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Raining Cats and Dogs

The British and their Quaint Sayings
In his short story The Canterville Ghost from 1887, Oscar Wilde wrote: “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Of course, Oscar was right. I wonder how many Americans would understand the phrases or sayings, particularly those from a bygone era. Every language has a few phrases that don’t always translate well — and British English has some absolute beauties – a mixture of idioms and slang. Mind you, I suppose every language has its own collection of confusing expressions for foreigners. Because they don’t always make sense literally, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the meaning and usage. Here are some to ‘tickle your fancy’ – oh dear, I’ve started already. That’s an idiom meaning: To be appealing or pleasant to someone, or to be intriguing or of interest to someone, as in “Do you want anything from this menu or should we go to town to find something that tickles your fancy?”

I’ve mentioned Idioms and Slang, but there’s more: Adages, Clichés, Jargon, Anecdotes, Sayings, Euphemisms, Double Entendres and Proverbs. A good place to start is to consider whether they all mean the same sort of thing or are each of them quite different to the others? You may disagree with the explanations below, but here goes:

Idioms: An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, symbolic, metaphorical non-literal meaning attached to the phrase, which has become accepted in common usage. But, some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorised as formulaic language, an idiom’s symbolic meaning is usually different from its literal meaning. There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language. It’s essential to know the difference between breaking a leg and pulling someone’s leg.


Picture Credit: “Idioms” by attanatta is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Slang: Slang is the informal language of conversation, text messages, and other casual social communication among friends and acquaintances.

Adages: An adage is a saying often in a metaphorical form that typically embodies a common observation, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

Clichés: Clichés are expressions that are so common and overused that they fail to impart any real impact on your sentence

Jargon: Jargon is the specialised, often technical, language used by people in a particular field, profession, or social group.

Anecdotes: An anecdote is usually a short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.

Euphemisms: Euphemisms are milder words or phrases used to blunt the effect of more direct or unpleasant words or phrases. If you know when to use or avoid these expressions, your writing will be more effective.

Dysphemism: Dysphemism is a literary device and an adjective that uses the substitution of an offensive, disagreeable, or disparaging expression in the place of an inoffensive or agreeable expression.

Double Entendres: A double entendre is a figure of speech or a particular way of wording that is devised to have a double meaning, of which one is typically obvious, whereas the other often conveys a message that would be too socially awkward, sexually suggestive, or offensive to state directly.

Proverbs: A proverb is a short, common saying or phrase. Proverbs are well-known sayings stating a general truth or advice. For example, the proverb ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is a general truth. The idiom ‘bite off more than you can chew’, however, is neither a general truth nor is it advice.

Cacophemism is a word or expression that’s generally perceived as harsh, impolite, or offensive, although it may be used in a humorous context. It is similar to dysphemism and contrasts with euphemism. Etymology is from the Greek, “bad” plus “speech”.

For the purposes of this paper, I will call all of the following sayings or expressions.

Sayings or Expressions

  • A few sandwiches short of a picnic: Someone that lacks common sense might be described, perhaps unkindly, as a few sandwiches short of a picnic. The phrase was first documented in the BBC’s Lenny Henry Christmas Special in 1987.
  • A fly in the ointment: Meaning a slight defect that impairs the value of something. Its origins are from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 10:1 (King James Version): “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”
  • A Hot Potato: a controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with – for example: ‘Sending bullying texts to classmates in my school is a hot potato.’
  • A little bird told me: Meaning to receive information from a secret informant, the root source is thought to be from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 10-20: “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” William Shakespeare also makes reference to it in Henry IV, Part 2: “As far as France: I heard a bird so sing, Whose musick, to my thinking, pleas’d the king.”
  • A load of tosh: This is used to describe something that is not very good. For example, your teacher might describe your essay “as a load of tosh.”
  • A nod is as good as a wink: This 16th century English phrase is shortened from “a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse”. It means that a subtle signal is sufficient to indicate agreement to undertake something borderline illegal or an understanding of sexual innuendo. Monty Python famously played with the phrase in a sketch known as “Nudge Nudge”, where Eric Idle uses the modified phrase, “a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat.”
  • A picture is worth a thousand words: Meaning that a picture tells a story just as well as, if not better than, a lot of written words.
  • A sight for sore eyes: This expression means a welcome or pleasing sight. It was first recorded in 1738 by the Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, and poet Jonathan Swift in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation: “The Sight of you is good for sore eyes.”
  • A turn-up for the book: It means an unexpected stroke of good luck. Originally, “a turn up for the book” was related to 18th century horse racing meetings, where punters’ names and wagers were recorded in a bookmaker’s notebook. If an unbacked horse won, it was called a “turn up” for the bookmaker, who kept all the money.
  • Achilles Heel: It means a weakness or vulnerable point and comes from Greek mythology – Thesis dipped her son Achilles in the Styx (a river believed to be a source of incredible power and invulnerability). However, she was holding her son by his heel, meaning it was the only part of his body that was not touched by water, making his heel vulnerable. Eventually, Achilles was killed by an arrow shot in his heel.
  • Adam and Eve: Cockney rhyming slang for “believe”, as in “Can you Adam and Eve it!”
  • All peculiar:  A saying used to describe someone who becomes unwell very quickly, as in: “Just before the end of the second Act, I came over all peculiar and then I fainted.”
  • Any road: When you hear this, the person isn’t asking you to pick a route. They are most likely substituting it for “anyway”, and the context could be “any road, are you from Kent or Brighton.”
  • As keen as mustard: This means to be very enthusiastic, eager to do or want something. In 1672, “as keen as mustard” appeared in William Walker’s books Phraseologia Anglo-Latina.
  • As Right As Rain: What does it mean? Perfect, it couldn’t be better.
  • At the drop of a hat: Do something without having planned beforehand.
  • Barking Up The Wrong Tree: Meaning: Pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action. This phrase refers to hunting dogs who chased their prey up a tree. Once it climbed the tree, the dogs barked at them, but sometimes the dogs would continue barking even if the quarry was no longer there.
  • Bat from the pavilion end or Bat for the other side: Meaning that someone is homosexual.
  • Beat About The Bush: Avoid saying what you mean, usually because it is uncomfortable. It means to discuss a matter without coming to the point or making a decision. The idiom relates to an action performed while hunting, driving birds and other animals out into the open.
  • Bees’ knees: This phrase became mainstream in the 1920s despite its British origins, but its popularity in the USA has dwindled since the turn of the century. The “bee’s knees” referred to small or insignificant details when it was first documented in the 18th century. Since then, the phrase has evolved and refers to something at the “height of cool.” An example is: “The Beatles are the bee’s knees.”
  • Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: Meaning/Usage: It’s excellent, really good. It means that something is the best and most helpful innovation or development invented for a long time.
  • Better late than never: Better to arrive late than not to come at all.
  • Birds of a feather flock together: Similar People are often friends – usually used negatively or judgementally.
  • Bite off more than you can chew: Meaning, taking on a project that you can’t finish or is beyond your capability.
  • Bite The Bullet: Meaning: Decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that one has been putting off or hesitating over. During battles, there was no time to administer anaesthesias while performing surgeries. Because of that, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract themselves from the pain.
  • Bite your arm off: Don’t be alarmed if someone says this. No one is about bite off any part of your body. It is used to describe willingness. For example, someone might say to you, “they’ll bite your arm off if you offer the £50 for that old cupboard.”
  • Bits and bobs: Meaning: Various items, as in “Gather your bits and bobs and let’s go to the pub.”
  • Blood Is Thicker Than Water: Meaning/Usage: Family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones. Even though many think this idiom means putting family ahead of friends, it means the complete opposite. The full phrase was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.
  • Blue Blood: Noble birth. Saying that some have blue blood comes from the Middle Ages, where it was believed that those who had pale skin (meaning their ancestors had not inter-married with darker skin partners) were noble or aristocrat.
  • Bob’s your uncle: The British equivalent to “Hey presto!” or “Et voila!” This phrase describes a process that seems more complicated than it actually is.
  • Bog-standard: Something that is “bog-standard” is completely ordinary with no frills, whistles, embellishments, or add-ons. Its origins are somewhat unclear, but a “bog” is another word for a toilet in British slang, adding to the connotations that something “bog-standard” is unglamorous and unspecial.
  • Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth: It means to be born into a wealthy family of high social standing. It is an old tradition for godparents to gift a silver spoon to a christened child. However, as not everyone could afford a luxury gift, those receiving the spoon as a gift were considered wealthy and sometimes even spoiled.
  • Brass Monkeys: Extremely cold, usually regarding the weather. Taken from the semi-vulgar phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey,” or its derivative, “brass monkey weather.” 
  • Break a Leg: What does it mean? To wish someone good luck. How do you use it? This idiom is not at all threatening. Often accompanied by a thumbs up, ‘Break a leg!’ is an encouraging cheer of good luck. It is said to have originated from when successful theatre performers would bow so many times after a show that they would break a leg.
  • Break the Ice: Do or say something to relieve tension or get a conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet.
  • Bury the Hatchet: Meaning/Usage: End a quarrel or conflict and become friendly. During negotiations between the Puritans and Native Americans, men would bury all of their weapons, making them inaccessible.
  • Butcher’s Hook: Originates from the East End of London and is cockney rhyme slang for “take a look”.
  • Butter Someone Up: To flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with another person so that that person will do what you want them to do.
  • By and Large: It means the whole; everything considered. It originates from the 16th century, where the word ‘large’ meant that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, ‘by’ meant the opposite, that the ship was sailing into the wind. The mariners used the phrase ‘by and large’ to refer to sailing in any and all directions, relative to the wind.
  • By the skin of your teeth: Meaning, just barely. It is a phrase from the Bible. In Job 19:20, the King James Version of the Bible says, “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” In the Geneva Bible, the phrase is rendered as “I have escaped with the skinne of my tethe.”
  • Cack-handed: A task performed in an awkward or uncomfortable fashion, usually clumsily, would be described as “cack-handed”. “He handles a screwdriver very cack-handedly.”
  • Call (or Haul) On The Carpet: It means to be severely reprimanded by someone in authority. Like many idioms, the precise origin of this one is not certain.
  • Call it a day: To finish unexpectedly early or to stop working on something, particularly if what you’re doing isn’t working.
  • Cat Got Your Tongue: Usage: Said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak. There are two stories on how this saying came into being. The first one says that it could have come from a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” used by the British Navy for flogging and often left the victims speechless. The second may be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and fed to the cats.
  • Caught Red-Handed: Usage: Used to indicate that a person has been discovered in or just after the act of doing something wrong or illegal. An old law stated that if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he would only be punished if he was caught with blood on his hands.
  • Cheesed off: this is a quirky euphemism for being unhappy. It can be used in casual and formal situations. For example, someone could say: “I’m cheesed off you damaged my car when I went to great pains to ask you to be careful.”
  • Chin wag: Meaning to engage in a long chat, over the fence or on the telephone.
  • Chinese whispers: Chinese whispers are rumours that have been circulated and watered down until they only vaguely resemble the truth. The phrase comes from the game with the same name, commonly played at children’s parties. A phrase is whispered around a circle of people, and the last person to hear the phrase has to guess what the initial phrase was. Usually, it is nothing like the words when first used.
  • Chuffed to bits: Meaning: Very pleased, as in “I’m chuffed to bits about how handsome my son Randolph has turned out.”
  • Come Rain Or Shine: What does it mean? No matter what. How do you use it? You guarantee to do something, regardless of the weather or any other situation that might arise, such as: “I’ll be at the football match, come rain or shine.”
  • Cream crackered: This term is cockney rhyming slang for “knackered,” if you’re “cream crackered”, meaning you’re very tired. A “knacker” was someone who slaughtered worn-out horses in the 19th and 20th centuries for their meat, hoofs and hides. So, if you’re “ready for the knacker’s yard,” you’re exhausted beyond relief.
  • Crocodile Tears: Meaning/Usage: Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere. A 14th century book called “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” recounts a knight’s adventures through Asia. The book says that crocodiles shed tears while eating a man they captured. Even though it is factually inaccurate, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’ found its way into William Shakespeare’s work and became an idiom in the 16th century, symbolising insincere grief.
  • Cut somebody some slack: Don’t be so critical, as in “let them take their time, they’re new to the firm.”
  • Cutting corners: Doing something poorly to save time or money.
  • Don’t cry over spilt milk: Someone may say this if you get something wrong or actually spill or break something. The essence of the saying is that you shouldn’t worry about it.
  • Don’t get your knickers in a twist: Used when someone has become upset about something that is relatively unimportant, as in: “Don’t get your knickers in a twist: I’ll mop up the mess in a minute.”
  • Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs: You may hear someone older in years saying this to a younger person when they feel the youngster is being disrespectful by thinking they can teach the older person something.
  • Donkey’s years – Apparently, donkeys live for a long time, so when someone says: “I haven’t seen you for donkey’s years.” what they are saying they haven’t seen you in a long time.
  • Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth: It means finding fault with something that has been received as a gift or favour. While buying a horse, people would determine the horse’s age and condition based on its teeth and then decide whether they want to buy it or not. People use this idiom to say it is rude to look for flaws in something gifted to them.
  • Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater: Meaning/Usage: To discard something valuable along with other things that are undesirable. In the 16th century, most people would bathe only once a year. And even when they did that, the entire family would all bathe in the same water. Usually, men of the house bathed first, followed by other males, females, and finally babies. At the end of this yearly routine, the water would be so dirty and cloudy that mothers would have to be careful not to throw their infants out with the water.
  • Double Dutch: Meaning unintelligible language, as in: “Hard as I tried, I couldn’t understand a word of what the speaker said – it sounded Double Dutch to me.”
  • Double whammy: Meaning a twofold blow or setback, as in “The Chancellor’s Budget included the double whammy of taxation and price increases.”
  • Earful: is an expression used to describe someone being told off. For example, you may hear someone say: “They got an earful from the neighbours for using fireworks last night.”
  • Easy does it: To slow down when going too quickly.
  • Eat Humble Pie: Make a humble apology and accept humiliation. It comes from the Middle Ages – after a hunt, there would be a huge feast at which the Lord of the Manor would receive the finest piece of meat. Others of lower status would eat a pie filled with entrails and innards (also known as “umbles”).
  • Effing and blinding: This expression might be used to describe someone using unpleasant language. For example, you might hear: “She was so angry that she was effing and blinding all the way home!”
  • Elephant In The Room: Meaning/Usage: An idiom for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about, but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable and is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous. Usage: an obvious truth or fact, especially one regarded as awkward or undesirable, 
  • Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining: It means that a negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it. It can be traced to a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called Comus: A Mask, which was presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud, and soon afterwards, ‘Milton’s clouds’ became a staple of English Literature. The proverb ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ eventually came into being in the 1800s, a time of optimism and positivity in the upper classes of Victorian England.
  • Excuse (or pardon) my French: This is said when you pretend to be sorry for using a word or phrase that may be considered offensive or rude.
  • Faff: To “faff” is to waste time doing very little. The word comes from the 17th century word “faffle,” which means to flap about in the wind. “We were just faffing about.”
  • Fancy a cuppa?: Meaning, simply: “Would you like a cup of tea?”
  • Fell off the back of a lorry: The phrase is a euphemism for something acquired without payment… if you know what we mean. Nudge nudge. Wink wink… (it’s been obtained fraudulently, stolen, pinched).
  • Flogging a dead horse: A fruitless attempt to get more out of something that is dead or has expired; to try to arouse interest in something that is a hopeless cause. For example: “You’re flogging a dead horse by asking Mother to move to Wales – she hates rain and sheep.”
  • Fly off the handle: Meaning – to lose one’s temper or to go crazy at the slightest provocation.
  • For all intents and purposes: Meaning in a practical sense or in every important respect. It originates from English Law and first appeared in an Act adopted under Henry VIII in 1547.
  • For crying out loud: This is a replacement for a rude word. For example, you discover your car has a flat tyre, and you shout: “Oh, for crying out loud!”
  • Full of beans: This is used to describe someone that’s energetic, lively, or enthusiastic. They might be described as “full of beans.”
  • Gassing: Means talking a lot.
  • Get My Goat: It means to irritate someone. For example, some horses get anxious during horseracing, so owners would place goats in the stalls to calm them down. Rival horse owners would sometimes steal the goats, upsetting the horse and making it more likely to lose.
  • Get out of hand: Meaning to get out of control, as in: “I used to manage the garden when I was younger, but now I’ve let it get out of hand.”
  • Get something out of your system: Do the thing you’ve wanted to do so you can move on.
  • Get your act together: Work better or leave.
  • Give me a tinkle on the blower: This means, quite simply, “Give me a call” or “ring me.” The phrase is sometimes shortened to “give me a tinkle.” “Tinkle” refers to a phone’s ring, while “blower” is slang for telephone and refers to the device pre-dating phones on Naval ships. Sailors would blow down a pipe to those below, where a whistle at the end of the pipe would sound to spark attention.
  • Give someone the benefit of the doubt: Trust what someone says as being the gospel truth.
  • Give the Cold Shoulder: Reject, ignore or be deliberately unfriendly towards (ostracise/ignore). Originally, this idiom was considered an act of politeness. In medieval times in England, after everyone had finished eating, the host would give his guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef or pork to show that it was time for everyone to go home.
  • Go back to the drawing board: Having to start again as what’s been done before isn’t working as expected.
  • Go Bananas: It means to do something insane or extremely silly. The expression ‘go bananas’ has no conclusive origin, but it may be linked to ‘go ape’, which became popular in the 1950s when monkeys were being launched on rockets and were a popular subject in films and TV. The link between monkeys, bananas and crazy behaviour may have been the catalyst for the popularisation of the expression. Bananas have often been central to slapstick comedy in general, with somebody slipping on a banana peel a timeless classic.
  • Go Down In Flames: What does it mean: To fail spectacularly. Example: ‘That exam went down in flames. It’s my fault. I should have studied harder.’
  • Go Dutch: If two or more people go Dutch, they pay their own bill thus sharing the cost, for example in a restaurant, as in “We went Dutch on the meal in the new restaurant in the High Street.”
  • Gobsmacked: Slang, meaning if you are gobsmacked, you are amazed by something or someone, in a good or bad way.
  • Gone for a Burton: This refers to a person who has died or to something that is broken, the origin of the term is somewhat of a mystery, although some might say it means something to do with going to Burton’s the tailor for a new suit etc.
  • Grease monkey: A mechanic who works on cars or aircraft. The term is not usually intended to be derogatory. It is based on the general perception that, due to the nature of the job, a mechanic will often have grease marks or oil stains on their clothing.
  • Hammered: This is the slang word to describe someone who is very drunk. You can say someone is tipsy if they appear to be a bit drunk.
  • Hanky-panky: Mischievous behaviour in carrying on an illegal, dishonest or shady activity. Also a term for sexual shenanigans. It was first recorded in 1841 in the first edition of London’s Punch magazine: “Only a little hanky-panky, my lud. The people likes it; they loves to be cheated before their faces.”
  • Hard to swallow: This has nothing to do with dysphagia. It’s an idiom meaning the words you’ve heard don’t add up, and you think the person speaking to you is lying, as in: “She said she stopped for a coffee when she arrived at the station and found several friends in the coffee shop having a general chin-wag, but it sounded like a tall story to me, which was hard to swallow.”
  • Hobson’s choice: An apparently free choice when there is no real alternative, and it is necessary to accept one of two or more equally objectionable or undesirable alternatives.
  • Horses for courses: Everyone has different tastes and what is right for one person isn’t necessarily suitable for another person.
  • Hunky-dory: Just a cool way of saying that something is just fine.
  • I’m easy: Meaning you are relaxed about a choice put to you, such as when asked what you want from the takeaway, you say: “order whatever. I’m easy.”
  • Jammy:  Used if you are a lucky person when you might be described as flukey or jammy, as in “You’re jammy, getting all the numbers come up on the lottery on your first go.”
  • Jar: Slang for a pint of beer. For example, “Glad you popped in, let’s go to the pub and have a few jars.”
  • Jiffy: Meaning you’ll do something immediately, as in “If Sally is coming to the party, I’ll be there in a jiffy.”
  • Jim Jams: Slang for pyjamas as in: “I think it’s time to put on my Jim Jams and get into bed – I’m exhausted.”
  • Jump On The Bandwagon: It means to follow a trend. It happens when a person joins in with something popular or does something just because it’s the fad of the day.
  • Keep your hair on: This has nothing to do with hair. This idiom suggests anger or frustration, as in: “Keep your hair on – I only broke your watch. I’ll buy you another one for your birthday. Sorry.”
  • Kerfuffle – is a fuss or commotion. For example: “Why all the kerfuffle. I’ve had a long journey, and I’m only twenty minutes late!”
  • Kick the bucket: A euphemistic, informal, or slang term meaning “to die”, as in: “When the old girl finally kicked the bucket, there was no mention of yours truly in the will.”
  • Leave it out: Meaning you want someone to stop doing or saying something that you find upsetting or annoying, as in: “Leave it out, Jamie, I could do without your sarcasm.”
  • Let the Cat out of the Bag: To carelessly (or by mistake) reveal a secret. Some time ago, pig farmers would bring them wrapped up in a bag to the market. Unscrupulous ones would replace the pig with a cat and, if someone accidentally let the cat out, their fraud would be uncovered.
  • Let Your Hair Down: To behave uninhibitedly, for example, it was an important rule between Parisian nobles to wear elaborate hairdos while in public, and some of the looks required hours of long work—a moment of taking your hair down after a long day became associated with a relaxing ritual.
  • Like a fish out of water: Meaning someone who is in an unfamiliar and often uncomfortable situation. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales used the phrase: “…a monk when he is cloisterless; Is like to a fish that is waterless.”
  • Love is blind: A person in love cannot see any imperfections in the person they love: if you love someone, it does not matter what they look like or what faults they have.
  • Lurgy: If someone has the lurgy, stay away. It means they are ill and possibly contagious. “He called to say the dinner is cancelled. He has the Lurgy.”
  • Miffed: It’s another way of saying confused or annoyed, as in: “She was really miffed that she had not been invited to the party.”
  • Mind your P’s and Q’s: Meaning to be on your best behaviour. For example: “My parents are very conservative – mind your p’s and q’s.”
  • More than you can shake a Stick at: Meaning: a large amount or quantity of something. This idiom was born when farmers, who waved sticks to herd sheep, would have more sheep than they could control.
  • My Ears Are Burning: It means that you are subconsciously aware of being talked about or criticised. The idiom dates back to ancient Romans who believed that burning sensations in various organs had different meanings. It was thought that if your left ear was burning, it signalled an evil intent, and if your right ear was burning, you were being praised.
  • Naff: Used to describe something that is of poor or inferior taste, as in: “I don’t their house, the furniture is a bit naff.”
  • No Spring Chicken: Someone who is no longer young – past their prime.
  • Nosh – Slang for food, taken from East End Yiddish. For example: “Shall we get some nosh after the game.”
  • Not my cup of tea: A saying used when something that is not to your liking. For example: “My wife loves beach holidays or cruises, but they’re not my cup of tea”.
  • Not wet behind the ears: An expression used to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about or doing, as in: “I’m not wet behind the ears, you know, I’ve been to Spain so many times, they think I’m Spanish.”
  • Odds and sods – another way of saying ‘bits and pieces’ or ‘bibs and bobs’ as in: “My glasses were in the drawer with all the other odds and sods.”
  • Off to Bedfordshire – is rhyming English slang for when someone is tired and wants to go to bed.
  • Oh my giddy aunt: This is another expression for “Oh my God!” and used to show shock or surprise.
  • Old Chestnut:  If you tell the same joke or story too many times, your bored friends may say: “oh no, not that old chestnut again.” in a sarcastic voice.
  • On the straight and narrow: Meaning living in a morally proper way, as in: “he was out of control as a teenager, but now he’s married, he’s on the straight and narrow.”
  • On your bike: Meaning: go away – when someone is annoying you or trying it on, as “£50,? On your bike, I’m not selling my watch for anything less than £200.”
  • Once in a Blue Moon: It means rarely. This idiom is used to describe something that doesn’t happen often. Example: “I am remiss as I remember to call my parents to invite them to dinner, only once in a blue moon.”
  • One for the Road: Having a final drink before leaving for home. During the middle ages, the condemned ones were taken through what today is known as Oxford Street in London to their execution. During this final trip, the cart would stop, and they would be allowed to have one last drink before their death.
  • Piece of Cake: Something that is easily achieved. The saying ‘Piece of Cake’ comes from American poet Ogden Nash who, in 1930, was quoted saying, “Life’s a piece of cake”.
  • Pleased As Punch: It means feeling great delight or pride. The 17th century puppet show called ‘Punch and Judy’ featured Punch, who killed people and took great joy in doing so. He would feel pleased with himself afterwards,  from which the saying ‘pleased as Punch’ was born.
  • Plonk: This word is used to describe wine, and the reference is that it isn’t the best quality wine, and it was probably very cheap and inferior.
  • Pop your clogs: It means ‘to die’, as in: “He’s a raging hypochondriac who’s certain he’s about to pop his clogs.”
  • Porkies: If you are accused of telling a “porkie” it’s serious. It means someone thinks you are lying. The saying comes from an old Cockney rhyme that used pork pies and substituted “pies,” for “lies”. It later got shortened to “porkies”.
  • Pull Someone’s Leg: It means to play a practical joke. It is the perfect phrase to learn if you’re a fan of practical jokes. ‘Pull their leg’ is similar to ‘wind someone up’. Use it in context. “Relax, I’m just pulling your leg!” or “Wait, are you pulling my leg?”
  • Put a sock in it: Meaning: Be quiet. It’s a rude phrase based on the idea of sticking a sock in something loud or annoying to quiet it down.
  • Quack: This is slang for a doctor suspected of not having the correct qualifications.
  • Raining Cats And Dogs: Meaning/Usage: Raining very hard. This idiom has two stories that try to explain its origin. The first explanation is this phrase comes from Norse mythology, where cats would symbolise heavy rains and dogs were associated with the God of storms, Odin. The second version says that in 16th century Britain, houses had thatched roofs providing one of the few places where animals could get warm. Sometimes, when it would start to rain so heavily, roofs would get slippery, and cats and dogs would fall off.
  • Read the Riot Act: To give someone a strong warning to improve their behaviour. In 18th century England, the Riot Act was a legal document read aloud in front of a crowd larger than 12 people that were considered a threat to the peace. A public official would read a small part of the Act and order people to leave peacefully within an hour – anyone remaining after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force.
  • Rest (or Resting) on Your Laurels: The idea of resting on your laurels dates back to ancient Greece – Laurel leaves were closely allied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Since the 1800s, it has been used for those overly satisfied with past triumphs.
  • Rosie Lee: Cockney rhyming slang for a cup of tea.
  • Rubbish: Meaning: “I don’t believe you!” “Rubbish” is the British word for “garbage” in the US. The word is used to point out that an idea or suggestion has no quality or is blatantly false.
  • Rule of Thumb: It means a broadly accurate guide or principle, based on experience or practice rather than theory. It is believed that the Rule of Thumb idiom comes from England in the 17th century – Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that husbands could beat their wives with a stick if it were no wider than his thumb.
  • Run Amok: Meaning/Usage: To behave uncontrollably and in a disruptive way. The saying comes from the Malaysian word amoq (also amuck and also spelled amuk), which describes the bizarre behaviour of tribespeople who, under the influence of opium, would become wild and attack people.
  • Scot Free: To get off Scot Free means to escape something without punishment.
  • See a man about a dog: This means excusing oneself from company, lamely, whilst concealing the true purpose. The 1866 play Flying Scud by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault is thought to contain the earliest known use: “Excuse me, Mr Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog.”
  • See Eye to Eye: It means to agree with a point or argument someone is making.
  • Sell Someone Down the River: To betray someone, especially to benefit oneself. This idiom comes from the 19th century in the Southern States of America, in the trade of importing and selling slaves for profit.
  • Show a Leg: Get out of bed; get up. In days gone by, just before ships were about to leave port, sailors would try to sneak in a lady and hide them in their hammock. Before leaving, officers would ask anyone in a hammock to ‘show a leg.’ If a hairless leg appeared, the woman was asked to leave the ship.
  • Show Your True Colours: It means to reveal one’s real character or intentions, especially when they are disreputable or dishonourable. To confuse their enemies, warships would use multiple flags. However, warfare rules dictated that the ships must show their actual flag before firing and hence, they would then ‘show their true colours.’
  • Sit on the Fence: What does it mean? To be undecided. How do you use it? If you’re sitting on the fence, you’ve not decided which side of an argument you agree with.
  • Sleep Tight: Meaning/Usage: Sleep well (said to someone when parting from them at night). It is believed that the saying comes from the time of Shakespeare when mattresses were secured by ropes. Sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, making a well-sprung bed.
  • Sod’s law: A British axiom that boils down to the idea that: “If anything can go wrong, then it definitely will go wrong.” “Sod’s law” is often used to explain bad luck or freakish acts of misfortune.
  • Speak of the devil: This is the short form of the idiom “Speak of the devil, and he doth appear”. The form “talk of the devil” is also used when the object of discussion unexpectedly turns up during the conversation.
  • Spend a penny: This we all know is a British euphemism for using a public lavatory. In the 19th century, a door lock in pay toilets required a penny to be inserted to enter the chamber. The price has gone up since then.
  • Spill The Beans: What does it mean? To give away a secret or to confess to something. How do you use it? If you told someone about their own surprise party, you’d have ‘spilled the beans’ or even ‘let the cat out of the bag’.
  • Steal One’s Thunder: It means to win praise for oneself by pre-empting someone else’s attempt to impress. It is said to have come from the time of dramatist John Dennis early in the 18th century after he had ‘invented’ a thunder machine for his unsuccessful 1709 play Appius and Virginia and later found it used by someone else at a performance of Macbeth.
  • Stitched up:  Used when someone has taken advantage of you. For example, when you go to a function, and you find you have been nominated to make a speech, you can undoubtedly claim to “have been well and truly stitched up.”
  • Stone the crows: There have been a few attempts to explain the origin of this odd phrase. The more prosaic suggestion — that it alludes to the practice of throwing stones at crows — is much more likely. The phrase appears to have originated in Australia.
  • Storm in a teacup: This is simply an over-reaction to a small or unimportant incident. The origins of the phrase probably date as far back as 52BC, with Cicero’s De Legibus, which contains the Latin phrase “Excitabat fluctus in simpulo”, meaning the same as our modern-day “storm in a teacup” or the American version “tempest in a teapot”.
  • Swept under the carpet:  To hide something that is illegal, embarrassing, or wrong, as in: “He tried to sweep his past mistakes under the carpet.”
  • Take It With A Pinch (or Grain) Of Salt: What does it mean? Don’t take it too seriously, such as: ‘I heard about his stories, but as they are usually far-fetched, I take everything he says with a pinch of salt.’
  • Take(s) the biscuit: Meaning: particularly bad or annoying, as in “I’ve seen bad grammar before, but this really takes the biscuit.”
  • The Ball Is In Your Court: What does it mean? It’s up to you. It’s your move now, but this idiom refers to life rather than a sport. If you’ve got the ‘ball,’ someone is waiting for you to make a decision.
    The first recorded citation is from Romeo and Juliet, 1592: Romeo: Switch, and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match. Mercutio: Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”
  • The Third Degree: Meaning: A saying commonly used for long/intense interrogations. There are several possibilities about the origin of “the third degree.” The idiom is most likely derived from Freemasonry, whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming “third degree” members or “master masons.”
  • The Walls Have Ears: Meaning/Usage: Be careful what you say as people may be eavesdropping. In France, the Louvre Palace was believed to have a network of listening tubes to hear everything said in different rooms. People say that this is how Queen Catherine de’ Medici discovered political secrets and plots.
  • The Whole Nine Yards: It means to do everything possible or available. It comes from World War II, when pilots would have a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When a fighter pilot used all of their ammunition on one target, they would give ‘The whole 9 yards.’
  • Through Thick And Thin: It means to be loyal no matter what. It is often used to describe families – ‘through thick and thin’ means that you’re by each other’s side no matter what happens, through the bad times, as well as the good.
  • Throw a spanner in the works: An event that disrupts the natural, pre-planned order of events could be described as a “spanner in the works.” It describes the mayhem caused when something is recklessly thrown into the intricate gears and workings of a machine.
  • Throw the baby out with the bathwater: An idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something unwanted, or in other words, rejecting the favourable along with the unfavourable. A slightly different explanation suggests this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal. This idiom derives from a German proverb, das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. It is a common catchphrase in Germany where people say: “you must empty the bathing tub, but not the baby along with it.” 
  • Tickety-boo: It means it’s all right (OK). It may have originated from a Hindi word meaning everything is fine. It’s one of those nice-sounding words you will hear when someone wants to express everything is going exceptionally well.
  • To add a pinch (or dose) of salt: To acknowledge exaggeration, as in: “I’ve listened to what he’s done, and it sounds a bit too far fetch, so I’ve taken it with a pinch of salt.”
  • To chew something over: To think about something before making a decision, as in: “It was a lot to take in and whilst it sounded impressive, I’ll chew it over before committing myself.”
  • To eat your words: Used when someone admits they were wrong.
  • To Get Cold Feet: It means a loss of nerve or confidence. This idiom originates from a military term: warriors who had frozen feet could not rush into battle.
  • Turn A Blind Eye: Meaning/Usage: Pretending not to notice/see. It is believed that this phrase originates with the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. During 1801’s Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships battled against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet. When his more conservative superior officer flagged for him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye. He proclaimed, “I do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory.
  • Umpteen: This means a relatively large but unspecified amount of something and is generally used when annoyed. For example, you may hear a domestic row: “For the umpteenth time, I’m not going to take the dog out; I’m going to the pub!”
  • Under the cosh: This is used when you feel under pressure or restricted. For example: “Sarah is under the cosh to deliver that project on time.”
  • Under the weather: Meaning slightly unwell or in low spirits, as in: “He was sufficiently under the weather to have to miss the match.”
  • Under the weather: What does it mean? To feel ill. How do you use it? Usage: If someone says they’re feeling under the weather, your response should be ‘I hope you feel better soon,’ not ‘Would you like to borrow my umbrella?’.
  • Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed: To start the day in a bad temper. Historically, the left side of basically anything has been considered ‘the evil side,’ so waking up on the left side was also considered a sign of bad luck. To ward off evil, house owners would push the left sides of the beds to the corner, so their guests would have no other option than to get up on the right side.
  • Wangle – means to get or do something that is slightly devious. For example: “I wangled an extension on my overdraft with the bank by saying I was about to receive an inheritance from my uncle’s estate.”
  • We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it: To wait, to worry about one problem at a time.
  • Wee: Wee is a Scottish word for small. In England, it’s a euphemism for urine. If a Scot says they want a wee drink, they want a whiskey. If an English person says they want a wee, they need to use the toilet.
  • White Elephant: A useless or troublesome item you own, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of. White elephants were considered sacred creatures in Thailand, yet were also hard and costly to look after.
  • Wild goose chase: Meaning a foolish and hopeless search for or pursuit of something unattainable. This phrase is old and appears to be one of the many phrases introduced to the English language by Shakespeare.
  • Wind-up – If you wind up someone, it means you are teasing or taunting them.
  • Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: Meaning: A person or thing that appears friendly or harmless but is really hostile. It’s a warning that you can’t necessarily trust someone who seems kind and friendly on the outside.
  • Wonky – is another word for shaky or unstable. You can use it to refer to a person or an object. For example, you might say a table has a wonky leg.
  • Yakking:: Used to describe someone who talks too much about things that aren’t of interest to you. Example: “My accountant wouldn’t stop yakking on and on today about how much work he has to do.”
  • Yonks – when you haven’t seen someone for a long time. For example, “Goodness me, I haven’t been to the cinema for yonks.”
  • You Can Say That Again: It means, That’s true. It is generally exclaimed in agreement to something that’s been said, such as: when someone says ‘Cameron Diaz is gorgeous’, you can reply: “You can say that again.”
  • You what?: Used when a person hasn’t heard or understood or can’t believe what was said. On some occasions, it might be used when someone disagrees with you. You’ll know which one it is by their tone and body language.

There are thousands more I’ve left out, such as Ace in the Hole, Against the Grain, Airy Fairy, All Bark and No Bite, Ants in Your Pants, Always a Bridesmaid but Never a Bride, Apple of One’s Eye, Burning a Candle at Both Ends. Which idiom is your favourite?

Visit HERE for an extensive list.

Raining Cats and Dogs
Picture Credit: [Cropped] “Raining Cats and Dogs” by David Blackwell. is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Sources and Further Reading

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