Modern Idioms (and where they come from)



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Around the world in 80 idioms

Posted on February 9, 2022 at 11:20 AM

Idioms can be some of the most enjoyable but also the most infuriating things to learn in another language. Often they make no sense at all at face value (kick the bucket, anyone?), and might include vocabulary that is unlikely to crop up in normal, everyday conversation (how often do you use the word “hatchet” except in the context of burying one?) So in honour of the joy of idioms, here’s the first in an occasional collection of phrases from different languages that, for one reason or another, make us smile.


1. Spanish: to iron the ear (planchar la oreja) – to go to bed; roughly equivalent to the English “hit the sack / hit the hay”.


2. Chinese (Mandarin): draw a snake and add feet (画蛇添足) – to spoil something by adding too much unnecessary detail. One of a great many “chengyu” or fixed expressions that often have highly developed stories behind them (see: for more).


3. French: to fall in the apples (tomber dans le pommes) – to faint.


4. German: that’s sausage to me (das ist mir wurst) – it doesn’t matter to me; one of many German phrases relating to sausage (see:


5. Swedish: there’s no cow on the ice (ingen ko på isen) – don’t worry! A favourite to finish, and one that makes perfect sense once you know what it means (on the grounds that, presumably, if your cow wanders out onto a frozen lake then you really should be worrying!)



It's the way I tell 'em! Catchphrases that have found their way into the language.

Posted on July 16, 2021 at 6:50 PM

Some of the most memorable TV characters are defined by their catchphrases, and these are the soundbites that very often live on long after a show has stopped gracing our screens. Here we present a short list of some of the most recognisable catchphrases from UK TV sitcoms:

1. “I don’t believe it!” – Victor Meldrew (One Foot in the Grave, 1990-2000). Named as the UK’s favourite catchphrase in a 2019 poll ( Another sitcom (Father Ted) captured the frustration that must accompany actor Richard Wilson wherever he goes when the main characters infuriated him by shouting his catchphrase at him during a chance encounter.

2. “Lovely jubbly” – Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses, 1981-2003). One of several beloved phrases from Only Fools and Horses, named as the most commonly used line from the show in daily life in a 2015 poll. Honourable mentions also go to “You plonker”, “He who dares, wins” and “You know it makes sense.” (

3. “I have a cunning plan” – Baldrick (Blackadder, 1983-1989). Appearing throughout the ages of Blackadder, a historical sitcom about the machinations of the titular character, “I have a cunning plan” was often uttered by manservant Baldrick, inevitably followed by a plan so full of holes and devoid of logic that not even a “putting a tail on it and calling it a weasel” could mask its shortcomings! (

4. The Fast Show – various (The Fast Show, 1994-1997). A sketch show packed with memorable soundbites, The Fast Show introduced the world to “Suit you, Sir!”, “Does my bum look big in this?”, “I’ll get my coat”, as well as many, many more (see: A revival special in 2020 even used the title “Just a Load of Blooming Catchphrases”, and anyone watching TV in the UK in the 1990s will have incorporated at least some of these gems into their vocabulary.

5. “Computer says no” – (Little Britain, 2003-2007). Like The Fast Show before it, Little Britain introduced a range of memorable characters and associated catchphrases through its parodic representation of “British” life. These included at least one that has made its way into the language at large in “Computer says no”, as well as a range of others such as “Yeah but, no but” and “What a kerfuffle”. Not all of the things in the show have stood the test of time, however, and in 2020 the BBC announced that it would be removing the show from various streaming platforms since “Times have changed since Little Britain first aired” (see:


Swings and roundabouts: or, how to make your peace with luck!

Posted on June 22, 2021 at 5:25 AM

Swings and roundabouts” is a particularly English expression, used to denote the idea that good and bad things even out over time. The phrase is one that seems to date from the start of the 20th Century, and is sometimes ascribed to a poem published in 1912 entitled Roundabouts and Swings by Patrick Reginald Chalmers, about the fluctuating fortunes of a travelling salesman. Website Interesting Literature cites the poem, but also a use 6 years previously, in the 1906 P.G. Wodehouse novel Love Among the Chickens.(1) Here, one character, musing on the ups and downs of life, says, “What we lose on the swings, we make up on the roundabouts”, neatly summing up the modern meaning of the phrase. Some sources go even further back, citing use of swings and roundabouts in a British Parliamentary Debate from 1895, where it was apparently used as an established saying amongst costermongers (or street salesmen).(2)

“Swings and roundabouts” is now routinely listed in dictionaries, usually stressing the Britishness of the phrase. It may also be considered amongst the very many clichés that exist in sport, and particularly football, where the idea that most things (unfair decisions, bad luck, runs of poor form) tend to even out in the long run (over the course of a match, season, or career, depending on the point being made). Some sports have their own specific references to the luck (or lack thereof), such as snooker (“the run of the balls”) or the more ubiquitous “rub of the green”, perhaps first used in relation to bowls. The Phrase Finder website suggests that ”rub”, with a meaning of “hindrance”, was in common usage in the 16th Century, even if the first use of the whole phrase didn’t appear until 1812 (and then in the context of the rules of golf).(3) Accepting the basic premise – that luck will always play a part and we just have to roll with it – is one of the keys to success, and not just in sport!(4)








Modern idioms? They do exactly what they say on the tin...

Posted on May 27, 2021 at 5:35 AM

TV has been a rich source of linguistic innovation over the years, but it’s not always the main events that have an impact. Several well-known advertising campaigns have contributed idioms or catchphrases to the language, as we explore below.

1. “Does exactly what it says on the tin” – Ronseal, 1994. The grandaddy of all advertising idioms, Ronseal first used it to describe its range of straightforward products in the mid-1990s. “Does what it says on the tin” has become a phrase that is firmly embedded in British English at least, to describe any item or situation that performs exactly as you would expect based on its name. See Ronseal’s own explanation of the origin of its iconic slogan here:


2. “Simples” – Compare the Market, 2009. Insurance comparison website Compare the Market came up with its “Compare the Meerkat” advertising campaign in 2009, fronted by anthropomorphic Russian meerkat “Aleksandr Orlov”. Orlov’s catchphrase – “Simples” – helped the campaign to huge success, and was named as the UK’s second favourite in a 2019 poll (see:


3. “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” – Specsavers, 2003. Another named as one of the UK’s favourites (coming in at number 16:, “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” became well known as part of the advertising campaign for high-street opticians Specsavers. Ads typically featured people blundering in a variety of ways as a result of poor eyesight, with a top 10 collection available here:


4. “Where’s the beef?” – Wendy’s, 1984. One that will be familiar to anyone in the USA or Canada, “Where’s the beef?” was first used in an advert for Wendy’s fast food chain in 1984. The ad featured an elderly lady being served a “Big Bun” hamburger from a fictional competitor restaurant, only to respond with “Where’s the beef?” when she found a disappointingly small beef patty inside. The slogan took off, and you can read more about its origins here:

5. “Shrimp on the barbie” – Australian Tourism Commission, 1984. A phrase now inextricably linked to Australian culture, “slip another shrimp on the barbie” originated in a TV advertisement aimed at attracting US tourists to visit Australia. A pre-Crocodile Dundee Paul Hogan fronted them, and helped catapult Australia into the top 10 destinations for Americans (even if Australians themselves aren’t too enamoured with the phrase:


Release the Kraken: the emergence of a beast of an idiom?

Posted on April 30, 2021 at 5:10 AM

Release the Kraken” emerged in late 2020, following the refusal of Donald Trump supporters to graciously accept defeat in the US Presidential Election. A BBC article published in late November 2020 described it as “an internet meme representing a sprawling, unsubstantiated set of claims that purport to outline the case for widespread fraud”.(1) Lawyer Sidney Powell said that she was ready to “Release the Kraken” of evidence that would ensure the immediate downfall of Joe Biden, even if such evidence proved distinctly difficult to pin down. A similar article in the New York Times highlighted that “Release the Kraken” had begun trending on Twitter on Tuesday November 17th, with close to 100,000 tweets utilising the phrase.(2) Many repeated the conspiracy that Trump had “won” the election in a landslide, and the implication of “Release the Kraken” in such cases was that a reckoning was imminent once the “evidence” of this was made publicly available. A reassuring number of counter-examples also cropped up, ridiculing the idea and imagery.

The legend of the Kraken appears in multiple cultures, where the name conjures images of a gargantuan and terrifying sea monster. One article suggests that it has its roots in Nordic history, specifically an account from 1180 written by King Sverre of Norway.(3) Most commonly envisaged as some kind of giant squid, references in literature and popular culture have been common, including as the subject of an 1830 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, an appearance in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and as a fearsome behemoth in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. A brand of black spiced rum even takes its name from the mythological beast, with the company website suggesting that an attack on a ship carrying barrels of the drink resulted in it getting “badly stained by the squid’s black ink”, creating “a liquid of unparalleled darkness”.(4)

The phrase itself, however, is directly inspired by the command to “Release the Kraken”, uttered by Zeus in the movie Clash of the Titans, first in 1981 (when Zeus was played by Laurence Olivier), then again in a 2010 remake (when Liam Neeson took over duties). In both versions, the Kraken appeared more as a vaguely humanoid monster than a giant squid, but its destructive power was plain to see nonetheless. Soon after the remake was released, Urban Dictionary listed “Release the Kraken” with a sense akin to “unleash hell”, which seems like a logical generalisation.(5)

At the time of writing, nothing has appeared to bring down Joe Biden’s presidency, so the long-term status of “Release the Kraken” as an idiom remains in the balance. However, one unforeseen effect of the rise of the “conspiracy theory” meaning was to interfere with the launch of newly-formed ice hockey team the Seattle Kraken, who unveiled their campaign to “Release the Kraken” in July 2020. Despite an initial surge in merchandise bearing the slogan, plans to utilise it longer term may have been hastily reconsidered given events that came in the latter half of the year.(6)









Groundhog Day

Posted on November 7, 2020 at 8:20 AM

Meaning: A situation or experience that seems to repeat endlessly.

Origin: The film of the same name (Groundhog Day, 1993), in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. The day itself (February 2nd - by tradition the day in many parts of North America when a local groundhog predicts whether spring is ready to arrive or whether winter will continue for six more weeks) pre-dates this by some distance, but the more metaphorical use is unequivocally related to the movie, and is now generally recognised as the go-to description of any plot that utilises the idea of time repeating itself.

Fun fact: a musical version of Groundhog Day was released on Broadway in 2016. Bill Murray attended the show in August 2017 then, in a fantastically self-referential gesture, decided that the best thing to do the next night was go again (see: