English is a funny language. Remarkably varied, and inventive, and frequently unusual. Anyone learning English will have come across uniquely English phrases that are truly surprising, and plenty that don’t seem to make any sense!
It’s especially the case with ‘idioms’ – these can be incredibly confusing for those learning English, but once you get to grips with them, they can be fascinating, mysterious, and frequently very funny too.
What is an Idiom?
An idiom is a word or phrase which means something different from its literal meaning. Idioms are common phrases or terms whose meaning is not real, but can be understood by their popular use (e.g. over the moon, see the light).
English idioms come in so many forms, but many of them are based on parts of the body. We love these idioms because they often create surreal images in the mind – some of them are even quite gruesome to imagine! These idioms reveal the inventiveness of the English language, as well as the power it has to survive, generation after generation, as some of these idioms are incredibly old, but still in popular use today. Here you can find some examples:
1. I wore my elbows to the bone
Hard work requires a lot of ‘elbow grease’. Hard, physical work often involves the bending of arms, over and over, laboriously – whether it’s cleaning, cooking, working machinery, or anything else that involves working with your hands. So this idiom means, figuratively, that you’ve worked so hard that your bones have worn through your skin, leaving your elbows poking out! We told you that the English love their gruesome imagery. This idiom doesn’t have to refer to physical work either, it can be used emotionally too – where you have worked hard at a relationship, or any situation where you feel you have put in a lot of effort. The Scottish poet Ivor Cutler loved this idiom, and sings about it beautifully here.
Often you’ll find that the meaning of an idiom today has changed dramatically from its original meaning. Here’s a very good example of just how much an idiom’s meaning can change:
2. To apply the rule of thumb
Today, applying the ‘rule of thumb’ means that you are using a practical approach to solve a problem. However, the origin of this idiom actually refers to a cruel method of settling marital disputes. In 1886 a judge in Glasgow, Sir Francis Buller, ruled that ‘a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb’. The phrase is still widely used in the UK today, but not with this original violent meaning!
3. You’re pulling my leg!
This is another way of saying ‘I don’t believe what you’re telling me’, or ‘you’re joking!’ This phrase is used in funny and humorous situations, but the origin of this idiom is far from funny. In fact, it emerged from the criminal world of 18th and 19th century London. In those days street robbers often worked in gangs of two. One robber would trip up an unsuspecting victim and the other would steal his money or valuables while he was lying on the ground. If you ‘have your leg pulled’ now, you may have been tricked or misled or been told a little lie – but you don’t lose your valuables!
This idiom is about three centuries old, and it creates quite a surreal image in the mind, like a Salvador Dali painting. When you’re all ears you don’t literally transform into a body made from ears, but it means that you are incredibly eager to hear what someone has to say.
5. He was completely legless!
This is what happens to you when you’ve been hanging out at the pub for too long. It doesn’t mean that a person has no legs, it means that they’re very drunk – so drunk that they can’t stand up or walk properly. It’s an exaggeration of the stumbling around and falling over that people do when they’ve had too much alcohol.
6. She’s chewing my ear off
You might not be too keen to hang out with someone after they’ve chewed your ear off – but it’s not because they’ve taken a big bite out of your ear! This idiom just means that someone has been talking and talking and talking to you for ages. It’s another example of the English language exaggerating an image until it becomes gruesome.
7. Egg on your face
To have egg on your face means that you’ve made a mistake, often a silly mistake that makes you look stupid, foolish or embarrassed in front of others. No one’s sure exactly where this idiom started, but we know it’s an American slang term. It could come from lower class theatre performances where rowdy audiences would throw eggs at performers they didn’t like, or it could come from simple table etiquette – men being left with bits of egg stuck in their beard at the dinner table, leaving them feeling embarrassed.
8. We got off on the wrong foot
If you’ve started a task poorly or begun with a mistake then you could say you’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. This idiom is often used to refer to personal or social interactions – you can get off on the wrong foot with another person when you first meet them by saying something that offends them, or that they don’t understand or by making a bad first impression.
9. Caught red-handed
Another idiom with a dark origin, this one is fairly obvious. To be caught red-handed means you are caught doing something wrong, while you are doing it. For example, when your boss walks in on you stealing some notepaper from the stationery cupboard, or when your other half walks in on you kissing someone else – of course, we know none of you lovely readers would ever have done such a thing! The ‘red’ here refers to people caught with blood on their hands, from murder or poaching, and it’s another idiom that can be traced back to Scottish law papers.
Do you have any favourite English idioms based on body parts? Eat your heart out, slip of the tongue, paying through the nose… there are so many! We’d love to hear your favourites.
Article related: 15 common English idioms and phrases with their meaning