Common English Idioms and Their Origins

Common English Idioms and Their Origins

A term used often by a particular group of people is known as an idiom. It is often metaphorical and sometimes difficult to figure out from the words alone. It is typically important to have prior knowledge on how to use it. Idiom development is essential for language development. They perform in ways that literal meanings usually do not. We use them frequently without even recognizing that doing so renders the statements we make meaningless in the absence of the implied and generally acknowledged meaning. The idioms that are included on this list have been the subject of extensive linguistic research.


1. “Turn a blind eye”

Meaning: Refusing to accept a proven fact

Example: I’ll turn a blind eye once, but the second time you’ll be in trouble.

Origin: Turning a blind eye derives from a remark made by British Admiral Horatio Nelson, however the phrase's numerous other claimed origins are debated. In the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he directed the assault alongside Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Nelson had one eye that was blind. Nelson was informed by Parker at one point that he needed to withdraw and disengage through flags. Nelson, though, was certain that if they continued, he could win. Nelson then pretended not to notice the signal while holding the telescope to his blind eye, making a sneaky remark to a fellow officer about reserving the right to sometimes use his blind eye.

Horatio Nelson | Sky HISTORY TV Channel

2. “Feeling under the weather”

Meaning: To feel ill

Example: As a result of my son being unwell yesterday, I'm currently feeling under the weather.

Origin: This idiom is said to have a nautical origin. The front of the boat, or the bow, is where sailors would hide when they were unwell. As he was already unwell to the point of being contagious, this would perhaps shield him from dangerous situations. As a result, an ill seaman may be referred to as "under the weather."

Under the Weather" | Origin and Meaning

3. “Beat around the bush”

Meaning: To go around a point; to stay away from a point

Example: Stop beating around the bush and inform me what actually happened.

Origin: It is believed that this widespread idiom was born in opposition to British game hunting. Participants would beat bushes while bird hunting to attract the birds. They were therefore wasting time by delaying the main objective of the hunt, which was to actually catch the birds.

Be direct. Don't beat around the bush.

4. “Read the riot act”




Meaning: To criticize someone for acting inappropriately with the goal of changing that person's actions.

Example: I gave Taylor the riot act because she was being too noisy in class.

Origin: The true Riot Act, which the British government issued in 1714 to control disorderly meetings, is most likely where this phrase got its start. King George I and the administration lived in terror of being eliminated by followers of the former Stuart dynasty in the 18th century. Authorities could read a section of the Riot Act to groups of more than 12 people, at which point they must disperse or risk being imprisoned. As a result, when someone reacts in a way that makes us feel unacceptable, we "read them the riot act," hoping to convince the unruly individual to stop.

Read The Riot Act | The Phrase's History, Meaning And Origins | HistoryExtra

5. “Spill the beans”

Meaning: To reveal a secret

Example: Quit being so vague. Just spill the beans!

Origin: This one is a little difficult because there isn't a simple explanation. However, it is generally agreed that this originates from an ancient Greek voting system that used beans. Voting was done by placing one of two colors beans in a vase; white was commonly used to indicate approval and black or brown to indicate opposition. This implied that, should a secret be exposed, the election's results would be made public earlier than anticipated. Therefore, spilling the beans refers to revealing information that is secret.

Spill the Beans. Who's spilling beans and who's cleaning… | by R P Gibson |  Idiomatical | Medium

6. “The proof is in the pudding”

Meaning: This strange phrase has a wide range of interpretations, depending on who you ask. Some of the more popular definitions are listed below:

1. There is evidence, especially evidence that is inherent to the thing in question, to support a prior assertion. (Example: Of course this project will be successful, the proof is in the pudding.)

2. As long as the outcome is successful, it doesn't matter how it was accomplished. (Example: I may have had to walk 1,000 miles to find this treasure, but the proof is in the pudding.)

3. The only way to determine whether something is successful is to utilize it as intended. (Example: You’ll have to try it out before you buy it, since the proof is in the pudding.)

Origin: The reason for the numerous definitions is probably the Americanization of the old British idiom, which reads “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The abbreviated American version is illogical, in contrast to the British version, which at least makes some sense. This caused the phrase to be used in a variety of contexts and with differing degrees of awareness of its meaning. The third meaning stated above is most similar to the British phrase, though. The phrase is likely to have first appeared in the 16th century, when the word "proof" was comparable with "test." Pudding also differed a great deal from what it is now. It was probably a meal with minced beef.

Therefore, the flavor of a pudding dish rather than its appearance or look serves as the actual test of its success. More broadly, the only way to determine something's success is to use it for what it was created to do. The origin of the more American meanings is unclear, despite their widespread use.

The Proof Is In The Pudding" Sticker for Sale by RoseCityMerch | Redbubble

7. “I’ve got it in the bag”

Meaning: Success expected

Example: I’m not even nervous about the interview itself. I’ve got it in the bag.

Origin: Although there are other documented uses of this phrase, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) baseball team is responsible for popularizing it. It was initially a superstition. The Giants went on a streak of 26 victories in a row in 1916. At the start of each game, a bag containing an additional 72 baseballs was placed on the field. These balls were used to replace those that were too filthy or that were slammed into the seats. The Giants believed that if they led in the ninth (and last) inning and carried the ball bag off the field, they would win since, in their minds, they had the game in the bag. This was during their unbelievable winning run.

The 1911 New York Giants Baseball Team Photograph by International Images -  Pixels

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