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One of the most interesting but sometimes confusing parts of learning a language is getting used to local slang and expressions. When learning English, it’s important to take time to learn idioms, which are phrases whose literal translations might not contain their real meaning.
One major reason why an English idiom sometimes doesn’t translate well is the fact that it may reference cultural traditions and historical events that might not be familiar to those who did not grow up or spend a lot of time in English-speaking areas.
An idiom may talk about, for example, a British king or an American ballplayer who a German speaker might never have heard of. So even if the phrase is translated, the real meaning of the phrase might escape new language learners.
Learning English idioms may be challenging, but they are important if you want to be able to hold conversations with native English speakers. Native English speakers will pepper their speech with idioms automatically and it might not occur to them that other language speakers might not grasp their real meaning.
In order to improve your ability to communicate in English, you need to learn different idioms and their meanings. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of some common English idioms that don’t translate well.
Meaning: Something important is about to happen
If you watch American crime series on Netflix, you might have heard this particular idiom and been confused about what is being referred to. To go down is a phrase that implies movement. An elevator goes down, if you are walking downstairs, you are going down but, what does “about to go down” mean?
“About to go down” is a slang term that used to be associated with criminal activity. A criminal would tell his accomplices that something was about to go down to say that it was time for them to be ready as what they planned was about to occur. Nowadays, English speakers use this phrase when speaking about other, less nefarious activities. It’s a generally accepted phrase to say “get ready” as something important or much anticipated is about to happen.
Meaning: Set aside for now (American English), Consider the idea (British English)
Another reason that an English idiom might be difficult to translate, might depend on what type of English the speaker is using. While an American English speaker and a British English speaker share many common words and phrases, they might not share the same common idioms.
This English idiom is an example of a phrase that means a different thing to an American English speaker and another thing to a British English speaker. An American English speaker might say this during a meeting if they think that you’ve spent too much time on one item and it’s time to discuss the other items on the agenda.
If you are in a meeting with British English speakers, however, and one of them uses this idiom they are saying that an idea or action item that was just brought up needs to be thought about or put on the agenda.
Meaning: An estimate
American’s love baseball and this particular idiom references that sport. Now, if you are more familiar with soccer or don’t play sports at all, this might confuse you. It’s doubly confusing when you realize, despite the word “ballpark”, this idiom has nothing to do with baseball or any other sport.
When someone says that they can give you a ballpark figure, they are saying that they can give you a rough estimate. For example, if you ask someone how much you need to budget for an overnight trip to the beach, and they say they can give you a “ballpark figure” they are giving you an estimated sum, not a detailed breakdown of expenses.
Meaning: Quitting a habit right now
You might think that this English idiom refers to food, but you would be wrong. Rather, when someone says that they are going “cold turkey” they are saying that they are quitting.
This phrase used only be used when talking about stopping a harmful habit such as drug or alcohol addiction. However, it’s since evolved to just mean deciding to stop doing something immediately. So you can say that you are quitting getting overpriced coffee from Starbuck “cold turkey” and the English speaker will know that you intend to do so right now.
Meaning: Something that fills you with a sense of nostalgia
When someone says that something is “old school” they are implying that it is a little dated. Not necessarily an antique, but just something that is of an earlier era.
For example, music from the 90s can be called “old school”, so can a pair of sneakers from the 80s. Basically, if something makes you nostalgic for the recent past, it’s old school.
Rule of thumb, if you remember something from your childhood, that is old school.
Meaning: I don’t want to talk about it
This is an American idiom that doesn’t translate well because it requires you to have some knowledge about the American Bill of Rights. It refers to that Bill’s Fifth Amendment. One of the tenets of the Fifth Amendment is that someone can refuse to answer a question if they think it will incriminate them.
So, if someone pleads the fifth, they are saying that they don’t want to talk about it usually because they find the topic embarrassing. You can also “plead the fifth” if you are trying to keep a secret or worried that you might accidentally offend someone.
Meaning: Why aren’t you saying anything
Some English idioms just don’t seem to make sense, and this is one of them. Why exactly a cat would go for your tongue is unclear. Though I suppose if it did, you might be quiet or unable to talk.
That’s basically what this phrase means, if you hear someone say this, they are saying that you are being quiet. It can basically be a joking inquiry in your wellbeing, are you quiet because you are uncomfortable or tired? Or it could be a way of asking you your opinion, give you a chance to talk.
This idiom is more commonly used by British English speakers than it is by American or even Australian English speakers. It refers to the fact that many meals often ended with small talk or gossip sessions.
Some people also believe that it refers to how your mouth moves when you are chewing on a fatty bit of pork.
This is actually similar to “chew the fat”. This idiom is more commonly used by American speakers but it basically means that you have stopped to chat or gossip with someone. It’s one of the many interesting English idioms that refer to the weather.
Meaning: Go wrong
This is another English idiom that doesn’t translate well because it’s references something that is culturally specific. This idiom is usually used by British English speakers and was supposedly first uttered by Royal Air Force pilots.
Supposedly, in the 1940s it used to be a big frustration for RAF pilots when they attempted to do aerial maneuvers and instead of making circular maneuvers, they ended up making a slightly weird oval or “pear-shape”.
Since then, when someone wants to say that something went wrong, they say that it went “pear-shaped”.
Meaning: Where I live
When someone says this, they are referring to their home. They can also be referring to an area where they spend a lot of time, so the mall where their favorite coffee shop is could be their “neck of the woods” or the college that they study in.
So, if someone tells you to contact them when you are in “my neck of the woods” they are telling you they will welcome a visit or would like to hang out.
Whether you are learning American English, British English, or Australian English, it is as important to learn common expressions as it is to learn common phrases.
A good way to do so is to find, download, and memorize lists of English idioms (such as the ones here). A better way to do so would be to find and download lists of English idioms and go through them with an online native-speaking tutor.
A good English-speaking tutor can help you understand what English speakers mean when they use these idioms. They might also be able to explain why these untranslatable idioms came to have the meaning that they did.
While your working with your tutor to learn these idioms, don’t forget to ask them what their favorite English idioms are. There are a lot of colorful and interesting idioms out there and learning as many as you can help you better communicate with English speakers.
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