Sometimes the hardest part of learning a new language is understanding the colloquialisms and idiomatic phrases that pepper everyday conversations. Here, LiveEnglish with Livemocha teacher and regular Livemocha blog contributor, Miranda González, identifies and defines a few typical American English idioms and gives a helping hand on how to remember them.
by Miranda González
Idioms are quirky expressions that make the English language a little more confusing (and a little more fun!) for everyone. To understand an idiom, you have to know its figurative meaning rather than the literal one. For example, when I tell my students to “hit the books”, I don’t mean that I want them to go around punching books – I mean that I want them to study hard! If English is not your native language, you can expect to add idioms to the list of things that you just have to memorize about the English language – there are no rules that apply to all idioms!
However, to help you memorize them, it helps to know where the expressions originated. Some idiom origins are obvious. For example, if I put something “on the back burner”, it means that it doesn’t require all of my attention right now, much like a pot that is put to the back of the stove. Easy, right? But some idiom origins might surprise you. (Or make you laugh!) And if there is an interesting story behind an idiom, you are more likely to visualize it and remember it. Here’s a quick lesson on idiom etymology:
Beat around the bush
Meaning: To speak indirectly to avoid addressing a problem or conflict
Example: Would you stop beating around the bush and just tell me what you want?
Origin: This term most likely alludes to the practice of beating bushes to scare game (animals) out to be hunted.
Rub someone’s nose in it
Meaning: To remind someone repeatedly of something unpleasant (like a mistake)
Example: You were right; I was wrong. Now please quit rubbing my nose in it!
Origin: This term comes from the practice of rubbing a dog’s nose in its feces or urine to discourage it from going to the bathroom in the house.
On one’s soapbox
Meaning: To express views passionately
Example: She always uses company meetings to get on her soapbox about her political beliefs.
Origin: Bars of soap used to be packaged in wooden crates, and preachers and other public speakers would use these boxes to stand on to address crowds outdoors.
Meaning: To use one’s influence to get something beneficial
Example: Jack wasn’t really qualified for the job, but his father-in-law pulled some strings and they hired him.
Origin: This term refers to a puppeteer who manipulates puppets by using strings.
Meaning: Official paperwork or procedures that are usually complicated and time-consuming (and in some cases, considered unnecessary)
Example: Because of all the red tape, adopting a child is a process that could take months or even years to complete.
Origin: Beginning in the 1700′s, it was the custom of the British government to tie up important official documents with red ribbon.
Get (jump) on the bandwagon
Meaning: To join a movement or to follow the majority
Example: I know that it is very popular to wear skinny jeans right now, but I refuse to get on the bandwagon.
Origin: In the middle 1800′s, some political candidates employed a band on a horse-drawn carriage to accompany them and draw attention to their campaigns.
Riding shotgun / Call shotgun
Meaning: To sit in the passenger seat of a car next to the driver
Example: I call shotgun! It’s my turn to sit up front!
Origin: This term originated in the early 1900′s and referred to the armed guard seated next to the driver of a stagecoach. It was the guard’s job to use his weapon to fight off robbers.
Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: To rain very heavily
Example: You’re going to get soaked! It’s raining cats and dogs out there.
Origin: The usage of this term originated in the 1600′s when it is presumed that due to poor drainage and sanitation, heavy rains would lead to the gutters filling with debris, including dead animals. Gross!
Source: American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
Idea: Find a book of idioms in both your mother tongue and your target language and compare the literal and figurative meanings. It can sometimes be a real hoot!!