Tricks of the Trade*: Idioms

Hello there …

… and welcome to this week’s Englisch Macht Spaß! We took a little break last week, because I was off gadding about the Czech Republic. I have no doubt you used the break wisely to catch up on previous English Macht Spaß posts. Right? Good.

This week, I thought we’d talk about idioms, those strangle little expressions that pepper conversations and can cause a lot of confusion.

What is an Idiom?

An idiom is an expression that’s meaning does not reflect, or cannot be deduced from, the individual words it contains. It has a figurative meaning, not a literal meaning. Eg: I am over the moon with my exam results. (I am thrilled/really happy/very pleased with … etc etc.)

Why do we need to know about them?

A few reasons …

  • There are thousands upon thousands of idioms in any given language, and English is no exception. Courtesy of English being spoken by many and varied countries, its idiom collection is a rather full one.
  • Native speakers use idioms often, without even thinking about it, because idioms can express something quickly and easily. It’s therefore useful to be able to 1) identify them as idioms – and so things you won’t be able to understand literally and so don’t try – and 2) understand what they mean.
  • Knowing a few idioms that spring from the country you may be learning/speaking English in, helps you understand the language on a deeper level, and also afford greater insight into the culture. (Eg: German idiom will reveal a deep love of the pig.)

Some Useful English Idioms

It isn’t possible to learn every single idiom that exists, nor should you become so bogged down in looking for them that you begin to think every single sentence spoken to you is an idiom. But knowing a handful is a good place to start, both for your comprehension and conversation skills. So I’ve put together a list of some very common idioms that you can start trying to use in your day to day conversations.

– You’re pulling my leg. // You aren’t telling me the truth –> You speak ten languages fluently? You’re pulling my leg.

– She’s as a sick as a dog. // She’s very, very sick. –> Jo will be off work for a week, she’s as sick as a dog.

– Once in a blue moon // Not very often. –> I got to the dentist once in a blue moon, because I hate it.

– It’s raining cats and dogs. // It’s raining very heavily. –> I am not going outside today, it’s raining cats and dogs.

– To change your tune. // To change your mind. –> Oh you like pumpkin spice lattes now, do you? You’ve changed your tune.

– Drop me a line. // Contact me. –> I’d love to hear about your trip to Italy. Drop me a line when you get the chance.

– To kick the bucket. // To die. –> Didn’t I tell you? The cat kicked the bucket last year.

– It takes two to tango. // More than one person has caused the problem. –> John was wrong to have an affair with his colleague, but it takes two to tango.

– By the skin of your teeth. // Just! –> You handed in your assignment two minutes before deadline – you made it by the skin of your teeth.

– To bite the bullet. // To do something you have always wanted to do, or have been avoiding. –> I have always wanted to go to South Africa, so yesterday I bit the bullet and booked tickets.

– To beat around the bush. // To take a long time to get to the point. –> Stop beating around the bush and just tell me what you want.

* Tricks of the trade? Tools and techniques that make people very good at their craft or profession.

Check out these sites for some more examples of common idioms:

  • Your Dictionary
  • Wikipedia (has some great idioms from around the world, translated into English. Very interesting!)
  • About.com (has the German idiom with its English counterpart!)

Some of my Favourite German Idioms in English

Not a day passes where SG doesn’t translate a German idiom directly into English, thus confusing me greatly by saying things like, ‘well, that was always hiding in the bush.’

I asked the good people on Twitter what some of their favourite German idioms are, that sound extremely funny when translated into English. Here’s what we came up with.

— It goes DE // Direct Translation // EN Idiom Counterpart —

* Um den heißen Brei herumreden. // To talk around the hot soup. // To beat around the bush.

* Sich in den Arsch beißen. // To bite oneself in the arse. // To kick oneself.

* Sich auf die Socken machen. // To make the socks. // To make tracks.

* Sie spielt die beleidigte Leberwurst. // She’s playing the affronted sausage. // She’s in a huff.

* Arschgeige. // Arse violin. // Arsehole.

* Dumm wie Bohnenstroh. // As dumb as a bean straw. // As thick as a brick, or as dumb as a post.

* Daumen drücken! // To press your thumbs. // To cross your fingers.

* Die Kirche im Dorf lassen. // To leave the church in the village. // To not get carried away.

What are some of your favourites? Leave them in the comments below.

Leaving it there because I have just been asked to do something and, upon not responding fast enough, told, ‘the music’s over here!’ So I am off to face the music, wherever and whatever it may be.

*** Any questions, ideas, comments? You know the drill; email me livhambrett@gmail.com,

Tweet me or leave a comment below. ***

Viel Spaß!

And here are the previous EMS posts to catch up on.

  1. Englisch is Fun
  2. Welcome
  3. A Phrasal What?
  4. Tenses in Pairs Part 1
  5. Tenses in Pairs Part 2
  6. The Future
  7. More Future Possibilities
  8. British & American English

24 Replies to “Tricks of the Trade*: Idioms”

  1. ” As for the key man (about whom SG ominously intoned, ‘I have seen a lot of reportages about Schlüsseldienst and how they basically cook the Christmas goose’ … which in itself was vaguely incomprehensible)”

    jemanden ausnehmen wie eine weihnachtsgans / to disembowel/gut someone like a christmas goose / to take somebody to the cleaners

    1. SG just got me into trouble – it isn’t cook, as I erroneously transcribed, it is, as you said, ‘to gut’ … MY mistake!

  2. Loved these! I’m not sure if it’s an idiom, but I like the phrase “just joshing” instead of joking, to “go around your arse to get to your elbow” which is kind of the same as beating around the bush–it means to take an unnecessarily long time to explain something. “To cut off your nose to spite your face,” I never got that one but mom tells me it when I’m being particularly difficult..

    1. The arse and elbow one is fantastic – to make things hard for yourself, could also be another interpretation? And classic cut your nose off to spite your face – very parental!

  3. Really enjoyed this post if only because I have dabbled in something which I describe to myself as a kind of dissemination of the english language. And, so far at least, no student has tried to sue me for my embarrassingly non-pedagogical ways.

    Hmm… mal schauen ob ich noch Glück habe… !?
    Jedenfalls, viele Grüße aus Thüringen 🙂

  4. Watching The Voice of Germany, and I have just learnt this one (again, from SG, who has a veritable STASH of them) … Jemanden Honig um den Mund schmieren. // To smear honey around someone’s mouth. // To butter someone up.

  5. Aaaaand here’s a weird one from Facebook … Mein lieber Herr Gesangsverein. // My dear Mr Singing Club. // I am surprised.

  6. These are hilarious! I know no German, but maybe because of German’s proximity to English (well, sometimes), a lot of those actually make sense to me.
    Oh, how I wish I had a better grasp of idioms in my second language…but they’re so culturally bound that often from one Spanish-speaking country to the next they’re completely different. I learned this serving as “Chilean” translator for Spaniards over the summer. Are they different from region to region in Germany?

    1. What I love about the German to English idioms is that they almost make sense, but are also really weird at the same time. Like ‘smearing honey around the mouth’ instead of ‘buttering someone up’ – so close, but … no.

      Idioms absolutely vary region to region – one of our Bavarian friends is forever saying things that I just don’t get.

      I can imagine the Spanish idioms would be BRILLIANT. I have taught a few Spanish speakers in my time, one of them gave me ‘kicking the dictionary’ which I just LOVE.

      1. One of my favorites in Chilean is “estar arriba de la pelota.” In English this means “being on top of the ball,” which at least in the US means to be paying attention, to know what’s going on, etc. In Chilean Spanish, however, it means to be tipsy- not drunk, which would be “curado/a” (which also means “cured,” ha!), but just tipsy. This is one that seems like it could translate but totally doesn’t.

        1. I love the visual of being on top of the ball and then sliding down the side into drunkenness. I see where they’re coming from!

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