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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 making progress at exactly the same speed.

Once in a Blue Moon

This expression means ‘very rarely’, or ‘almost never’. A blue moon actually occurs more frequently than you might think, about every three years, but this is a relatively recent discovery. A blue moon was thought to be extremely rare and magical, and treated with appropriate reverence. Now we know that the appearance of a ‘blue moon’, an additional full moon that appears in the cycle (when you have two in one calendar month, for example), is relatively common, but the expression is still used to describe something that happens very rarely; and when it does it’s usually on a special occasion.

Example: I don’t drink, apart from the odd glass of champagne once in a blue moon.

Piece of Cake

This term describes something very easy, and usually quite enjoyable. It is simply used because cake, with its light texture and delicious flavours is one of the easiest things to eat in the world!

Example: Everyone helped out and got along well, so moving house was actually a piece of cake!

Queen Bee

This term refers to someone – usually a woman – in the most powerful position socially. Often used facetiously by people outside the group or situation, it usually means someone who is dictating the actions of the group, and using other people to satisfy her own selfish needs.

Example: Of course they’re going to see that awful band – the lead singer is friends with the queen bee, so the others have no choice!

This expression derives from a beehive, in which the queen bee is the only female and completely in charge of all the male worker bees.

Rain on one’s Parade

To spoil someone’s fun or important moment, like rain would ruin a spectacular parade.

Example: When she found out everyone had cancelled on her dinner party, it really rained on her parade.

Stealing Thunder

This idiom is defined as using someone else’s hard work and ideas to your own advantage, often to appear better than them by improving on their hard work so that they get the praise.

Example: Annie’s a better singer but Ella wrote the song. If Annie copies it, she’ll definitely steal Ella’s thunder.

The expression has a satisfyingly literal meaning. When actor-manager John Dennis found a way of simulating the sound effects of thunder in his play Appius and Virginia, which ran only for a short period in Drury Lane, London, in 1709 (his writing skills did not match his innovation, apparently), he was outraged when he went to see another play there and found they’d used his effects in another, more successful show. He is reported to have stood up and shouted, “Damn them! They will not let my play run but they steal my thunder!”

Take it with a Pinch of Salt

If someone has a tendency to exaggerate – or simply lie outright – we are often advised to take what he or she says with ‘a pinch of salt’: don’t swallow it whole but season it with a bit of truth before accepting it!

This is thought to be because a touch of salt will make something more palatable, and easier to swallow.

Example: If he says he climbed Mount Everest in just a day, I’d take it with a pinch of salt. It probably took him a fortnight.

Under the Thumb

To be completely under someone’s control, especially in relationships. The idea is that one party is so in control that they can control their ‘victim’ with only the use of their thumb.

Example: We knew he wanted to come out skateboarding today, but she wouldn’t let him. He’s completely under the thumb.

Vicious Circle (or vicious cycle)

A term first coined by doctors and physicians when describing medical conditions that led to one another in a circular way, meaning the patient or victim of these symptoms ended up in exactly the same state after a number of changes without any improvement at all.

Used more generally, this idiom can be used to describe a self-perpetuating problem that has two or more stages.

Example: She doesn’t exercise so she put on weight – now she’s put on weight she’s too embarrassed to go to the gym so she’s still putting weight on, and will become even more embarrassed to go to the gym.

Water Under the Bridge

This is used to describe something that once posed a problem, but is now unimportant, just as a river in your path would once have been a problem, but now there’s a bridge built, it’s simply water under the bridge.

Example: The disagreement we had last year is water under the bridge; we’re good friends again now.

X Factor

Once upon a time, this expression was used to describe dangers in the military that you wouldn’t experience in civilian life: dangers that military men and women are paid to face.

However, since the expression was popularised by the Saturday night talent show of the same name, the X Factor is that special ingredient or attribute that can’t be described, which makes a person, act or performance stand out from the crowd.

Example: I don’t know what it is about her, but she’s certainly got the X Factor.

Yellow Bellied

This expression is used to denote a cowardly person or behaviour. The colour yellow has long since had associations with cowardice. From the yellow Star of David that Hitler branded the Jews with (to show that they had forsaken Jesus), to the enforced wearing of yellow by victims of the Spanish Inquisition, to imply they were guilty of heresy or treason.

Zip It

“It”, in this instance, refers to your mouth, and to “zip” is to close or open something with a contraption containing many little teeth, which lock or unlock depending on which way the handle is being pulled. If you are told to ‘zip it’, there is no doubt about whether they want you to close or open that “zip”: they will always mean you should close your mouth!


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