Is English your second language? Let’s say that you are not native to the United States, but you have learned a lot of the English language and you are feeling confident that you can communicate well. Then one night you go out to the bar with your friends and you hear people talking about “getting stabbed in the back” and “twisting my arm” and “hitting the books”. You may start to think that people do things much differently here in this country or you may start to think that there are parts of the English language that you still do not understand.
Learning to understand English idioms is an essential part to grasping the whole English language. Idioms are a group of words or a phrase that have a meaning that is not obvious by the literal definition of the words in the phrase. Idioms often rely on analogies and metaphors.
These idioms are so common in everyday English language. If you haven’t learned them, it would be almost impossible for you to understand the context of them.
Here are seven of the most useful English idioms to know when learning the English language. This list is certainly limited and I would encourage you to take some time to learn these and research more of them.
Hit the books
- If you heard someone at the bar saying they were going to “hit the books”; you might envision somebody lining up a bunch of books and punching them with their first. What this expression more commonly means is to study or to do homework. It is an idiom that is common among students (especially college students).
Twist my arm
- Again, if you were to go out to a bar and overhear somebody say “Alright, you’ve twisted my arm”, you might have images of one whiskey drinking bar customer grabbing on to the other bar-goers arms and physically twisting it. This is not the case. To twist someone’s arm means to convince him or her to do something they may have otherwise not wanted to do.
To be up in the air
- You guessed it, this phrase generally does not mean that someone has gone out on a hot air balloon ride or gone paragliding. More commonly, “to be up in the air,” means that that things are uncertain or you are unsure of something. An example of this would be if you asked your friend if they had made any progress on buying a house, and they told you they were still up in the air about which town they want to live in. Basically, they haven’t what decided which town to buy a house in yet.
To stab someone in the back
- Oh, this is a great idiom! While stabbing someone in the back could quite literally mean taking a knife and stabbing him or her in the back, this expression more commonly refers to hurting someone that was close to us and trusted us. Alternatively, to stab in the back, means to betray them secretly and ultimately break their trust.
To go cold turkey
- This idiom is one of the most interesting ones. While some of the other idioms that we have talked about are somewhat metaphorical, this one seems to outwardly make very little sense. To go cold turkey means to suddenly stop addictive (or otherwise dangerous) behavior such as smoking or drinking alcohol. The idiom was said to have originated in the late 20th century due to the fact that people who suddenly stopped addictive behavior such as smoking and drinking may suffer from withdrawal effects and literally look like cold, uncooked turkey with pale white skin and goose bumps. Mind blown.
To face the music
- If you heard this expression, “to face the music”, you might think you need turn your body in the direction that the music is coming from. What most people really intend by telling someone to face the music is to deal with the reality of a situation and handle the consequences that come as a result of your actions.
To blow off steam
- This idiom involves no steam. Instead, it means to get rid of the stress, anger or negative emotions that might be holding you back. Many people exercise “to blow off steam”.