Unusual English phrases explained: meanings and origins of 14 idioms such as ‘break a leg’

The history behind some of these well-known sayings may surprise you

The English language is a wonderful thing; always changing and adapting to changes in the world and reflecting what’s happening in society. While there are new words and phrases added to our lexicon all the time, there are some that stand the test of time - passed down through centuries and spoken from one generation to the next.

These well-used sayings are often idioms - a group of words which do not have a meaning which can be deduced from the literal meaning of those words. But, have we ever stopped to consider what some of our favourite phrases mean and where they came from?

Below, we have rounded up 14 of the most well-used English phrases and idioms and explained their true meaning and the history behind them. The list may be particularly useful to people who were brought up outside of the UK as English sayings can be very confusing for friends from the US and the rest of the world, especially those which don’t appear to have a logical explanation. As the list reveals, however, the origins of some words make more sense than you may think - but others are a little more surprising.

An elephant never forgets

Meaning: This is a phrase used when talking about someone who has an excellent memory. They literally will probably never forget the thing it is you are talking about.

Origin: This animal-related phrase is said to have come from an earlier creature-themed Arabic saying of ‘a camel never forgets an injury. Apparently, the elephant version of the phrase in print was seen in an Australian newspaper in February 1883 - and it’s been used ever since.

Over-egging the pudding

Meaning: You’ve taken something too far, and possibly diminished the original intention of what you were hoping to do.

Origin: This phrase sounds like it should relate to baking in some way as a literal translation could be that you’ve added too many eggs to a dessert that you are making, therefore ruining it. That’s not the case, however, and the use of the word egg in this instance actually comes from the Anglo Saxon word eggian which means to excite. So, this phrase actually means that someone has got too excited about something. The meaning also relates well to another English phrase: egging someone on, which is when someone gets excitable and tries to persuade someone to do something.

A few sandwiches short of of a picnic

Meaning: This person lacks some common sense.

Origin: This is another saying that sounds like it should have something to do with food, but it doesn’t at all. The phrase was first heard in the BBC’s "Lenny Henry Christmas Special" in 1987.

Let your hair down

Meaning: Take the time to relax and behave much more freely. For some, this could literally be by letting their hair down if it’s been up all day - but the saying doesn’t have to be taken at face value at all.

Origin: This phrase originates from a time when women had to have their hair up all the time, possibly around the 17th to 19th century. When they were in the privacy of their own room, however, they could let it flow naturally around their shoulders and relax.

Spill the beans

Meaning: Reveal some information, usually details which have previously been a secret.

Origin: In Ancient Greece, important votes would be carried out anonymously by asking people to choose either black or white beans. The result of the vote was then revealed by a person literally spilling the beans so they could be counted.

Beat around the bush

Meaning: To avoid saying what you really mean, or doing something, usually because it’s uncomfortable or difficult to talk about it. When people ask others to stop beating around the bush when they mean for them to get on with something or say what they really mean.

Origin: The phrase comes from the 14th century and a ritual of hunting game-birds when the beater would disturb the bird and the hunter would catch it. By beating about the bush, the beater wouldn’t be the one to actually catch the bird and so they wouldn’t get the profit.

The meanings and origins of 14 common English phrases explained.The meanings and origins of 14 common English phrases explained.
The meanings and origins of 14 common English phrases explained.

Give me a tinkle on the blower

Meaning: Give me a call on the phone

Origin: The word tinkle refers to the sound a phone makes when it rings, and the word blower is a slang term for the word telephone. It refers to the device that predated phones and was used by sailors while onboard Naval ships. They would simply blow down a pipe to their recipient, where a whistle at the end of the pipe would sound to get their attention.

On it like a car bonnet

Meaning: I’m going to deal with this situation quickly, it’s all under control.

Origin: It’s unclear where this saying comes from, but there is some suggestion that it could have come from when models would lay on the car bonnets to help sell them at trade shows.

Butter someone up

Meaning: You’re being very kind to someone and complimenting them in order to get something you want from them.

Origin: In Ancient India, people used to try and gain favour from the Gods by taking balls of butter to their statues.

I’m going to spend a penny

Meaning: I need to go to the toilet

Origin: This is a very polite way to let someone know that you need to go to the toilet. It dates back to Victorian times, when people literally had to spend a penny to unlock the toilet door before they could use the facility.

That’s the last straw

Meaning: My patience has run out and this final thing in a string of bad things that has now really upset me or angered me

Origin: This saying is a shortened version of the longer expression ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. It comes from the idea that a camel is strong and can hold a lot of weight on its back, but if you keep adding items - pieces of straw for example - eventually the weight will become too much and the camel will get hurt. An earlier version of this phrase was first used as far back as the 1600s, that is ‘the last feather that broke the horse’s back’. This version can be found in Archbishop John Bramhall’s Works from 1677. Over time, horse was changed to camel and feather was changed to straw, although it’s unclear why.

Break a leg

Meaning: A phrase people say when they mean to wish someone good luck.

Origin: The phrase doesn’t sound very nice at all if taken literally, but it’s actually one of the kindest things you can say to someone who is about to go and do something they are nervous about. It is believed to have been first used in the 20th century by people in the theatre community who were superstitious. Performers believed saying the actual words ‘good luck’ would tempt fate and actually bring them bad luck on stage. So, with this logic they chose to tell each other something negative on face value in the hope that the opposite would happen. The reason they chose ‘break a leg’ specifically is unknown.

Bite the bullet

Meaning: To get on with a task and do something because you can’t avoid it and you have to do it, even if it’s unpleasant.

Origin: This phrase is thought to be derived from battlefield surgeries, in a time long before any kind of pain medication, when amputations and mediaeval medical procedures had to be performed quickly and doctors had to use whatever was at their disposal to treat the wounded. To distract the patient, a bullet was placed in their mouth for them to bite down on.

A dime a dozen

Meaning: Something is very common.

Origin: A type of currency known as the dime was made in 1796, and at that time people started advertising goods for ‘a dime a dozen’. This meant you were getting a good deal on products if you bought them in quantities of 12, as a dozen means 12. For example, you may have bought 12 eggs for a dime. Initially, this was a good thing, but over time it came to cheapen the product as it meant that it was not valuable and too easily available. It is thought that the phrase began being used in this negative way in around 1930.