Although there are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language, some idioms are NOT commonly used everywhere.
Idioms are expressions that don’t mean what they appear to mean. For example, when you say “it’s raining cats and dogs”, you don’t mean that cats and dogs are falling out of sky, but rather that it’s raining heavily. Idioms provide interesting insights into languages and the thought processes of their speakers.
Idioms in individual languages
(laisa lii fiiha naqa wa la jamal) ليس لي فيها نقة ولا جمل
I don’t have a camel in the caravan. = this matter doesn’t concern me
Գլուխս մի՛ արդուկեր: (Klookhys mee artooger)
Stop ironing my head! = Stop annoying me! (as in repetitively asking or talking about something)
Chinese (Mandarin / Cantonese)
杯弓蛇影 (bēi gōng shé yǐng / būi gōng sèh yíng)
Seeing the reflection of a bow in a cup and thinking it’s a snake = worring about things that aren’t there
Ik zweet peentjes
I sweat carrots. = I’m sweating like a pig.
Avoir les dents qui rayent le parquet
To have teeth that scratch the floor = to be extemely ambitious
J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter !
I have other cats to whip! = I have other fish to fry! – I have other things to do.
pédaler dans la choucroute
To pedal in the sauerkraut = to spin your wheels – to go nowhere
अंग-अंग ढीला होना
Loosing of all body parts = to get very tired
To excrete embers – to get very angry
kuman di seberang lautan tampak, gajah di pelupuk mata tak tampak
The bacterium across the sea is seen, but the elephant on eyelid is not seen.
mettere una pulce nell’orecchio
To put a flea in somebody’s ear = to raise a doubt/suspicion
saltare la mosca al naso
A fly jumping on somebody’s nose = to fly of the handle – to become abruptly annoyed, lose one’s temper.
avere gli occhi foderati di prociutto
To have one’s eyes lined with ham = can’t see the forest for the trees – to be unable to see what is distinctly in sight
avere le orecchie foderate di prosciutto
To have one’s ears lined with ham = to be unable to hear what can be clearly heard
猿も木から落ちる (Saru mo ki kara ochiru)
Even monkeys fall from trees. = even experts get it wrong.
å være midt i smørøyet (bokmål) / å vere midt i smørauget (nynorsk)
To be in the middle of the butter melting in the porridge – To be in a very favourable place or situation
Вешать лапшу на уши (Vešat’ lapšu na ušy)
To hang noodles on one’s ears = to tell lies / talk nonsense
Очки втирать (Očki vtiratʼ)
To smear eyeglasses. = to pull the wool over someone’s eyes (to tell lies, to try to sell something for what it isn’t
Me estoy comiendo el coco.
I’m eating the head. = I’m trying to think.
To put up a beer tent = To get married
Don’t iron my head. = Used when somebody repetitively talks about something.
His nose is up in the air. = He is conceited.
In the English expression to kick the bucket, a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression’s true meaning: to die. Although this idiomatic phrase can, in fact, actually refer to kicking a bucket, native speakers of English rarely use it so. Cases like this are “opaque idioms’.
Literal translation (word-by-word) of opaque idioms will not convey the same meaning in other languages – an analogous expression in Polish is kopnąć w kalendarz (“to kick the calendar”), with “calendar” detached from its usual meaning, just like “bucket” in the English phrase. In Bulgarian the closest analogous phrase is da ritnesh kambanata (“да ритнеш камбаната”, “to kick the bell”); in Dutch, het loodje leggen (“to lay the piece of lead”); in Finnish, potkaista tyhjää (“to kick nothing”, or more literally “to kick the absence of something”); in Spanish, estirar la pata (to stretch the foot); in German, den Löffel abgeben (“to give the spoon away”) or, closer to the English idiom, im [contraction of in dem] Eimer sein (“to be gone into the (waste)bucket”); in Latvian, nolikt karoti (“to put the spoon down”); in Portuguese, bater as botas (“to beat the boots”); in Danish, at stille træskoene (“to take off the clogs”); in Swedish, trilla av pinnen (“to fall off the stick”); and in Greek, τινάζω τα πέταλα (“to shake the horse-shoes”). In Brazil, the expression “to kick the bucket” (chutar o balde) has a completely different meaning (to give up something complicated, as a bucket kicked makes too much noise, demonstrating impatience).
Some idioms, in contrast, are “transparent idioms”: much of their meaning does get through if they are taken (or translated) literally. For example, “lay one’s cards on the table” meaning to reveal a secret. Transparency is a matter of degree; “spill the beans” and “leave no stone unturned” are not entirely literally interpretable, but only involve a slight metaphorical broadening.
Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but are assimilated, so losing their figurative meanings.
This collocation — words commonly used in a group — redefines each component word in the word-group and becomes an idiomatic expression. The words develop a specialized meaning as an entity, as an idiom. Moreover, an idiom is an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply.
When a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before. Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated into another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.
Pie chart showing the relative numbers of native English speakers in the major English-speaking countries of the world
A large number of English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin; some have lost their American flavor (from OK and cool to nerd and 24/7), while others have not (have a nice day, sure); many are now distinctly old-fashioned (swell, groovy). Some English words now in general use, such as hijacking, disc jockey, boost, bulldoze and jazz, originated as American slang.
Among the many English idioms of U.S. origin are get the hang of, take for a ride, bark up the wrong tree, keep tabs, run scared, take a backseat, have an edge over, stake a claim, take a shine to, in on the ground floor, bite off more than one can chew, off/on the wagon, stay put, inside track, stiff upper lip, bad hair day, throw a monkey wrench, under the weather, jump bail, come clean, come again?, what goes around comes around, and it ain’t over till it’s over…
ESL – Idioms and Slang – Try it out (Random Idioms)
Few linguists have endeavored to clearly define what constitutes slang. Attempting to remedy this, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter argue that an expression should be considered “true slang” if it meets at least two of the following criteria:
- It lowers, if temporarily, “the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing”; in other words, it is likely to be considered in those contexts a “glaring misuse of register.”
- Its use implies that the user is familiar with whatever is referred to, or with a group of people who are familiar with it and use the term.
- “It is a taboo term in ordinary discourse with people of a higher social status or greater responsibility.”
- It replaces “a well-known conventional synonym”. This is done primarily to avoid the discomfort caused by the conventional item or by further elaboration.
Slang is different from jargon, which is the technical vocabulary of a particular profession, and which meets only the second of the criteria given above. Jargon, like many examples of slang, may be used to exclude non–group members from the conversation, but in general has the function of allowing its users to talk precisely about the technical issues in a given field.
Extent and origins of slang
Slang can be regional (that is, used only in a particular territory), but slang terms are often particular instead to a certain subculture, such as music or video gaming. Nevertheless, slang expressions can spread outside their original areas to become commonly used, like “cool” and “jive.” While some words eventually lose their status as slang (the word “mob”, for example, began as a shortening of Latin mobile vulgus), others continue to be considered as such by most speakers. When slang spreads beyond the group or subculture that originally uses it, its original users often replace it with other, less-recognized terms to maintain group identity.
One use of slang is to circumvent social taboos, as mainstream language tends to shy away from evoking certain realities. For this reason, slang vocabularies are particularly rich in certain domains, such as violence, crime, drugs, and sex. Alternatively, slang can grow out of mere familiarity with the things described. Among Californian wine connoisseurs (and other groups), for example, Cabernet Sauvignon is often known as “Cab Sav,” Chardonnay as “Chard” and so on; this means that naming the different wines expends less superfluous effort; it also helps to indicate the user’s familiarity with wine.
Even within a single language community, slang, and the extent to which it is used, tends to vary widely across social, ethnic, economic, and geographic strata. Slang may fall into disuse over time; sometimes, however, it grows more and more common until it becomes the dominant way of saying something, at which time it usually comes to be regarded as mainstream, acceptable language (e.g. the Spanish word caballo), although in the case of taboo words there may be no expression that is considered mainstream or acceptable. Numerous slang terms pass into informal mainstream speech, and sometimes into formal speech, though this may involve a change in meaning or usage.
Slang very often involves the creation of novel meanings for existing words. It is common for such novel meanings to diverge significantly from the standard meaning. Thus, “cool” and “hot” can both mean “very good,” “impressive,” or “good-looking”.
Slang terms are often known only within a clique or ingroup. For example, Leet (“Leetspeak” or “1337”) was originally popular only among certain Internet subcultures, such as crackers and online video gamers. During the 1990s, and into the early 21st century, however, Leet became increasingly more commonplace on the Internet, and it has spread outside Internet-based communication and into spoken languages. Other types of slang include SMS language used on mobile phones, and “chatspeak,” (e.g., “LOL“, an acronym meaning “laughing out loud” or “laugh out loud” or ROFL, “rolling on the floor laughing”), which is widely used in instant messaging on the Internet.
Distinction between slang and colloquialisms
Some linguists make a distinction between slangisms (slang words) and colloquialisms. According to Ghil’ad Zuckermann, “slang refers to informal (and often transient) lexical items used by a specific social group, for instance teenagers, soldiers, prisoners and thieves. Slang is not the same as colloquial (speech), which is informal, relaxed speech used on occasion by any speaker; this might include contractions such as ‘you’re,’ as well as colloquialisms. A colloquialism is a lexical item used in informal speech; whilst the broadest sense of the term ‘colloquialism’ might include slangism, its narrow sense does not. Slangisms are often used in colloquial speech but not all colloquialisms are slangisms. One method of distinguishing between a slangism and the a colloquialism is to ask whether most native speakers know the word (and use it); if they do, it is a colloquialism. However, the problem is that this is not a discrete, quantized system but a continuum. Although the majority of slangisms are ephemeral and often supplanted by new ones, some gain non-slang colloquial status (e.g. English silly – cf. German selig ‘blessed’, Middle High German sælde ‘bliss, luck’ and Zelda, a Jewish female first name) and even formal status (e.g. English mob).”
American English has always shown a marked tendency to use nouns as verbs. Examples of verbed nouns are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, belly-ache, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, service (as a car), corner, torch, exit (as in “exit the lobby”), factor (in mathematics), gun (“shoot”), author (which disappeared in English around 1630 and was revived in the U.S. three centuries later) and, out of American material, proposition, graft (bribery), bad-mouth, vacation, major, backpack, backtrack, intern, ticket (traffic violations), hassle, blacktop, peer-review, dope and OD, and, of course verbed as used at the start of this sentence. The saying goes, ‘In the US of A there is no such thing as a noun that can’t be “verbed”‘.
Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, flatlands, badlands, landslide (in all senses), overview (the noun), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, deadbeat, frontman, lowbrow and highbrow, hell-bent, foolproof, nitpick, about-face (later verbed), upfront (in all senses), fixer-upper, no-show; many of these are phrases used as adverbs or (often) hyphenated attributive adjectives: non-profit, for-profit, free-for-all, ready-to-wear, catchall, low-down, down-and-out, down and dirty, in-your-face, nip and tuck; many compound nouns and adjectives are open: happy hour, fall guy, capital gain, road trip, wheat pit, head start, plea bargain; some of these are colorful (empty nester, loan shark, ambulance chaser, buzz saw, ghetto blaster, dust bunny), others are euphemistic (differently abled, human resources, physically challenged, affirmative action, correctional facility).
Many compound nouns have the form verb plus preposition: add-on, stopover, lineup, shakedown, tryout, spin-off, rundown (“summary”), shootout, holdup, hideout, comeback, cookout, kickback, makeover, takeover, rollback (“decrease”), rip-off, come-on, shoo-in, fix-up, tie-in, tie-up (“stoppage”), stand-in. These essentially are nouned phrasal verbs; some prepositional and phrasal verbs are in fact of American origin (spell out, figure out, hold up, brace up, size up, rope in, back up/off/down/out, step down, miss out on, kick around, cash in, rain out, check in and check out (in all senses), fill in (“inform”), kick in (“contribute”), square off, sock in, sock away, factor in/out, come down with, give up on, lay off (from employment), run into and across (“meet”), stop by, pass up, put up (money), set up (“frame”), trade in, pick up on, pick up after, lose out.
Noun endings such as -ee (retiree), -ery (bakery), -ster (gangster) and -cian (beautician) are also particularly productive. Some verbs ending in -ize are of U.S. origin; for example, fetishize, prioritize, burglarize, accessorize, itemize, editorialize, customize, notarize, weatherize, winterize, Mirandize; and so are some back-formations (locate, fine-tune, evolute, curate, donate, emote, upholster, peeve and enthuse). Among syntactical constructions that arose in the U.S. are as of (with dates and times), outside of, headed for, meet up with, back of, convince someone to…, not to be about to and lack for.
Americanisms formed by alteration of existing words include notably pesky, phony, rambunctious, pry (as in “pry open,” from prize), putter (verb), buddy, sundae, skeeter, sashay and kitty-corner. Adjectives that arose in the U.S. are for example, lengthy, bossy, cute and cutesy, grounded (of a child), punk (in all senses), sticky (of the weather), through (as in “through train,” or meaning “finished”), and many colloquial forms such as peppy or wacky. American blends include motel, guesstimate, infomercial and televangelist.
English words that survived in the United States and not Britain
A number of words and meanings that originated in Middle English or Early Modern English and that always have been in everyday use in the United States dropped out in most varieties of British English; some of these have cognates in Lowland Scots. Terms such as fall (“autumn”), faucet, diaper, candy, skillet, eyeglasses, and obligate, are often regarded as Americanisms. Fall for example came to denote the season in 16th century England, a contraction of Middle English expressions like “fall of the leaf” and “fall of the year”. During the 17th century, English immigration to the British colonies in North America was at its peak and the new settlers took the English language with them. While the term fall gradually became obsolete in Britain, it became the more common term in North America. Gotten (past participle of get) is often considered to be an Americanism, although there are some areas of Britain, such as Lancashire and North-eastern England, that still continue to use it and sometimes also use putten as the past participle for put (which is not done by most speakers of American English).
Other words and meanings, to various extents, were brought back to Britain, especially in the second half of the 20th century; these include hire (“to employ”), quit (“to stop,” which spawned quitter in the U.S.), I guess (famously criticized by H. W. Fowler), baggage, hit (a place), and the adverbs overly and presently (“currently”). Some of these, for example monkey wrench and wastebasket, originated in 19th-century Britain.
The mandative subjunctive (as in “the City Attorney suggested that the case not be closed“) is livelier in American English than it is in British English. It appears in some areas as a spoken usage and is considered obligatory in contexts that are more formal. The adjectives mad meaning “angry”, smart meaning “intelligent”, and sick meaning “ill” are also more frequent in American (these meanings are also frequent in Hiberno-English) than British English.
The impact of the King James Bible, which was published 400 years ago, is still being felt in the way we speak and write, says Stephen Tomkins.
No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they’ve ever even opened a copy.
The Sun says Aston Villa “refused to give up the ghost”. Wendy Richard calls her East-Enders character Pauline Fowler “the salt of the earth”. The England cricket coach tells reporters, “You can’t put words in my mouth.” Daily Mirror fashion pages call Tilda Swinton “a law unto herself”.
Though each of those phrases was begotten of the loins of the English Bible, it’s safe to say that none of those speakers was deliberately quoting the Bible to people they expected to be familiar with its contents.
Phrases still with us
- Turned the world upside down Acts 17:6
- God forbid Romans 3:4
- Take root 2 Kings 19:30
- The powers that be Romans 13:1
- Filthy lucre 1 Timothy 3:3
- No peace for the wicked Isaiah 57: 21
- A fly in the ointment Ecclesiastes 10:1
- Wheels within wheels Ezekiel 10:10
- The blind leading the blind Matthew 15:13
- Feet of clay Daniel 2:33
And while a 2009 survey by Durham University found that only 38% of us know the parable of prodigal son, a recent book by the linguist David Crystal, appropriately called Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, counts 257 phrases from the King James Bible in contemporary English idioms.
Such statistics take us back to days of old when this Bible was the daily reading of millions of people throughout the English speaking world, from Northamptonshire cobblers to US presidents – though not perhaps so far distant in the latter case.
Readers absorbed its language both directly and through other reading. Tennyson considered Bible reading “an education in itself”, while Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”
The US statesman Daniel Webster said: “If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures.” Equally celebrated as a British orator, TB Macaulay said that the translation demonstrated “the whole extent of [the] beauty and power” of the English language.
Who wrote the King James Bible?
- 54 scholars, all members of the Church of England, were chosen and 47 completed the task
- Worked in six panels, each responsible for a different part of the Bible
- Based in Oxford, Cambridge and London
- Drew heavily on the work of William Tyndale, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek
- It was all at the request of King James I, who was unhappy with existing translations and regularly visited the scholars at work
Why has its influence been so marked? Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education at King’s College, London, is the author of In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture.
He points to several reasons. The Bible was “a very public text”, he says. “It would have been read aloud in churches very, very extensively, which would have imprinted it on people’s minds.”
Then, going back to the likes of Dickens and Webster, there’s the way influential people mediated and amplified the effect.
“The King James Bible” says McGrath, “had a very significant influence on the movers and shakers, particularly in London, who had a huge influence on what ordinary people took to be good English.”
Another reason was that the time was ripe. “English was in a particularly fluid state. Both the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible appeared around this formative time and stamped their imprint on the newer forms of the language.”
The King James Bible was often read aloud
Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.
“The translators seem to have taken the view that the best translation was a literal one, so instead of adapting Hebrew and Greek to English forms of speaking they simply translated it literally. The result wouldn’t have made all that much sense to readers, but they got used to it, and so these fundamentally foreign ways of expressing yourself became accepted as normal English through the influence of this major public text.”
Examples of Hebrew idioms that have become English via the Bible include: “to set one’s teeth on edge”, “by the skin of one’s teeth”, “the land of the living” and “from strength to strength”.
David Crystal in Begat, however, set out to counter exaggerated claims for the influence of the King James Bible. “I wanted to put a precise number on it,” he explains, “because some people have said there are thousands of phrases from the King James Bible in our language, that it is the DNA of the English language. I found 257 examples.”
(Based upon the phrases used in their own culture/community, someone else may find a different number of examples…)
Its impact on religious language
Has the KJB kept Christian language stuck in the 17th Century? “We thank thee, O God, for the manifest blessings that thou hast vouchsafed unto us,” is one example of such a passage.
“It’s the last thing the translators would have wanted,” argues Simon Jenkins, editor of the Christian website shipoffools.com. “Ironically, at the time, ‘you’ was a more formal way of addressing someone, and ‘thou’ was more familiar, but they decided not to use any special grammar for God. He was ‘thou’ just like everybody else.
“But when I was being brought up, people were still talking to God as ‘thou”. it’s hopelessly antiquated and alienating. The translators made the right decision at the time, but what the church later did with it doesn’t convey that intention at all.”
More importantly, Crystal discovered that only a small minority of those phrases were original to the KJB, most of them being copied from earlier translators, above all William Tyndale.
“Only 18 of that total were unique to the King James Bible. It didn’t originate these usages, it acted as a kind of conduit through which they became popular. Tyndale was the number one influence.”
He also found that the Bible coined few new words. Shakespeare by comparison, introduced about 100 phrases into our idioms, to the Bible’s 257, and something like 1,000 new words. The English Bible introduced only 40 or so, including “battering ram” and “backsliding”.
“This reflects their different jobs,” says Crystal. “The whole point of being a dramatist is to be original in your language. The Bible translators, in contrast, were under strict instructions not to be innovative but to look backwards to what earlier translators had done.” Earlier translators whose only concern was to translate the Bible literally.
So paradoxically it seems that the profound influence of the King James Bible in changing and shaping our language came through the desire to be as “linguistically conservative” as possible.
A reference of 3496 English idioms and idiomatic expressions with definitions.
Study English with Quizzes, Crossword Puzzles and other activities for students of English as a second language.
a4esl.org/q/h/idioms.html – Similar
Eye on Idioms includes a series of exercises, in which students view the literal representations of idioms and then examine their metaphorical meanings.
http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/interactives/idioms/ – Similar
American English Pronunciation: It’s No Good Unless You’re Understood.
I’m Gonna Kick His Ask
The Italian Man Who went to Malta
Why Study Cursing and Obscenities?
Obscene language is not standard. Some obscenities are similar across different varieties of World English, but they also vary by national or regional usage. What is considered obscene will also vary over time, and within social groups.
The term “obscenities” refers to ‘profane’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘forbidden’ or ‘naughty’ language, or in general the practice of ‘cursing’ [cussing] or using ‘curse words’ [cusswords]. Related words include blasphemies, taboos, epithets, slurs, and scatologies [references to excremental and toilet functions, e.g. “shit”].
It may be obvious that euphemisms are also involved in “obscene” language. Some types of specific ‘jargon’ identities (cf. ‘Mobspeak’: The Language of the Mafia [McLucas]) are also based largely on obscene or profane expression.
“Obscene language” has become much more common in both elite literature (cf. class examples of language of elite black literature) and the mass media (cf. the language of current black rap artists) in recent years. This presents a variety of problematics for translators and interpreters.
With these, it is essential to know some of the various implications of ‘profanities’, as well as how they differ between variants of English such as SAE (Standard American English) and SBE (Standard Black English).
‘Cursing’ may be a reflection of rebellion or an indicator of social powerlessness. Poor people seem to curse more than affluent people. Teenagers usually curse more than adults. But why? Timothy Jay suggests that it is because they have so little to lose by cursing. The situation of teenagers is similar to that of the poor or the politically disenfranchised; they have no power, so they have nothing to lose by cursing. Would this also apply to rappers?
- African American Vernacular English
- General American English
- Standard American English
- Southern American English
- South African English
- List of dialects of the English language
- Accent reduction
- American English
- English phonology
- English spelling reform
- Northern cities vowel shift
- Pacific Northwest English
- Received Pronunciation
- Regional vocabularies of American English
- Standard written English
|Look up American English in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Americanisms.|
- Do You Speak American: PBS special
- Dialect Survey of the United States, by Bert Vaux et al., Harvard University. The answers to various questions about pronunciation, word use etc. can be seen in relationship to the regions where they are predominant.
- Linguistic Atlas Projects
- Phonological Atlas of North America at the University of Pennsylvania
- Speech Accent Archive
- English Speaking Union of the United States
- British, American, Australian English – Lists and Online Exercises
- Dictionary of American Regional English
- The Great Pop Vs. Soda Controversy
- American Dictionary