English - Expressions you may hear

Even for people who have lived in the UK for many years and whose English is advanced, there is often expressions that can be heard that leave you wondering 'what does that mean?'. These expressions can be rooted in local traditions/culture, or from new slang.

We hope to provide you with a little guide to the most commonly used expressions, their meaning and a little background in how they came to be. Check back regularly as we shall be adding one or two more every week

Shakespeare's Inventions

Method in the madness A quote from Hamlet "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." It is now as a comment by someone who sees a complex, complicated or confusing process that has some logic or reason for doing it.

Take a back seat. Have very little involvement in something and let others lead the way. This originates from the House of Commons, where the most influential and active members of parliament including the prime minister and other leaders, sit at the front of the house, and other people of lesser influence sit on the back benches.

To get up on the wrong side of the bed. To wake up and be in a bad mood for no real reason. Is supposed to come from an old superstition that it was unlucky to touch the floor with the left foot when first getting up in the morning. The left side was meant to be the dark or sinister side - in fact the word sinister in latin means left (modern day Italian = sinistra).

Having two left feet. Showing clumsiness or lack of gracefulness for instance when dancing. This expression again has links to the right hand side being viewed as stronger or better than the left hand side. The latin word dexter means right or skilful and from this the word dextrous comes. Old English 'riht' meant straight, lawful, true, genuine and so the right side has many associated words connected with things that are correct and proper (modern words - rightous, right (that's right). In contrast, left comes from an old English word 'lyft' which means weak. So if someone is described as having two left feet, it implies they have two weak feet.

To be dressed to kill. The expression is used to describe someone who is dressed in an extremely smart, fashionable style. Often used when the person is going out on a romantic engagement.It came from hundreds years ago when a journalist was interviewing soldiers and asked one of them how he felt about his new shiny uniform. He just calmly replied: "I am dressed to kill".

To sleep tight originated from old times when the first beds in England were made with a bed frame that had criss-crossed ropes attached that held a straw mattress. After a period of use, the ropes would slacken off and the mattress would become uncomfortable. All beds were therefore sold with an iron tool used to wind the ropes tighter. To remind someone to tighten their mattress ropes, they used the expression 'sleep tight'.

To Steal Someone's Thunder is used when someone is taking credit for something you should be credited for. This phrase was first used in 1700s when playwright and critic John Dennis discovered the sound of thunder. He realised it could be reproduced by pumelling large tin sheets backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. These sound effects were unheard of so his idea drew much attention. Unfortunately his play did not and was replaced by Macbeth. Shortly afterwards Dennis saw a performance of Macbeth and was furious to hear his thunder being reproduced without his permission. He wrote a review the following day and raged: 'Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.'

To Start From Scratch means we are starting something from the beginning, even when we've done a lot so far. During horse races competitors used to start from a line 'scratched' into the ground. If competitors cut corners or strayed from the correct course of the race, they would have to start again from the scratch.

To Bite Off More Than You Can Chew is used to describe someone who has taken on a job, task or project that they struggle to complete properly. It derives from American slang of the 1800s when people used chewing tobacco. It was produced in lengths and people would bite off a piece to chew on. Out of social courtesy they would offer others a 'bite'. The greedy would take a large bite, unable to chew it, and tried to break it off and save some for later. People became aware this happened and would stress on offering 'don't bite off more than you can chew'.

To Read Between The Lines means to find the real message hidden away in a situation not obvious at first. Early in the days of passing coded messages people would write in substances that would only be revealed on plain paper with the use of a re-agent. The recipient would the have to treat the letter and read between the lines of the letter to get to the real message.

When someone's Throwing Mud Around they are bad mouthing somebody. In 1800s American journalists who aspersed somebody's reputation in newspaper were called 'mud slingers' or the newspaper 'the mud press'.

To Plug A Song or Book is used to describe attempt to popularise a song or a book by repeated requests for it to be played and try to promote it as much as possible so sometimes it can seem unrepresentative of the public's feelings. This phrase comes from early 20th century from Radio Normandie, the first commercial radion station in England. This station pushed records and played them throughout the country for payments from bands and singers. The founder of this station was a Captain Leonard Plugge so that's probably how the phrase was originated.