10 Bizarre English Sayings and What They Mean

6th March 2018 Joe Graham Study

The English language is a bewildering thing. As if pronunciation and grammar weren’t tricky enough, there are certain expressions which seem to make no sense.

Especially to an international student trying to get their head around British slang and, to them, our weird English phrases. To help you along, we explain some of the most bizarre English sayings you might hear during your student living in London, accompanied with illustrations and their interesting origins.

10 Bizarre English Sayings and What They Mean

1. ‘Rub (up) the wrong way’

Meaning: To irritate someone.

Origin: It is believed this refers to stroking an animal’s fur in the wrong direction, like ‘ruffling one’s feathers’.

2. ‘Let your hair down’

Meaning: To relax.

Origin: Aristocratic women had to wear their hair tightly up, when they got home they’d let their hair down to relax.

3. ‘Barking up the wrong tree’

Meaning: To pursue a mistaken line of thought or course of action.

Origin: This refers to old hunting dogs barking up the wrong tree while looking for their prey. 

4. ‘Caught red-handed’

Meaning: To be caught doing something wrong.

Origin: In old English law, if someone butchered an animal that was not theirs, they were convicted if they had the animal’s blood on their hands.

5. ‘Break the ice’

Meaning: To get conversation flowing.

Origin: This was originally meant ‘to forge a path for others’ and referred to the breaking of ice to allow navigation boats to sail through.

6. ‘Spill the beans’

Meaning: To reveal secret information.

History: In Ancient Greece, there was an anonymous voting system using black and white beans. The collector had to spill the beans to reveal the vote’s result.

7. ‘Cat got your tongue?’

Meaning: A question used when someone cannot counter an argument.

Origin: The Navy used a whip called ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails’, the pain caused those on the receiving end to keep quiet.

8. ‘Bite the bullet’

Meaning: To decide to do something difficult or unpleasant.

Origin: It’s believed that before anaesthetics, soldiers had to bite down on a bullet before enduring emergency surgery.

9. ‘Bury the hatchet’

Meaning: To forget a conflict and be at peace.

Origin: When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their weapons to make them inaccessible.

10. ‘Butter someone up’

Meaning: To flatter someone to get something from them.

Origin: Some believe this originated from Ancient India when people used to throw balls of butter at statues of Gods while asking for a favour.

Can you think of any other bizarre English sayings? Let us know in the comment section!

Joe Graham

Joe Graham

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