English Proverbs and Idioms
Complete the quiz to find some of the most colourful English proverbs and idioms.
(Hover your mouse over the symbol to reveal the answers- tap on mobile devices).
1. What is the best way to a man’s heart for aspiring girlfriends?
a) through his stomach
b) via his circulatory system
c) through his lungs
d) through his trousers
2. If you are made to look foolish after making a wrong choice, what do you have on your face?
d) tomato sauce
3. What do people bury if they forgive each other after a long quarrel?
a) the knives
b) the hatchet
c) the rifle
d) the cannonballs
4. If you disclose a secret without meaning to, what do you let out of the bag?
a) the hare
b) the pig
c) the goose
d) the cat
5. If someone wants you to get up or get moving what do they tell you to shake?
a) a hand
b) a foot
c) an arm
d) a leg
6. If you are old, what are you?
a) long in the tooth
b) deep in the mind
c) short in the leg
d) low in the stomach
7. If we want to help each other, which part of each other’s bodies should we both scratch?
8. If you want to strongly reprimand someone for his wrongdoings, where do you haul him?
a) through the swamp
b) over the coals
c) up a tree
d) down a well
9. If you are in a very tricky situation and you can’t find your way out, you are caught between the devil and what else?
a) the roaring fires of hell
b) the deep blue sea
c) the bottomless pit
d) the stormy night
10. If you want to speak plainly and frankly, what shouldn’t you do to your words?
a) mince them
b) put them in sauce
c) butter them
d) boil them for six minutes then grill them
11. If you offer unnecessary advice to someone much more experienced than you, what are you teaching your grandmother to do?
a) knit jumpers
b) put on a corset
c) wear false teeth
d) suck eggs
12. If you are determined to face a problem so as to overcome the difficulty, what do you grasp?
a) the thorn
b) the nappy
c) the nettle
d) the kettle
The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach has been attested to throughout history. Although many are attracted to the opposite sex by physical attributes or intellectual qualities, nothing beats a good dinner to satisfy the average man. And it appears to be a universal phenomenon: Chinese, Greek, Russian, Germans and Turkish all have similar proverbs. Here is the Greek version: η καρδιά του άνδρα περνα απ το στομάχι – literally, “the heart of a man passes through his stomach”. Pie-face
If you have egg on your face then you look rather silly and people are unable to take what you say seriously. This is a relatively new idiom, and it has been suggested that it derives from the widespread Anglo-American pastime of throwing eggs at politicians when you find them unbearable or pompous.
Of course, eggs are not the only weapon of choice. Literally anything can be hurled at a figure of authority: recent choices have been tomatoes and shoes, and the practice of “pieing” public figures is becoming increasingly popular. A second origin for this expression has been that some people have gone out with their faces bearing witness to what they had for breakfast. It is certainly true that people look rather foolish with egg yolks or chocolate round their mouths or with spinach in their teeth.
By blabbing a secret or spilling the beans, you let the cat out of the bag. Medieval market traders would display pigs, hares, chickens etc on their stalls for their customers to buy. The more unscrupulous among them might then present the buyer with a bag already sealed and packed, supposedly with the desired animal, but possibly with a cat instead. A careful customer checking his purchase would uncover the secret and let the cat out of the bag.
A similar expression is a pig in a poke, which signifies something of low quality that was bought without being properly checked. A poke is a type of bag (from French poque, also the source of pocket), and again, the “pig” purchased in the Middle Ages might turn out to be a butchered puppy or cat. Many languages have equivalents of the idea of buying a cat in a bag, instead of the desired animal for your dinner. Here is the Dutch version: een kat in de zak kopen - buy a cat in the sack, while the Spanish variant focuses more on the deception involved: dar gato por liebre – give a cat for a hare.
If you bury the hatchet you put aside your previous disagreements and resolve to live in peace. This saying derives from the American Indian practice of ceremonially burying a tomahawk (a small axe or hatchet) to seal a peace pact.
Many irritated parents will shout at their offspring to shake a leg to get up or get moving. Originally, this idiom meant “dance” as the people on the dance-floor were shaking their legs (and a lot more besides). A similar term, show a leg, comes from the Royal Navy, where sailors were ordered to “show a leg” in the mornings and get out of their hammocks. It is also said that any woman passenger who didn’t want to get up had to “show a leg” by dangling it out of her hammock to prove that it was a woman, and not a sailor inside!
Looking a horse in the mouthThe expression to be long in the tooth, meaning to be old has the same source as the expressions don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and straight from the horse’s mouth. Horse dealers can tell a good deal from a horse’s mouth. Because a horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its lifetime, you can tell its approximate age by how long its teeth are. Only an ungrateful recipient would assess the quality of a horse given as a present, so the expression don’t look a gift horse in the mouth means that people should be thankful for what they receive.
This derives from St Jerome’s Epistle to the Ephesians in his translation of the New Testament from around 400AD. The Latin version is equi donate dentes non inspiciuntur, or “the teeth of a given horse are not inspected”.
If something is learnt straight from the horse’s mouth, it means that knowledge was acquired direct from the source, and is therefore true. This was especially used by those tipping winners in horse races.
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, is an idiom which basically means that if you do me a favour, I will respond in kind. Obviously, it is easier for you to scratch my back than it is for me to do it and vice-versa. It has an exact cognate in Norwegian: du klør meg på ryggen, og jeg klør deg på ryggen and the idea of doing each other a service exists in many languages. Why back-scratching is the particular favour desired in the idiom is unknown, but it is, of course, one of life's great pleasures, as demonstrated by these Barbary Apes. Scratching, grooming, delousing - there's not a lot of difference.
If you are hauled over the coals, you receive a public scolding or stinging rebukes. This idiom is derived from the practice of torturing people by dragging them over burning coals. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, this punishment was meted out to those accused of heresy, which is when people have beliefs that go against those of the established religion. If you survived the ordeal of being hauled over the coals, you were recognised as innocent of heresy, but if you died you were declared guilty: so justice was done.
A related idiom originating from the military is to give someone a dressing-down, whereby officers would be demoted and stripped of their rank, their insignia removed from their uniforms.
If you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, you are faced with two very unpalatable choices. This seems to be a common human experience, judging by the number of proverbs and idioms that exist to describe such situations. Aside from the above, English has the sufferer trapped between a rock and a hard place, or more classically on the horns of a dilemma or between Scylla and Charybdis. These were mythical sea monsters recorded by Homer and later portrayed as a rock shoal and a whirlpool, threatening ships in the Strait of Messina. Ultimately, you may face Hobson’s Choice and have a seemingly free choice, but with only one outcome offered, so no real choice at all; or else you could be in a Catch 22 situation, where you are trapped in a logical paradox.
It is always best to choose the lesser of two evils, but be careful not to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and always make sure to look before you leap!
Brutally honest people don’t mince their words and say exactly what they mean. The idea behind this idiom is that mincing your words will make them more palatable and easier to digest. Cheap and stringy cuts of meat are minced to make them easier to chew and swallow. A similar saying is when people are told to stop beating around the bush, and to come to the point and call a spade a spade -call things by their proper names and say precisely what they think. The idea of beating around the bush comes up in many other languages.
Words are made tactful. In Polish, owijać w bawełnę means to “wrap up in cotton”; the French tourner autour du pot, or “circle around the pot”; while the Swedes gå som katten kring het gröt - “walk like a cat around hot porridge”.
The young and foolish should not teach their grandmothers to suck eggs. This expression dates back at least three hundred years. One possible source for the idiom comes from egg-decorating. Two small holes were made at either end of the egg and the contents were sucked out. This meant that the shell was kept intact and could be easily painted and that the egg would not go rotten. Perhaps a grandmother unhindered by teeth could do this more easily!
Sometimes we need to grasp the nettle and face a problem with determination. Nettles have long been prized for their medicinal properties and for use in cooking. However, the discomfort of a nettle sting can make gathering them most disagreeable. Common wisdom is that the best way to avoid stinging is to pick nettles firmly.
A related idiom, take the bull by its horns, comes from the Spanish pastime of bull-fighting.
Now put the following idioms into the sentences below:
- between a rock and a hard place
- egg on his face
- grasp the nettle
- hauled him over the coals
- long in the tooth
- look before you leap
- mince your words
- out of the frying pan into the fire
- shake a leg
- spilling the beans
- teach your grandmother to suck eggs
- you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours
- “It might have been a good idea to have seen if there was any water in the pool before you jumped into it, Denitsa. You really should ________.”
- “That American tourist could certainly lose a few kilos. She really is extremely fat.” “Mmm, you don’t ________, do you?
- Raymond ended up with ________ when he proposed to his girlfriend on live TV and she turned him down.
- While in the safari park, Dragomira avoided the rampaging elephant by jumping into the lion enclosure. It really was a case of ________.
- “I really want to cool off, but the sea looks absolutely freezing.” Just ________ and jump straight in. It’s not that cold once you start swimming.”
- When Julian arrived at work wearing only one shoe, his boss, Maria ________ for damaging the image of the company.
- “If you write good things about my restaurant, I’ll give you free lunches for a month!” “Sounds good to me. ________.”
- Although Jack Nicholson is getting a bit ________, he still gets to play the romantic male lead in many films.
- As Kristina contemplated the approaching gang of cannibals, she wondered whether it would be better to risk the crocodile-infested river. She was certainly ________.
- “I’m not going to tell you where we are going on holiday. It’s a surprise!” Mum said. “Don’t forget your Italian dictionary and we’ll be having lasagne for dinner!” Dad shouted enthusiastically, ________ somewhat.
- “Come on, ________! Haven’t you got homes to go to?” said the exasperated English teacher, trying to hurry his students out of the classroom.
- “This is how you do a press-up, Svetlana,” said the gym instructor. Svetlana didn’t look impressed. She ran along the beam, did a double somersault and then did the splits upon landing. “Don’t ________,” she said, before walking out of the gym.
Images Pie Face By Seth Lemmons from Boise, Unites States (09-September_qwest_pie_throwing_0121) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Horse By Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Monkey By PookieFugglestein (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons Nettle By User:Nino barbieri (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons