, which meant “to betray”; the “betrayer moon” was an additional spring full moon that would mean people would have to fast for an extra month during Lent. The saying in its present meaning is first recorded in 1821.
8. Head in the clouds
Meaning: Used to describe someone who is not being realistic, the expression “head in the clouds” suggests that the person isn’t grounded in reality and is prone to flights of fancy. The opposite expression would be something like “down to earth”, meaning someone who is practical and realistic.
Example: “He’s not right for this role, he has his head in the clouds.”
Origins: In use since the mid-1600s, the origins of this expression are unclear beyond the obvious imagery of someone who is a bit of a fantasist (having one’s head in the clouds is clearly impossible – or at least it was in the days before aviation!).
9. Mad as a hatter
Meaning: “Mad as a hatter” refers to someone who is completely crazy. A similar expression is “mad as a March hare”.
Example: “You could ask him, but he’s mad as a hatter.”
Origins: This is an interesting one. While “hatter” refers to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in Alice in Wonderland, the expression has its origins in the effects of the chronic mercury poisoning commonly experienced by 18th and 19th century hat manufacturers owing to the use of mercurous nitrate in felt hats. “Mad as a March hare” comes from the behaviour of hares during the breeding season, when they run and leap about the fields.
10. Driving me up the wall
Meaning: This expression is used when something (or someone) is causing extreme exasperation and 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.
11. Call it a day
Meaning: This means to stop doing something for the day, for example work, either temporarily or to give it up completely.
Example: “I can’t concentrate – let’s call it a day.”
Origins: The expression was originally “call it half a day”, first recorded in 1838 in a context meaning to leave one’s place of work before the working day was over. “Call it a day” came later, in 1919.
12. Knight in shining armour
Meaning: A knight in shining armour is a heroic, idealised male who typically comes to the rescue of a female.
Example: “He saved me from humiliation – he’s my knight in shining armour.”
Origins: The phrase harks back to the days of Old England, when popular imagination conjures up images of chivalry and knights coming to the rescue of damsels in distress. Much of this is likely to be Victorian fantasy, as this was a period when interest in the legend of King Arthur and the Court of Camelot was high. The earliest use of the expression was in a poem by Henry Pye in 1790, which referred to “No more the knight, in shining armour dress’d”.
13. Know the ropes
Meaning: Someone who “knows the ropes” is experienced at what they are doing. “Showing someone the ropes” means to explain to them how something is done.
Example: “Ask John, he knows the ropes around here.”
Origins: This phrase has its origins in the golden age of sailing, when understanding how to handle the ropes necessary to operate a ship and its sails was an essential maritime skill. By the mid-19th century it was a common slang expression, and it survives to this day.
14. 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.
15. Extend the olive branch
Meaning: To extend the olive branch is to take steps towards achieving peace with an enemy (or simply someone with whom you have fallen out).
Example: “I thought it was about time I went over there and extended the olive branch.”
Origins: This expression has biblical origins, and was seen as an emblem of peace. In Genesis, a dove brings an olive branch to Noah to indicate that God’s anger had died down and the flood waters had abated.
16. A red herring
Meaning: Often used in the context of television detective shows, a red herring refers to something designed to distract or throw someone off a trail. Hence in a detective show, a clue that appears vital to solving a mystery is often added to heighten suspense, but may turn out to have been irrelevant; it was a red herring.
Example: “It seemed important, but it turned out to be a red herring.”
Origins: A herring is a fish that is often smoked, a process that turns it red and gives it a strong smell. Because of their pungent aroma, smoked herrings were used to teach hunting hounds how to follow a trail, and they would be drawn across the path of a trail as a distraction that the dog must overcome.
17. 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.
18. 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 chewer would put into their mouth more than they could fit; it’s quite self-explanatory!
19. Blow one’s own trumpet
Meaning: “Blowing one’s own trumpet” means to boast about one’s own achievements.
Example: “Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, I came top of the class.”
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.
20. 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.
Though they make it harder to learn, expressions such as those we’ve covered in this article are also what make English so much fun. There are many, many more, and if you choose to attend one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses, you can look forward to adding even more English idioms to your ever-expanding vocabulary.