Raining cats & dogs? Mad as a hatter? In a pickle? What do all these English idioms & expressions mean & where do they come from? Even advanced & native speakers of English find idioms a challenge, and they can differ across the English-speaking world. Read all about idioms in my latest article published for the FOCUS expat community. Hope you find it useful & enjoy!
British English Idioms
When I am working with clients to help them improve their English communication and take it to the next level, one of the areas which often challenges them is idioms, even at advanced levels. Idioms are a way of expressing yourself in language, which help you sound more natural, but can be tricky because there may be an exact translation from your own language, or the expression might have a word or two different, or not even exist. So getting a word wrong in the expression can sound odd or comical.
Here in the UK we especially love our idioms. According to Professor Jenkins, chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton, people who speak English as a first language may not be that good at adapting their speech to suit non-native speakers, meaning they can struggle to express themselves clearly & be understood.
So, what are good idioms to know and where do some of these strange expressions come from. In this article I share some of my favourites, what they mean, how to use them & their origin.
Cats & Dogs idioms
The British are known for loving their animals, so it is no surprise that cats & dogs feature in many English idioms. One of the most famous of course is “it’s raining cats and dogs”, which means it’s raining very heavily! This funny expression has been used since the 17th Century and although it’s unclear where exactly it came from, it is believed that it refers to a Norse myth or even a medieval superstition, perhaps a twist on a Biblical story. However, rest assured to date it has never rained cats or dogs in the UK, and in fact many people find the UK much less rainy than its reputation!
Now what about if we say, “they let the cat out of the bag”, to mean they shared a secret by mistake. This expression can be used in everyday or work situations, particularly when details are revealed we didn’t want or mean to share. It’s possible that this expression refers to exposing deceitful traders in medieval markets, who would claim they were selling you a piglet in the bag, but actually had substituted it instead for a kitten, a much cheaper animal. When you let the cat out of the bag, you revealed the trader as a fraud.
Along similar lines, if you “throw a cat among the pigeons”, then you cause a great upset but saying or doing things that make people cross. Another fascinating expression with cats is describing somebody as “the cat’s whiskers”, which means they are important and better than everybody else.
Moving onto dogs, if you go to a social gathering and “everybody and their dog” turns up, then that means almost everybody possible came to that party. Finally people who are always intrigued by the saying “the hair of the dog”, which means to start drinking alcohol again the next day to cure a hangover. This count-intuitive idea may have come about from the early English medical idea that ‘the hair of the dog that bit you’ was a good way to repair a wound, i.e. rub the hair of the dog into the bite he gave you.
Money is another rich area for idioms and many of them have intriguing origins. For example, we can say if somebody is rich that they are “rolling in it”, literally they have so much money they could roll around in it, but the opposite “strapped for cash” or “broke” means when somebody has very little or no money.
If somebody comes from a wealthy family, then we say, “they are born with a silver spoon in their mouth”. Silver spoons were traditionally only used by the richer, upper classes and silver spoons used to be a traditional christening gift to a new baby.
With the development of a more consumerist society through the last century, then we see the phrase “to keep up with the Joneses”, which means to compete with your neighbours to have the best & latest gadgets & objects for the home & garden. The phrase came from a comic strip called Keeping Up with the Joneses, created by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand in 1913, which was about two competing neighbours.
Finally the expression “scot free” means to escape punishment or avoid the consequences of something when you expected to suffer. Although this sounds like it refers to Scotland, the origin of the expression is Scandinavian, because the word ‘scot’ means ‘payment’. In the 13th century a municipal tax called ‘scot’ was introduced, and everybody had to pay but the peasants were excluded, so they were known as ‘scot-free’. In England the scot tax lasted in some places for centuries until 1836 when it was finally abolished.
There are some idioms which seem to have very British origins and people often ask me where they come from. For example, “mad as a hatter” to describe somebody who is completely crazy. Many people think this is a reference to the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland but actually Caroll took inspiration from real hatters, who sadly in the 17th-19th Century were slowly poisoned by the mercury they used for the hat felt. They experienced terrible symptoms such as irritability and trembling hands, seeming to be mad.
The expression “they were fired” is universally understood, but in the UK we also say, “they got the sack/ they were sacked”. This phrase came from craftsmen & labourers who would carry their tools around in a sack, which was given to their employer for safe keeping while working on a job. If they had to be asked to leave because of the quality of work, the sack was returned to them so they could just move onto the next job without the disgrace of being fired.
Brits like to tease, gently mock & make fun of each other, and this is known as “taking the mickey (or mike/ michael)” in informal language. There are a few theories about where it came from, but most likely it originated in Cockney rhyming slag, referring to the invented character Mickey Bliss.
A slightly older expression but still heard, is to “mind your Ps & Qs”, which means to be very polite, especially with older people & in formal situations. There are a couple of thoughts on where this came from. One theory says that it refers to “please” (Ps) and “thank you” (when said quickly it sounds like “thank-q”). However, there is also a very good story that pub landlords would make a note of the amount that their patrons drank with P (pints) and (Q) quarts.
Finally as in every language food is a rich source of idioms and here I will explain a few of my favourites through a short story. So, if my friend Harry went to a party where he didn’t really know anybody and he finds it hard to socialise, then he might have “felt like a lemon”. He didn’t “feel full of beans”, meaning full of energy, and found that the music they were playing “wasn’t his cup of tea”, i.e. he didn’t like the music. Just when he thought things were really starting “to go pear-shaped”, that is starting to go wrong, he somehow managed to bump into a table & break a very expensive ornament. He suddenly was “in a pickle”, meaning in a difficult situation and fully expected the host, Sarah “to go bananas”– lose her temper. However, Sarah was lovely about it and she helped him clear it away and told him not to worry about it, and he realised he very much liked her, and in fact she was “the best thing since sliced bread”, i.e. absolutely fantastic!
Hope you have enjoyed this short exploration of idioms and expressions, discovering their meanings & origins. I am sure you have a few favourite idioms of your own and perhaps one or two which you have always wanted to know more about. Feel free to get in touch to share them with me!
Victoria Rennoldson, Founder of Perfect Cuppa English
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