Posted in Writing advice

Eleven Popular English Idioms And What They Mean

Language changes and evolves year after year and for the non-native speaker it can be hard to keep up with but there are some examples of natural, or idiomatic, English that have endured. Here we take a look at some of the more popular idioms, what they mean and where they’re from.

Raining cats and dogs

If there’s one thing the English like talking about, it’s the weather and this phrase simply means it’s raining hard. This expression can be traced back to the mid-17th century but probably stems from Norse mythology.

Once in a blue moon

This expression means something that doesn’t happen very often and probably refers to a full moon and the number of times it occurs during a calendar month. To see a full moon twice in a month is very rare indeed.

Mad as a hatter

Contrary to popular belief this expression doesn’t come from Alice In Wonderland but instead from France in the 17th century where hat makers were driven insane because of the mercury used in the hat making process.

Barking up the wrong tree

An expression that means to get something wrong. This probably refers to hunting dogs getting the wrong hiding place of their prey.

Bury the hatchet

Like the expression suggests it means a lull in hostilities. Dates back to the United States of America and the war between the Puritans and Native Americans. In the event of a treaty, the Native Americans would bury their weapons as a sign of peace.

Head in the clouds

To be away with the fairies or distracted and not grounded in reality. It is unclear where this expression originates from but is probably self-explanatory.

Know the ropes

Simply means to understand how something works or to be experienced in something. Originating from the early 19th century where knowing the ropes of a sailboat was a useful and often necessary skill.

Caught red-handed

To be found in the act of doing something wrong. This is an old English expression concerned with the killing of animals that didn’t belong to the slaughterer, who would still bear the animal’s blood.

Drive me up the wall

Something that is making you crazy! The timing of this expression is unknown but the meaning relates to climbing a wall in order to escape from something.

Larger than life

Used to describe the character of a person who is outgoing and flamboyant. Originally used to describe British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Extend the olive branch

To make peace with an enemy. This expression stems from the Bible and relates to a dove bringing back an olive branch to Noah to show the flood waters were abating.