11 English Clichés and What They Mean: Useful Fun for English Learners
It doesn’t matter how far down the road you are with learning English; it’s a language that has a habit of catching you unawares with expressions that can baffle even native speakers.
When you don’t speak the language yourself, and you chance upon an expression that doesn’t logically translate into your own language, it makes it even harder to understand what British people are on about. In a previous article, we explored the many bizarre idioms that make the English language so idiosyncratic. This time, we’re going to focus on another type of expression that may have you scratching your head in bewilderment: the cliché. Since clichés are generally thought of as “done to death” (to use a cliché), and not a good way to express yourself, we’ll also explain alternative ways of expressing some of the same sentiments.
What is a cliché?
Clichés are overused expressions that have been said so many times, by so many people, that they’ve rather lost their meaning and don’t always say very much. British people use phrases like this so often that they don’t even realise it; some like to spout clichéd advice such as “every cloud has a silver lining” because they aren’t sure what else to say. Clichés are often idioms – that is, a figurative phrase that has an implied meaning rather than a literal one. George Orwell said of such expressions: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” In other words, don’t rehash the same phrases everyone else does – it usually doesn’t add anything to what you’re saying!
Let’s look at some of the most common clichés in the English language and find out how you can avoid falling into the habit of employing these overused expressions as you get better at speaking English.
1. At the end of the day
This is a cliché you are likely to hear a lot if you come to the UK. It means “when everything has been considered”, and it’s usually used to precede what one considers to be the crux of the matter. An example of its use might be as follows:
“We talked about the situation and I advised him what I thought he should do, but at the end of the day, it’s his decision.”
A less clichéd – and more economical – way of phrasing this might be to replace “at the end of the day” with “ultimately”, or just to get rid of it altogether; as with many modern clichés, you’ll often find that the sentence works just as well without it.
2. Let’s face it
People say “let’s face it” when they’re about to state a regrettable fact about which one must be realistic. You could say that the existence of such an expression is evidence of British pragmatism – we’re quite good at being realistic about a situation when we need to be. An example of this expression in use is:
“Because let’s face it, they wouldn’t want me there.”
Close variants of “let’s face it” are “let’s face facts” and “let’s be honest”. I must admit to being rather fond of “Let’s face it”; even if it is a cliché, it’s surely a good thing to have the language necessary for dealing with uncomfortable facts!
3. To be honest
This is one of the most overused expressions in the English language, and adds very little to the majority of sentences in which you’ll hear it said. An example might be:
“To be honest, I never thought it was a good idea.”
It’s meant to signify the fact that the speaker is talking frankly, but it’s an odd phrase because it implies that the speaker isn’t being honest the rest of the time. Since this expression is really just padding and used by the speaker primarily to make themselves sound more important, most of the time you’ll find that the sentence stands up on its own without it.
When people are trying to express the fact that they intend to give their maximum effort to something, they often say “I’ll give it 110%”. Another context might be:
“Are you certain?”
It’s an exaggeration that one often hears contestants on television “talent” shows say (“I’m going to give it 110% and that’s all I can do”) or in the workplace, in which employees use it to impress their boss with their “110% commitment” to a project. The thing is, 110% is a percentage increase; in any other situation, there’s no such thing. It’s impossible, because a whole is 100% (which is a cliché in its own right when used in a similar fashion to the above example). If you really want to express your commitment to something as a percentage, then say “100%”, but better still, avoid this altogether. If you want other words to use instead, try rewording to something like “you can count on my total commitment” or, more colloquially, “l’ll give it my best shot” (still a cliché, but nowhere near as bad).
The word “literally” has become a cliché in recent years because people have started using it to emphasise a point they’re making. Unfortunately, in doing so, they make themselves sound silly because very often the word is inappropriate. This example comes from none other than our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg:
“It makes people so incredibly angry when you are getting up early in the morning, working really hard to try and do the right thing for your family and for your community, you are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.”
The word “literally” should only be used when something is factually true. In this example, the word “literally” is being used to emphasise the fact that two different groups are worlds apart (figuratively speaking), but what this phrase technically means is that there really are people (little green men, perhaps?) living in a different galaxy, not the Milky Way, who are paying lower rates of tax. Somehow, we don’t think this is quite what Nick Clegg meant! So, unless you’re talking about something that really is the case, avoid the word “literally”. Correctly used, you can evoke surprise by saying that a normally figurative expression is really true. An example of the correct usage would be describing a very large hailstone as “literally the size of your fist”.
6. I’m not being funny, but…
This widely-loathed expression has crept into the English language comparatively recently; who knows where from. It’s ostensibly used to precede a statement that may sound funny (in either the humorous sense or the ‘strange’ sense), but isn’t meant to be, or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It can also be used to lessen the impact of a politically incorrect statement, particularly if the speaker isn’t sure that those to whom they are speaking will agree with them. In fact, the phrase that follows this odious expression is normally anything but funny, in the humorous sense of the word; for example:
“I’m not being funny, but there’s a bit of a weird smell around here.”
Deep down, many people use this expression because they feel insecure about saying something for some reason. The solution? Don’t preface something you’re not sure about by saying “I’m not being funny but” – just make sure you only say things you feel a firm conviction about.
7. Until the cows come home
Moving on to slightly older and more interesting clichés, the phrase “until the cows come home” is used to signify a very long period of time, particularly in the context of carrying out a futile task. An example of its use is:
“You can argue your case until the cows come home, but you still won’t convince me.”
While the origin of this expression isn’t known for certain, it’s thought to allude to the fact that a herd of cows returns home in the morning to be milked. An alternative reading suggests that the expression is Scottish in origin, and refers to the fact that the cattle grazing on the highlands stay out all summer, gorging themselves on the abundant grass, until they run out of food in the autumn and return home. This is one of a number of common English expressions arising from our agricultural past; it’s probably been around for hundreds of years.
8. Take the bull by the horns
Another cattle-related English cliché now. To “take the bull by the horns” is to tackle a problem head-on, in a direct and confident manner. The phrase stems from the fact that taking a bull (a male cow) by its horns is a courageous way of dealing with it. Here’s an example of this phrase being used:
“It’s time to take the bull by the horns and hand in your notice.”
This isn’t the only English cliché involving the bull. Another one is “a bull in a china shop”, used to describe someone who is extremely clumsy and liable to cause damage by knocking things over. More figuratively speaking, “bull in a china shop” can also refer to someone who takes a tactless or shambolic approach to a situation or project.
9. Fit as a fiddle
The cliché “fit as a fiddle” is used to describe someone who is in a superb state of health. The “fiddle” referred to in this very old English expression is a stringed musical instrument, usually the violin. As these need to be kept in excellent condition to keep them sounding good, it’s thought that people began to compare their own good health with that of their instrument. The use of this phrase is attested as early as 1616, when Haughton William wrote in a book called English-men for my Money, “This is excellent ynfayth [in faith], as fit as a fiddle.” It’s fascinating to think that we’re still using the same phrase, four hundred years later; this sense of history has to be one of the most interesting aspects of learning English.
10. Avoid like the plague
Another expression still with us from the depths of history is “avoid like the plague”. This describes something that should be avoided at all costs, such as:
“Avoid that area of London like the plague.”
The expression comes, astonishingly, from St Jerome, way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who is also a man of business.” There are numerous subsequent examples spanning many centuries and variations, right up to the present day. Next time you want to tell someone particularly emphatically to avoid something, why not give this historic expression a try yourself?
11. Every cloud has a silver lining
Testament to the persistent optimism of many British people is the cliché “every cloud has a silver lining”, and we felt it would be an uplifting note on which to end this article. It’s used to provide reassurance to those going through a tough time, to tell them that something good will come of even the worst situation – even if you can’t see it at the time. A cloud (sadness or difficulty) may block out the sun (happiness), but its hidden silver lining will see some good come of it. The “silver lining” bit came from a poem by John Milton written in 1634; in “Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle”, Milton wrote, “there does a sable cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night”. It wasn’t until the Victorian period that its modern usage came about, when it took a slightly different form: “There’s a silver lining to every cloud”. Whichever way round you say it, though, you could see it as applying to your English studies: the language may throw many challenging complexities at you that seem impossible to overcome at the moment, but the silver lining is that eventually, you’ll master a beautiful and extraordinarily rich language and give yourself access to some of the world’s best literature.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to English clichés, past and present. If you’re feeling bewildered by the sheer number of weird and wonderful expressions in this colourful language, don’t despair. Take the bull by the horns, and you’ll soon get the hang of them and start avoiding clichés like the plague along with all the best English speakers!