More English Idioms and their Meanings

In a previous article on idioms we looked at a handful of common idioms and discussed what they mean and where they come from. In this article we’ll look at a few more.

Know the Ropes/Show Someone the Ropes

Someone who Knows the Ropes is someone who knows his particular subject very well. To Show Someone the Ropes, is to teach them about a task or to show him around a workplace.

There are many expressions that conjure up images of boxing, and these are a couple. However, the “ropes” in this instance are the ropes used on a ship to lift, open and lower the sails. If you could control the ropes on a ship then you could control the ship. Showing someone the ropes was just a case of showing them how to manipulate the ship.

Break the Ice

To Break the Ice is to introduce yourself or begin an otherwise awkward conversation. The word or introduction that opens up that conversation is then known as an Ice Breaker.

This saying comes from nautical times, when ships ruled the way. In the winter, ice posed a serious problem for the big transport and trade ships, so they would often send small ships on ahead of them in an effort to Break the Ice.

Call it a Day

To Call it a Day is to stop working on something, usually before it is completed.

This expression used to be “Call it Half a Day,” and was used to refer to a practice of leaving work after only doing half a day’s work. The meaning of the expression was kept the same from when it was first recorded in 1838 to now, but the “half” was dropped around the time of the First World War.

Bite off More than you Can Chew

If you Bite off More than you Can Chew then you have undertaken something that is much bigger than you can handle.

Whilst it should be clear to all that this has its origins in greed, it has nothing to do with food. The saying actually comes from the early 1800s and refers to chewing tobacco. If you bit-off too much, then you wouldn’t be able to chew.

Bite the Bullet

To Bite the Bullet is to take something unpleasant. This has been somewhat replaced by the modern expression Suck it Up, but it is still used.

Simply put, in days before strong painkillers and anesthetic, patients being amputated on were reported to be given bullets to bite down on. It is likely that if this did happen (and was not a work of fiction at the time) then it was on the battlefield, when more suitable implements were not available.

Cat Got your Tongue?

If someone asks you if the Cat has Got your Tongue? Then they are likely referring to the fact that you are quiet, speechless even.

To end on a somewhat disturbing note, this saying could refer to the Cat O Nine Tails, which was a knotted rope used to flog people in the navy. After they were beaten with this implement, they were often very quiet, no doubt in shock and unbelievable amounts of pain. It is also possible that this saying originated in Egypt, where the tongues of blasphemers were ripped out and fed to cats.

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