To Coin a Phrase: Strange English Sayings

In inglese esiste un’infinità di frasi fatte davvero strane che fanno riferimento a tanti aspetti dell’esperienza umana, come il cibo, le emozioni, i vestiti o il corpo, e che hanno origini molto diverse.

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Sarah Davison

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Idioms in English

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How high is ‘knee-high to a grasshopper’?! Who knows? Only the grasshopper, to be honest. And yet this is an expression in English used to refer to someone when they were very young: “I’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper”. Why a grasshopper? And why its knee? The phrase makes no sense. In fact, English is absolutely full of strange sayings, which can be a headache for language learners. 


Some of these phrases are well known and can be universally understood, such as ‘to find a needle in a haystack’ or ‘To cost an arm and a leg’. Using these phrases, in the correct context, helps the language learner feel comfortable in English. It is important, however, to make sure that the phrase is still in current use! The expression ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ went out with the ark – which is another strange saying! The origins of phrases can also be very old: ‘To add insult to injury’ actually goes back to Roman times! Not surprisingly, the passage of time sometimes produces repetition. ‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’ and ‘It’s all water under the bridge’ basically mean the same thing: what’s done is done. 


Many strange sayings actually make sense. Examples include ‘To kill two birds with one stone’ and ‘Out of the frying pan into the fire’. Others, however, will leave the language learner totally confused. If something is exciting or good, why does it ‘blow your socks off’? And what happened to your shoes? If you are pleased with something or someone, you are ‘a happy camper’ in the UK and ‘as happy as a clam’ in the US. Who wins the competition for the most illogical phrase here? 


The sources of these strange expressions are varied. ‘To bite the bullet’, to do something that you don’t want to do but know that you have to, comes from the army. In 1850s England, soldiers had to bite the head off a particular type of bullet before using it. To manage to do something, but only just, is to do it ‘by the skin of your teeth’. Teeth with skin? This one comes from the King James Bible of 1611. Other expressions come from hunting, the navy, fables and nursery rhymes


English sayings cover every subject under the sun. Food, for example: If something is easy, ‘It’s a piece of cake’. If a woman ‘cuts the mustard’ at work, she is very good at her job. Someone ‘a few sandwiches short of a picnic’ has no common sense. Anatomy is a rich source: If you ignore someone, you ‘give them the cold shoulder’, while if you need their knowledge or experience, you ask if you can ‘pick their brain(s)’. Emotions are another fruitful field. Suggesting to someone that they calm down, that they ‘keep a cool head’, gives us ‘keep your shirt on!’ from Britain and the wonderfully descriptive ‘Take a chill pill’ from America. Like phrasal verbs, new strange English expressions appear all the time: business meetings where everyone is asked to share data are known, controversially, as ‘opening the kimono’!

10 Strange English Sayings

1. The best thing since sliced bread (Ser el no va más)

When sliced bread first appeared in 1928, it caused a sensation. The toaster, already invented, then became even more popular! We use the saying to praise an invention or development. But what was the best thing before sliced bread?! 

2. To wear your heart on your sleeve (Con el corazón en la mano)

A great expression —although completely impossible physically— describing a person who doesn’t hide their feelings but rather is transparent about their emotions. It can be a good thing ... or a bad thing. 

3. To be under the weather (No sentirse muy católico)

English people are supposed to talk about the weather as many times a day as the weather itself changes. It’s better than talking about Brexit! If you are feeling ‘under the weather’, you are feeling ill

4. Barking up the wrong tree (Errar el tiro)

This classic phrase comes from the hunting world long ago when dogs, used to chase wild animals, mistakenly thought their prey was hiding up a particular tree. Meaning: to have the wrong idea about the reason for something or the way to do something. 

5. Speak of the devil (Hablando del rey de Roma)

You are talking with a friend about another person and that very person suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the scene. The original, from the 16th century, is not pleasant: ‘Speak of the devil and he will appear’. 

6. The elephant in the room (El elefante en la habitación)

A very popular phrase in recent years, it actually originated in 1950s America. The ‘elephant’ in the room is an important question or subject that people are ignoring because it is uncomfortable to deal with.  

7. The last straw that broke the camel’s back (La gota que colmó el vaso)

Similar to the much less common ‘last feather that breaks the horse’s back’, this expression, normally abbreviated, refers to the last in a series of events that finally makes a bad situation impossible to bear

8. To throw a pity party (Regodearse en la pena)

A very expressive, completely unsympathetic American saying. You say this to someone when you think they are spending too much time feeling sorry for themselves over something that is simply not worth it

9. To be up shit creek without a paddle (Estar con la mierda hasta el cuello)

Scatological humour plays an important role in the strange expressions in English. This phrase basically means ‘to be in real trouble’. Another scatological American expression, totally illogical, is ‘it’s a shitshow’ —a good candidate for compound word of the year! 

10. To have a frog in your throat (Tener una rana en la garganta)

A person uses this classic English expression, possibly old-fashioned now, when they cannot clear their throat. The idea is that a hoarse person sounds croaky... and frogs ‘croak’. You would, of course, actually suffocate with a frog in your throat.

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