10 unusual expressions in English and where they come from

expressions in English - Pearson ELTPart of the fun of learning a language is getting to know its idioms and expressions, but there are many whose meaning is far from clear and whose origins are obscure. Today we look at 10 unusual expressions in English and where they come from.

Unusual sayings in English:

1. to kick the bucket

A euphemism for ‘to die’. One theory suggests it comes from the days when prisoners were executed by hanging. An upturned bucket, or some other kind of pedestal, would be placed under their feet as they were strung up to the gallows and then kicked away to make them drop. More likely, however, it comes from an old secondary meaning of ‘bucket’, which was the beam used to hang animals up for slaughter in a farm. The dying animals would spasm as they struggled, hence ‘kicking the bucket’.

A: I’d love to travel around the world one day.
B: So would I. There’s loads of places I want to see before I kick the bucket.

2. Break a leg!

It might surprise you, but this expression is used to wish someone good luck. It comes from the world of the theatre, where superstition has it that wishing someone good luck will bring them disaster, whereas cursing them will have the opposite result.

A: Ready for your presentation?
B: I guess so. I just get really nervous speaking in public.
A: You’ll be fine. Break a leg!

3. to have two left feet

The meaning of this expression is fairly transparent. It describes a person who is hopeless at dancing. The reason for two left feet as opposed to two right feet probably has to do with the age-old stigmatisation of left-ness.

It’s really embarrassing at parties when my boyfriend hits the dance floor. He’s got two left feet.

4. to make a (right) pig’s ear of something

Poor old pigs – they’re not renowned for their good looks. Their ears are especially unattractive, and this expression means to make a complete mess of something. It comes from a very old proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s (a female pig) ear’.

I knew I shouldn’t have tried mending my jacket myself. Look at this – I’ve made a right pig’s ear of it.

5. to have a butcher’s

This strange expression is short for ‘have a butcher’s hook’, and means ‘to have a look’. It’s an example of Cockney rhyming slang, in which certain words or expressions are replaced by words they rhyme with. Other examples are ‘apples and pears’ for ‘stairs’, ‘brown bread’ for ‘dead’ and ‘dog and bone’ for ‘phone’. Cockney rhyming slang was originally a cryptolect (a kind of code) used by market traders and criminals in the East End of London when they didn’t want the locals (or the police) to understand them.

A: I don’t think I can finish this Sudoku puzzle. It’s way too hard.
B: Let’s have a butcher’s. Maybe I can do it.

6. under the weather

To feel unwell. This was originally a nautical expression. Sick sailors would be sent to recover below decks, where they would literally be ‘under the weather’.

A: You coming out tonight?
B: I don’t think so. I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

7. to play it by ear

Another one of our unusual expressions in English that features a part of the body, this one means to deal with a situation as it develops, without making any concrete decisions or plans beforehand. It comes from the ability to play music without having to read a score.

A: Should we book a taxi for tomorrow night?
B: No, we don’t know how many of us there’ll be yet. Let’s just play it by ear.

8. the bee’s knees

If something is the bee’s knees, then it’s excellent. Some say it goes back to Jazz Age, and was used to express the feeling of being so excited that your legs shook rapidly, like the twitching legs of a bee. Another theory says it comes from ‘the be-all and end-all’, which was corrupted to ‘the B’s ‘n’ the E’s’, and that it was originally used sarcastically of someone with a very high opinion of themselves. ‘Who does he think he is, showing off like that? Thinks he’s the B’s ‘n’ E’s!’ These days it can be used, if somewhat quaintly, in praise of anything.

A: How was that concert you went to?
B: Oh, it was the bee’s knees. I loved it.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to sound too old-fashioned, I suggest using a different expression with the same meaning; just swap the bee for a dog and the knees for another part of the creature’s anatomy.

9. to drive someone up the wall

If you drive someone up the wall, you drive them so crazy they end up wanting to climb out of wherever they are and escape.

I wish my neighbours wouldn’t play reggaeton all day and night. It’s driving me up the wall.

10. to go cold turkey

To quit something addictive completely and without any preparation, rather than reducing it gradually. Although it is often used to talk about quitting alcohol, tobacco or drugs, its usage has widened to include stopping any addictive behaviour abruptly. One theory says it comes from the goose-bumped skin and cold sweats that a person recovering from alcohol or drug addiction suffers. Another suggests it developed from an old American expression ‘to talk cold turkey’, meaning to speak plainly and directly, hence the idea of getting straight down to the business of quitting.

A: I think I’m spending too much time on social media these days. I might need to cut down a bit. It’s not healthy.
B: Cutting down never works. Just delete your accounts and go cold turkey.

You might also be interested in…

– 21 idioms from the world of sport

– 30 useful English idioms and expressions

– 21 unusual English expressions from around the world

– 12 surprising facts about the English language

– 50 of the most useful English abbreviations and acronyms

– 20 words and phrases English owes to Shakespeare

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