English: quite possibly one of the strangest languages in the world for second-level language learners. When native speakers pepper their sentences with idioms, it’s easy to get lost and confused. We explain the more common –and confusing– sayings here to help you understand and enter English’s more complex, less-covered linguistic territory.
Now, before you think you need to start paying people in appendages, take a deep breath. If something costs and arm and a leg, then it was a very expensive item. This idiom comes from the days when portraits were painted: the larger the painting, the higher the price would be. If you wanted to include an ‘arm’ or a ‘leg’ in your portrait, then you were looking at a much larger canvas and a much bigger price tag.
It’s not actually about books, especially because the marketing geniuses in the publishing industry will do anything they can to make sure you do judge a book by its cover. This expression essentially means that you can’t tell the quality or essence of something just by the appearance of it. You’ll hear it most frequently used to caution one against generalizing and stereotyping.
CATCH IT! Just kidding, this expression is less about felines and more about secrets. If you let the cat out of the bag, then you let a secret or some previous undisclosed information out by telling people about it. You may hear this phrase used if someone spoils a surprise, or if a piece of bad news that a few people know about is shared to a larger group. You may also hear it used in more of a past tense like “Well, now that the cat’s out of the bag we can actually talk about it!” The ‘it’ in this case would be the secret.
English certainly does like its animal expressions, doesn’t it? This phrase basically means it’s better to have a certain advantage (even if it’s a lesser advantage) then the possibility of a greater advantage that might not be attainable or might not work out. It comes from the idea of falconry, where a tamed falcon (a bird in the hand) was better than two wild birds, presumably in the bush where they may never be caught.
The person telling you this probably isn’t actually going to pay you, so please don’t get your hopes up. This phrase is a way to say “tell me what you’re thinking about,” and you might hear it if you’ve found yourself zoning out and drifting off with someone.
Sliced bread is something I think the whole world enjoys but perhaps it may seem like a strange benchmark for greatness. This isn’t a sarcastic statment and it does, in fact imply that whatever you’re talking about is amazingly good/useful/handy.
“Don’t steal my thunder,” or “Well, that stole my thunder,” may be how you hear this phrase, and considering you’re probably not talking to Zeus, the whole concept may confuse you. The phrase means taking someone’s thoughts, ideas or concepts and using them before they do. It’s said to have originated from the stage, as a way of making the sound of thunder was pilfered from one director by another, hence ‘stolen’.
Although these idioms can be tricky, they’re fun to use as well! Throw them into daily English conversation and you’ll impress your friends and colleagues with your knowledge of their language. Learning how to express yourself naturally in English is not always easy, but we have the tools to help. Try our free online English level test or contact us directly to found out about English courses and tutors in your area!