Figurative Speech: Idioms

We love idioms in English and it’s often a peculiarity that confuses non-native speakers when they hear us using them without a second thought for how they confuse people. What do we mean by idioms? It means when we use bywords that are unrelated to what they actually mean; it has figurative meaning but is not like a simile or metaphor which are about drawing comparisons.

They do not make literal or figurative sense but because they are so common in the language, everyone knows what they mean. This is why they confuse people who have never heard them before or speakers of other languages trying to get to grips with the quirks of another. Some of the most famous examples in English are:

  • Are you pulling my leg? (Are you playing a joke on me?)
  • It’s raining cats and dogs (it’s raining heavily)
  • I’m feeling blue (I have a low mood)
  • It cost me an arm and a leg (that was expensive)
  • I have butterflies in my stomach (I am nervous / excited / anxious)
  • That’s a pain in the arse / neck (that is irritating or frustrating)
  • Putting my cards on the table (I’m going to be completely open with you). This one does make sense in the case of a reveal in a card game where typically the players hide their cards until the time is right. When you lay all your cards on the table, you have nothing more to show
  • and my favourite most recent one: wind your neck in (shut up and listen / stop being so boorish)

I’m sure other languages have idioms, but because such things rarely cross the language divide in the way that words are adopted into other languages when cultures meet.I’ve just looked on wiki and it seems that most languages have idioms. It lists a number of alternatives to the English language “kicking the bucket”. As with the English version, they do not make particular sense. I like the German one “looking at the radishes from underneath” which does make sense when you think about it, and the Slovenian “he/she want to whistle to the crabs” which is odd to say the least but has an interesting sort of poetry to it.

Who is in the Detail?

Either it’s God or it’s The Devil. I’ve heard “Devil” much more commonly but apparently “God” is the older expression. Understandably, these two phrases have the opposite meaning.

  • God is in the detail means you have to look a lot closer to see the finer points of a thing – the only way it will succeed is finding and focusing on these points
  • The devil is in the detail means that something may look good on the surface but when you look deeper, that’s when you will see the fundamental problems

Literal Meanings

Not all idioms are nonsensical. Some do make sense even when the meaning has been lost over time. Some of those include:

  • I must press you (for an answer): This is one of the most fascinating and it comes from legal history. When a defendant was asked to enter a plea and refused to do so, there was a time that they would be literally pressed. They would strapped to a table for example and have weights placed upon their body. Thus, they were quite literally pressed until they gave an answer
  • Beating around the bush. Anybody who knows anything about hunting, especially small game such as pheasants, stoats, rabbits etc will know that beaters are employed to startle animals out of hiding and into the open where they may be shot. Beaters get as close as possible, beating and making noise in the bushes and shrubs. Beating around the bush means they are taking too long and should just go for it
  • Saved by the bell. This is a boxing expression where a boxer is knocked down and the end of the round chimes before the referee has managed to complete his count and before the boxer has stood up. He will now have a couple of minutes to compose himself ready for the next round. Now, we use the term to say that somebody was saved at the last possible second

What We Thought they Meant

As well as the literal meanings above, there are some that we falsely believe to have certain origins and where those beliefs are false.

  • Keep it under your hat. I once heard that this referred to English medieval archers keeping their spare drawstrings under their hats, enemy soldiers not realising that their weapons would not be rendered useless in the event of a break. England relied far more heavily on archers in this period than other powers. Apparently, this is not true and the phrase is not coined until the 20th century and it simply means “keep it inside your head”.
  • Riding shotgun. This phrase is believed to date to the American west when carriages were at a high risk of being attacked. Carriages had two-person front seats; the driver would be on one side and an accompanying guard carrying a shotgun would be on the other. This was certainly the case, but saying that the guard was “riding shotgun” is actually a Hollywood invention
  • This would also include saved by the bell above as many people still that it comes from Victorian England when people were so terrified of being buried alive that for the first few days after a burial the deceased would be placed in the coffin holding a piece of string. That string would be attached to a bell above ground that they could ring if they were indeed alive inside

3 responses to “Figurative Speech: Idioms”

  1. Saved by the Bell was also a Hollywood invention, in that it was a terrible late 80’s sitcom whose greatest claim to fame was a character named “Screetch”. Perhaps future phrases will be coined in which geeks are saved in the “Screetch of Time”? (The exact origin of ‘In the Nick of Time’ has always puzzled me. Would any name do? Screetch seems to imply owls are responsible.) Okay, I haven’t had caffeine yet, is it apparent?

    1. haha. Just a little apparent!

      I know <em?Saved by the Bell, it was an American import that proved particularly popular over here. I quite enjoyed it myself.

  2. Interesting post. I have to admit that “wind yer neck in” is my favourite. British idioms that I use often confuse Americans who aren’t used to them!

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