The Origins of popular English Idioms

Most native English speakers, myself included, use idioms and expressions on a regular basis. Why do we do this? Well it is a way to amplify what you are trying to say and perhaps the person who you are talking to will become "all ears!".

I often discuss idioms with my students as I love to hear their reaction to them. Sometimes they say "Yes that's the same in my language!", sometimes it's "That's similar but in my language it's slightly different", and sometimes it's "Oh wow I've never heard that before!".

This got me thinking a little about where these crazy expressions come from. In some cases it's easy to make the connection. Take for example the idiom "The Snowball Effect". Can you guess what this means and how it originated? It was simply created by drawing similarities between events that build momentum quickly with those of a snowball rolling down a hill while gathering speed and expanding.

But not all idioms are as easy to figure out. Let's take a look at some of the most commonly used idioms in English, their meanings and their very interesting origin stories.

To be under the weather. Meaning -To feel unwell. Origin - This idiom comes from the nautical world. In the old days when sailors were at sea they would start to feel ill when the weather was bad and the boat was moving too much. When this would happen they would go under the deck in order to recover and to not feel ill any more! They were literally under the weather.

To blow off steam. Meaning - To do something that helps you get rid of strong emotions or energy. Origin - Many years ago trains did not have something called a safety valve. Because of this fact when too much pressure built up in the train, the engineer would have to pull a level in order for it to "blow off steam" to prevent an explosion!

To spill the beans. Meaning - To reveal a secret. This one takes us all the way back to ancient Greece! In order to cast a vote the people during this time would place a bean in a jar representing their vote. White usually meaning yes and black meaning no. If someone spilled the jar they would quite literally be spilling the beans and revealing the results of the vote.

To bite the bullet. Meaning - To endure something unpleasant, difficult or painful. The phrase was first recorded in a Rudyard Kipling novel in 1891. It is believed to be referring to when people had to have operations or painful procedures without any anesthetic. They would place a bullet between their teeth and bite as hard as they could to help them deal with the pain. Ouch!

Don't cry over spilt milk. Meaning - There's no point worrying about past unfortunate events that cannot be changed. Origin - This is one of my favourites. There are many theories about the origins of this idiom but one of the most popular is the following, it comes from fairy lore. Many many years ago people believed strongly in fairies and would leave offerings and make shrines for them. As milk was thought to be the fairies favorite drink, whenever some was spilt in a house it wasn't considered a bad thing or something to worry about as the fairies would drink it!

As you can see there are some really interesting origins when it comes to idioms and of course there are dozens of theories as to their true beginnings but they are very fun to read non the less.
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Alejandra Santiago
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