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English Nonsense: Idioms that don’t make sense!

Here at Spen Languages we try to arm you for every sort of dialectical challenge you may face, and English language is littered with mystifying expressions that on the face of it, seem to make no sense at all! In this blog we’ll investigate an A-Z of our favourite English sayings – or idioms – and find out why we say them, and what we mean when we do.

We’ve already covered slang, which covers many words you probably wouldn’t find in the English dictionary…. But these sayings are different. These sayings contain words you’ll certainly know, but maybe not in the context you’re used to!

Add Insult to Injury

This has been taken up in the English language and is used to describe a scenario in which something unfortunate – usually a small but humiliating something – makes a bad situation worse.

For example: The girl tripped and fell… it added insult to injury when she realised she had landed in dog poo.

This is an ancient expression, and was first recorded in the English language in 1748. However, it is thought to originate from a story by Roman writer Phaedrus, who wrote of a man whose head was stung by a fly and landed himself a blow, missing the fly entirely. The fly jeered “You want to avenge an insect’s sting with death; what will you do to yourself, who have added insult to injury?”

Beat Around the Bush

If you beat around the bush, you fail to get to, or miss the point of a conversation.

For example: Why are you beating around the bush talking about how fantastic Spen Languages is when we’re trying to work out how to order a curry in English?

The term “beat around the bush” is thought to hail from Medieval times when hunters would hire men to hit bushes with sticks to scare all the small birds and animals out from their hiding place. However, fear of larger, more predatory animals who might charge and cause injury or even death, caused the ‘beaters’ to avoid hitting the bush itself. They would literally beat around the bush.

Cut the Mustard

If something or someone cuts the mustard, it is very good, and exactly what is needed. If something doesn’t cut the mustard, (the phrase which, in true cynical British form, is more commonly used) it is just not good enough!

For example: I tried my best in my new job, but I guess I just didn’t cut the mustard!

No-one knows where this expression comes from, but it’s thought to be related to mustard seeds, which are notoriously difficult to cut; only the sharpest of knives would succeed.

Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk

This expression means it’s useless getting upset about things that have happened and you can’t change, like spilled milk, for example.

Little is known about the origin of this phrase; it is likely that spilled milk is simply the perfect metaphor for a mistake or misfortune that you can’t undo, but you can clear up and move on from if you don’t let yourself dwell on the past.

Elbow Grease

This phrase reflects physical hard work. Everybody knows that sweat – or grease – doesn’t flow freely from your elbow, so you’d have to be working especially hard to produce elbow grease!

Example: There’s no clever way out of this. We just have to use determination and elbow grease.

Final Nail in the Coffin

An action or event that will guarantee the failure of something that was already going badly. The coffin is a metaphor for something that is, to all intents and purposes, dead anyway, but this final action removes any doubt.

Example: Their relationship was not going well, but when she told him she’d kissed his friend; it was the final nail in the coffin and it’s over now.

Get your Ducks in a Row

Getting your ducks in a row means, means, in colloquial English, to get your affairs in order.

Example: You’re off on holiday next week and you haven’t even started packing? You need to get your ducks in a row!

Amusingly however, the origins of this expression have nothing to do with our web-footed, feathery friends. The original expression is ‘get your ducts in a row’ and emphasises the importance of lining up your air ducts if you want the air conditioning or central heating to operate properly. Somewhere along the line it must have been misheard, and the vision of a rabble of ducks standing to attention in a farmyard must have been too much of an endearing prospect to waste!

Head over Heels

This expression means to be utterly besotted with somebody in a romantic sense: “He’s head over heels for her.”

But this really is a silly expression. Of course we at Spen Languages are head over heels for you. We’re head over heels for everyone, unless we’ve just fallen over. Our head is usually at least 5 feet above our heels.

Used in the sense it’s intended however, head over heels, as far back as the 14th century, meant turning cartwheels, being sent ‘topsy-turvy’ or upside-down. Presumably it meant your head was falling over your heels. What can we say? English nonsense!

It Takes Two to Tango

This expression is used about actions or events that require more than one person to carry it out. In contrast to the collaborative, and possibly romantic picture it paints, it is in fact normally used in the context of something negative, like a fight, to show that it wasn’t any one person’s fault.

Jump on the Bandwagon

This is used to describe people getting involved with or showing support of something that has already had success.

Example: Once they saw that the Killers’ new album had jumped straight to the top of the charts, they all jumped on the bandwagon and bought it.

P.T Barnum –a world-class showman and performer – first coined the term “The bandwagon” to describe the circus wagons processing through town. Circuses would attract customers by creating a carnival on the streets as they passed through the streets of a new village or town, demonstrating how talented and exciting they were to their prospective audience. Members of the public, seeing their spectacular antics, would literally jump on the bandwagon; it is easy to see therefore how the expression evolved into what it is today.

Kill Two Birds with One Stone

Although this one sounds slightly barbaric, it is almost always used in a positive light, to describe a cleverly timed action which will result in two desired outcomes.

Example: If I go to town between 3 and 5 I can kill two birds with one stone – I can get my shopping done AND meet my mother for coffee.

Last Straw

Out of context, this is a particularly baffling expression, and often used as a standalone phrase. The full idiom is “the last straw to break the camel’s back”, meaning the last little thing that eventually ruined everything, or made circumstances too difficult to handle. The last straw often causes someone to give up, react emotionally, or push people or events away.

Example: She had already missed the bus, lost her purse and been pushed over in the crowd twice. When it started raining it was the last straw and she began to cry.

Missed the Boat

When an intended action has been left too late, and it is now impossible to achieve what was planned.

Example: He wanted finally to ask her on a date, but when he found out she had a new boyfriend he realised he’d missed the boat again.

Neck and Neck

Originating from horse racing, this expression is almost always used in a competitive context, be that in the sphere or sports, games, performance or politics, to mean that two parties are exactly even, or have an exactly even chance of winning.

Example: Who do you think will win? I don’t know, they’re neck and neck at the moment.

In horse racing, the point the horse has officially crossed the finishing line is judged by its neck. Therefore, if two horses are neck and neck, it means they are