5 English idioms you’ll want to use forever

Did you know there are an estimated 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language? That’s more than even the smartest African Grey Parrot knows.

That doesn’t change the fact that idioms are fun, catchy and unpredictable – just like our online English course, one could argue. 

Learning a language through idioms and expressions will boost your confidence when speaking with a native speaker, and help you form a deeper understanding of the culture’s language. Sadly, more often than not, learners struggle to use classic English idioms at first, as learning isn’t always a barrel of monkeys.

For all the reasons above (and more), we’ve compiled a top-notch list of 5 English expressions that will surely tickle your fancy. Don’t worry if they don’t delight you, there are 24995 others left if these don’t float your boat.

Mad as a hatter

This first idiom may drive you up a wall. While many people believe the expression comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “to be mad as a hatter” has a more sinister origin: in the 19th century, hat-makers (or “hatters”) used mercury nitrate to treat their fabrics. Little did they know that the substance was poisonous, and they often suffered brain damage after breathing in the fumes. As a result, hatters were traditionally thought of as mad.

Example: All of these screaming children are making me as mad as a hatter. I honestly regret adopting all 17 of them.

(To be) cool as a cucumber

Thought cucumbers were watery, bland and boring? You’re not wrong, however, this next idiom may change your mind. To be “cool as a cucumber” has been around since the 18th century and helps describe somebody who is very calm and composed even in a time of crisis. The idiom may play on two meanings: the word “cool”, both a cold temperature and a state of being calm and collected, as well as the fact that even in very hot weather, the inside of a cucumber remains cooler than room temperature. 

Example: Despite the announcement of a global pandemic and surprise quarantine, my cats remained cool as cucumbers. How do they do it? Maybe it’s because they’re not capable of understanding what it means?

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(To be) all mouth and no trousers

Saying somebody is “all mouth and no trousers” will no doubt make heads turn on your trip to Birmingham or Norwich, but not for the reasons you might think.

First used in Northern England, this idiom is used to describe somebody (usually male) who talks boastfully but doesn’t have any intention of acting on his words or delivering his claims. 

Did you know? Many variants of this idiom exist: “to be all mouth” “to be all piss and wind” (colloquial), “to be all hat and no cattle” (US, primarily in rural states) and “to be all bark and no bite”. The latter is more in tune with Gymglish’s core values.

Example: Don’t pay attention to Matthew – he’s all mouth and no trousers!

To go pear-shaped

If things go “pear-shaped”, fruit enthusiasts would normally be thrilled, however the expression actually indicates something going badly. Mainly used across the UK, “to go pear-shaped” is a catch-all expression of dismay that encompasses everything from “a situation which has not turned out the way one had planned,” to “everything is ruined,” and all points in between.

The expression is thought to originate in the 1940s and used to describe a Royal Air Force pilot’s failure to achieve a perfect midair loop, which often resembled a pear rather than a circle.

Good to know: Don’t confuse “to go pear-shaped” with “to go bananas” which means “to go crazy”.

Example: Jennifer lost her job and consequently her house – it all went pear-shaped for her when she foolishly thought that her generation could afford housing.

To bite off more than you can chew

“To bite off more than you can chew” indicates a feeling of helplessness or being overwhelmed by a situation. English speakers will use this idiom if they have taken on too much, or undertaken something larger than they are capable of accomplishing.

The expression is said to have originated in America in the 1800s. At the time, it was a common practice to chew tobacco, which came in a solid block. However, chewing too much tobacco could lead to someone swallowing it, which was often fatal. 

An equivalent expression might be “to take on more than you’ve bargained for”.

Example: Hannah agreed to proofread Mark’s thesis on cryptocurrency, but I think she’s biting off more than she can chew.

Bonus: To hear (something) through the grapevine

Wine lovers, this one’s for you. “To hear something through the grapevine” means to hear about something indirectly, not from the source – think word-of-mouth gossip and rumors.

The expression may have multiple origins: one of which lies in the early telegraph system invented by Samuel Morse in the 19th century. The system – which required installing thousands of kilometers of telegraph wire – reminded people of grapevines because the wires often became tangled due to poor workmanship integrating the telegraph poles and cables. Subsequently, the lines became known as “the grapevine”. 

Some say that during the American Civil War, the telegraph system was used to communicate propaganda and false information, meaning that anything “heard on the grapevine” was likely to be unreliable or doubtful.

Did you know? I heard it through the grapevine is the name of a hit song by Marvin Gaye recorded in 1966 – a track which expresses the singer’s dismay at hearing about a former lover’s new relationship.

Looking for more expressions to spice up your English learning? Try our online English course Gymglish for free!

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