An idiots guide to idioms

By Oli Pritchard February 1, 2017
English idioms

We need to talk about the elephant….

Oliver Pritchard sheds light on the hot potato of English expressions including proverbs, idioms and metaphors as he helps us to not murder the language.

One of the easiest ways to sound more authentic in a foreign language is by using phrases and idioms. They’re also a lot of fun and often help you to fit in a bit more – people might not think you’re a local, but they will be impressed by your ability to fit into the local culture and your willingness to use their phrases. 

Imagine learning Spanish in Bogotá without learning about dar papaya or tener guayabo! Not only is it a lot of fun and a good way to impress people, idiomatic language is one of the key factors that language examiners look for when they assess test results, and it can be critical in business dealings.


A lot of proverbs refer to common, everyday situations. There is often a lot of crossover with other European languages (including, of course, Spanish – see Diana’s wonderful article across) because of the continent’s shared Christian history and foundation in the classic civilisations of Rome and Greece. Hence, you can take a bull by the horns in English as well, and curiosity continues to kill cats, the poor creatures.

There are small differences – we usually stop at an eye for an eye rather than progress to the teeth, but generally you will be understood if you simply translate anything relating to Biblical stories or the classics. It’s not perfect, but it will work a lot of the time. It also works the other way round – if it looks like a Spanish proverb and makes sense in the context, it’s probably the same.


Many idioms, though, are not related to the classics or religion. These are harder to comprehend as you need to understand the phrase itself. In Spanish, it’s common to tomar del pelo (take someone’s hair) but in English we pull someone’s leg, take the piss out of them or wind them up. Of course, there might be a genuine problem to deal with, so they might have a bone to pick with you. Hopefully everything will be sorted out and you can bury the hatchet.

Some things are not difficult – they’re not rocket science nor are they brain surgery. We usually use these expressions when someone is struggling to do something. Going the other way, it might be harder than a Chinese crossword. Something that is close to a limit is close to the bone, close to the knuckle or indeed pushing the envelope.

Something expensive costs an arm and a leg. If you hate spending money and prefer things that are cheap as chips, you might have short arms and deep pockets – you don’t like spending money. More vulgar people might say you’re as tight as a penguin’s ass.

Some idioms are complex – to say that something is very ugly or bad, despite an attempt to make it better, you might say that you can’t put lipstick on a pig and call it your wife or that you can’t polish a turd. (The second of these can include the caveat …but you can roll it in glitter!) To make reference to the elephant in the room means that there’s a big obvious problem that’s not being talked about. It’s not clear why this is an elephant, but that’s idioms! Equally, everything but the kitchen sink means almost everything. Presumably, kitchen sinks are hard to remove.


Although not always connected to Spanish by translation, these comparisons are not too hard to decipher. For example, to say someone is as mad as a box of frogs is pretty obvious, and it’s easy to see how someone could be as happy as a dog with two dicks. Someone who’s not so good at hearing might be as deaf as a post and, although biologically inaccurate, it’s easy to understand someone being as blind as a bat. When we say someone is like a bull in a china shop, just imagine an animal like that in a shop full of fragile plates; the meaning should be obvious.

A sample night out (Warning: adults only!)

Idioms relating to naughty behaviour are absolutely uncountable, like counting grains of sand on a beach or stars in the sky (see what I did there?). They’re also a lot more difficult to understand at times. Imagine you’re going out for a few drinks, in British English you’re on the sauce, booze, razz; tying one on, getting rat-arsed, shitfaced, loaded, cunted or wankered. Perhaps you would like to meet some people with whom you would like to sleep (in itself an idiom, as is indeed the Biblical “know” for sex)? Congratulations, you’re on the pull. You’ll be checking out the talent and eyeing up some fit birds/guys (or both).

But wait! Your friend is a bit drunk. He (it’s always a man) is a two-can Van Damme or a two-pot screamer, as they say in Australia – one of those guys that likes a fight after a small amount of alcohol. And another friend is becoming difficult, he’s a real intoxicant. He has problems with something he’s taken, be it drink or drugs.

Once the rozzers/filth/pigs/coppers/police have arrived and left, you can continue the night. If you’re lucky, you might have pulled or picked up. Sadly, it’s been a long night with a lot of beer. You’ve got brewer’s droop and it’s like an elephant nudging a wall or trying to thumb toothpaste back in the tube. Well, the next morning you’ll have had a visit from the beer monkey and you’re shaking like a shitting dog.


A lot of business English involves idioms and set phrases. This is often absolutely terrible to regular speakers of English, and indeed there are plenty of examples of so-called “business-speak.” Let’s run that up the ideas tree; we’re all singing from the same song sheet; blue-sky thinking; let’s park that idea are just some of my personal favourites for absurdity. It’s worth researching a few of the more popular business idioms to check their meaning. For example; to get the ball rolling or start something; it needs to be approved or given the green light. If you’re making a profit you’re in the black. If you’re losing money you’re in the red. A takeaway/take home idea is the key point that you can learn from a talk or presentation. It’s been made simple for you or put in a nutshell. After all, you don’t want to be out of the loop, and not know what’s happening.

Regional specialities

Some idioms and phrases are very regional. For example, an Australian friend with whom I was travelling expressed great surprise at my use of knock yourself out, mate. He thought it was very aggressive – but in British English it means ‘go ahead’ or ‘enjoy yourself’.

Given the love of the British for tea, it’s not surprising to find that something you don’t like is not your cup of tea. Equally, the weather in Britain means there are lots of phrases connected to rain. It can rain cats and dogs, it can chuck it down and it often pisses it down. Something great is the dog’s bollocks or the bee’s knees. Something totally complete is the full monty and to say it’s totally ready is to say it’s shipshape.

In many parts of Australia, there’s little sympathy for people who like to complain. They’ll be told to harden up, princess. This applies equally to men or women. Go too far and you might be a whinging like a pom. An alternative to OMG is stone the crows.

So, hopefully in the future you can sound more natural, have some fun exploring the world of idioms and even learn a few new things about other cultures. Use them properly and you’ll be sharp as a tack and get off on the right foot with folk by breaking the ice nicely. There are thousands (Wikipedia claims 25,000) to explore so good luck!