Feb 20, 2023 | English,Vocabulary,Significance of English,Idioms | No Comments
Incredible Idioms: How many English idioms do you know?
How many English idioms do you know? How many of these do you fully understand? Now that’s a different question isn’t it?
An idiom is a widely used saying or expression which has a figurative meaning rather than a literal meaning SO the meaning of the phrase is different and would be difficult to work out from the meanings of the individual words making up the idiom.
That’s what makes some idioms sound strange to non-native learners of English and that can cause difficulty in understanding their exact meaning and when to use them.
For example, ‘under the weather’ is an idiom universally understood to mean sick or ill. If you say you’re feeling “under the weather,” you don’t literally mean that you’re standing underneath the rain. Or if we say something is/was a ‘wild goose chase’ then we are talking about pursuing or spending too much time on something unattainable, unreachable, or even non-existent – there are no geese involved!
The origins of idioms can also be fascinating – in many cases the reason behind the saying is lost to antiquity (‘the mists of time’). Because of this, sometimes there are several theories as to when and why the idiom was first used. If something ‘costs an arm and a leg’ then it is/was very expensive. This is quite a simple meaning but why do we use arms and legs to indicate a lot of money? Nowadays, this obviously does not mean that I need amputate my leg and swap it for a new car but did it originally have something to do with limbs or not?
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There are at least three theories as to the origins of this idiom. One dates from medieval portrait painting and refers to the fact that many portraits in this period are only ‘headshots’ showing the head and shoulders of the subject but not their full body. The reason for this was that to have one’s arms and legs painted into the picture would cost a lot more money because they were rather difficult to get the detail correct. Therefore, an arm and a leg meant, yep, very expensive. What do you think?
Another theory is much more recent and is put forward by some American commentators – they say the idiom originated after the Civil War in the United States in the 1860’s after which Congress created a special pension for soldiers who had lost both an arm and a leg fighting in the war. However, some mention the First or even Second World Wars in the last century. Does this sound like a good explanation to you? After all, it does equate limbs with a payment of money.
The one I lean towards is from 17th century England, when King Charles II granted Sir Thomas Armstrong and Colonel George Legge a patent to make copper coins for use in Ireland – these coins were later used by Irish immigrants to the American colonies. This would explain the connection to ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ and the reference to money. Do you agree?
Actually, the origin doesn’t really matter but it does sometimes help us to understand the context in which we use the idiom, and it can be fun to find out.
Another sometimes difficult point with idioms is the fact that many of them originated regionally and/or culturally, and consequently, some idioms are specific to particular countries or regions.
To illustrate, ‘mad as a cut snake’ is an Australian idiom used throughout that country which means very angry or annoyed to the point where you may lose self-control. I think most people in the UK would not recognise this idiom at all and, in fact, I’d never heard of it myself until I researched some regional idioms to write our Incredible idioms course.
There are also differences in idioms with similar meanings but used in different countries or regions. British people say ‘a storm in a teacup’ to refer to a small and/or unimportant event that is blown out of all proportion. Americans use ‘a tempest in a teapot’ to mean the same, maybe because they don’t take to tea as much as the Brits.
Similarly, another Australian idiom is ‘on the wallaby track’ to mean someone who is unemployed. However, my Aussie buddy from Melbourne doesn’t know this one since it is specific only to particular regions of the country.
To conclude: idioms are really fun to learn but they can be difficult! The only effective way to learn idioms is to become familiar with them one by one – what they mean and the specific contexts. To this end, I thoroughly recommend that you study with us at Red Fox Education and take our courses entitled Incredible idioms. There are several volumes which will help you master over 150 common idioms – just click on the link to begin!
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