English Idioms that make no sense in other languages
20 English Idioms Every English Student Should Know
Posted 05 October
In true existential fashion the eminent playwright and sage Samuel Beckett concludes his final play ‘What Where’ with ‘Make sense who may. I switch off’. Now there was a man who knew a thing or two about language, life and the absurdity of same.
The English language is riddled with what appear to be nonsensical idioms, many of them perplexing lexical head scratchers for those endeavouring to learn English. Whilst Google translate will get you so far sometimes there is ‘nothing to be done’ but shrug your shoulders sighing ‘Ah sure look it, isn’t that it.’ Therein lies the joy of discovering English, particularly learning the English language in Ireland.
English in Ireland Idiom #1: Cop on! Cop on to yourself!
Akin to wise up or wake up but more forceful.
You’d be hard pushed to find anyone outside of Ireland who would understand the term. Regularly uttered in frustration by Irish mammies and secondary school teachers to young fellas acting the maggot. Once famously used by a scary Finish doctor, on an Irish weight loss reality TV show, to a contestant. Dr. Eva insisted she ‘cop on and wipe those tears now, and let there be no more about it.
English in Ireland Idiom #2: Mind Yourself!
Phrases like ‘The mind is, what the brain does’ or ‘The mind is a powerful thing’ are both logical. But ‘mind yourself?’ No sense, in the wide earthly world. Learning this is a must if learning English in Ireland and used in many contexts. It’s a sort of a see you later, take care of yourself. Often with a nod of the head and a wave as you gently persuade a family member or friend, who has overstayed their welcome, out the door, glad to see the back of them.
English in Ireland Idiom #3: An Awful Dose
A dose is an amount of medicine or a drug that is taken once or regularly over a period of time
Dose if preceded by the adjective awful, is a totally different kettle of fish. Widely used to big up a standard cold, it’s imperative to follow I’ve an awful dose with a cough, sneeze and zestful blowing of the nose. On the other hand I’d an awful dose of that lad last week could be muttered in the pub as you move from your spot to avoid some auld codger who’d talked incessantly in your ear about his gall bladder problems.
English in Ireland Idiom #4: Go away out of that! (G’way outta tha!)
A response to: A compliment, interesting gossip or something you don’t agree with
A simple G’way will often suffice. Similar to ah stop! This a real puzzler. ‘Go away where?’ And ‘out of what?’ Often uttered with an inhalation or exhalation of breath depending on the level of astonishment with respect to the dirt being dished. Regularly followed by my Jaysus! in the Dublin region. Rest assured this popular English idiom would never darken the doors of an FCE or CAE exam paper.
English in Ireland Idiom #5: Make no bones about it
To state a fact in a way that allows no doubt
Regularly trips of politicians’ tongues. Often used instead of ‘make no mistake’ in an effort to inspire confidence in shallow promises. But why bring bones into any idiom with respect to acknowledgement or objection or lack thereof? Allegedly a derivative of the 15th century to ‘make bones about it’, an expression of dissatisfaction. The original phrase is said to have been ‘found bones in it’. Bones in your soup, not good. No bones, good. Thus enabling you to swallow your meal without fear of choking. Always a good thing.
English in Ireland Idiom #6: Warts and all
The whole thing; not concealing the less attractive parts
Once upon a time, long before Instagram and filtered selfies, royal sycophantic painters were commissioned to capture their sitters flatteringly. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, is said to have been well known for his opposition to personal vanity. No Brad Pitt and sporting a massive wart under his lower lip, he decreed to the portrait artist Sir Peter Lely to paint him ‘warts and all’. Fair play Olly!
English in Ireland Idiom #7: To wear your heart on your sleeve
To display your feelings openly
An attempt to make sense of this idiom may send you on a ‘wild goose chase’ (Romeo and Juliette, William Shakespeare). The Bard has left an enduring legacy on the English language. In Othello, Iago declares ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at: I am not what I am’. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most threatening, sinister villains. Othello places all his trust in him which he betrays whilst maintaining his reputation for honesty and dedication. A pure shhnake. He’d do well in the Dáil!
English in Ireland Idiom #8: The whole shebang
A matter, operation or set of circumstances.
In the general sense the idiom means everything that is involved in what is under consideration. The phrase the whole shebang was first recorded 1869, used equally with respect to a hut, a tent, an engine house and was popularized among soldiers in the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps an alteration of the Irish shebeen, an illicit shed where drink was sold without a license. It might also be a mangled pronunciation of French char-à-banc, a bus-like wagon with many seats or cabane, a hut.
Speaker 1: "What’ll we do for the dinner on Sunday?"
Speaker 2: "Roast beef, veg, spuds."
Speaker 1: "Mashed and roasted?"
Speaker 2: "Yip!"
Speaker 1: "Gravy?"
Speaker 2: "Yip. The whole shebang."
Speaker 1: "The full monty, the works"
English in Ireland Idiom #9: The bee’s knees
An excellent person or things
Why the bees? Who decided they’re knees are the business? Hardy out perhaps, burdened from the strain of carrying pollen by means of tiny sacs on their legs (just the female bees, mind). Or maybe it just has a ring to it, its jaunty sound becoming popular in the 1920s like, the cat’s whiskers/pajamas, the kipper’s knickers. Possibly originating in the 1920s when dancer Bee Jackson, credited with bringing the Charleston to Broadway in 1924, later became a World Champion Charleston dancer. Her knees must have been the mutts’ nuts.
English in Ireland Idiom #10: Sound!
Happy with a situation or a person
Clatter, clamor, noise nor din bear any relation to the Irish sound. He’s a sound man…She’s sound…Ya happy enough with that? Yeah, sound…That’s sound so. Sometimes followed by out in parts of Tipperary sound owit (out) boi (boy)!). If someone is dead sound or pure sound rest assured you’re in good company and they won’t bore the pants off you. A favourite in Galway and is ultimately a thumb’s up about anything or anyone.
English in Ireland Idiom #11: You're Taking The Piss
Now, we don’t go around stealing urine samples from clinics before you jump to conclusions! Taking the piss is a figurative way of saying you’re joking with someone. Americans are “kidding”, Irish people are “taking the piss”, note the difference!
Speaker 1: You’ll never guess who I bumped into while I was on my way home from the speaking English course
Speaker 2: Who?
Speaker 1: Bono, the lead singer of that famous Irish rock band
Speaker 2: No way! I don’t believe you. You’ve got to be taking the piss
English in Ireland #12: As happy as Larry
The happiest guy in all of Ireland is, and forever will be, some lad named Larry. No one knows the reasoning behind his permanent state of happiness but fair play to him for remaining so optimistic while the rest of Galway wallows in its misery.
Speaker 1: How is John getting on in his new job?
Speaker 2: Well, I was chatting to him yesterday and he’s as happy as Larry. And sure why wouldn’t he! He’s been offered a six figure salary and a top of the range BMW as well as a generous pension and end of year bonus.
Speaker 1: Lucky guy. I’m so envious
English in Ireland #13: It cost me an arm and a leg
Irish people love to tell you when they’ve forked out some of their hard-earned Euros. What they fail to tell you is how much physical pain it caused them when they realised that they had to pay more than they had expected.
Speaker 1: How was your holiday in Greece?
Speaker 2: Great, but it cost me an arm and a leg. I’m totally broke now
English in Ireland #14: Away with the fairies
An Irish person’s way of saying another one is a bit mad. The phrase essentially means you’re living in your own world and are oblivious about what’s going on in real life “Ah don’t mind that lad, sure he’s away with the fairies!”
Speaker 1: Is that John over there sitting alone staring up at the sky. He must be daydreaming
Speaker 2: That’s him alright; he’s away with the fairies these days.
English in Ireland #15: Running around like a headless chicken
Imagine you’ve lost your car keys and you’re going to be late for work. You’re running around frantically trying to find them so you look like chicken that’s just been decapitated which is desperately trying to hang on to its last moments of its life.
Speaker 1: Oh my god where are my car keys? You must help me find them as I’m running late for work.
Speaker 2: Calm down and stop running around like a headless chicken. Now try and remember when you last had them
English in Ireland #16: Not the full shilling
This idiom is similar in meaning to away with the fairies but it implies that the person in question has a permanent psychological disability whereas away with the fairies would imply a temporary situation.
Speaker 1: I can’t believe they’ve promoted him to the position of manager. I mean he makes no sense at all when he’s talking.
Speaker 2: I agree with you. He’s definitely not the full shilling and nobody can understand what he’s saying
English in Ireland #17: On his/her way out
Only in Ireland would you talk about a person approaching death as you would a person leaving a bar.
Speaker 1: How’s Tom doing in hospital?
Speaker 2: Unfortunately, He’s on his way out. I don’t think he’ll be with us for much longer.
English in Ireland #18: Get your finger out
I can remember hearing this being shouted countless times on the football pitch by an angry coach when a player was not reaching his/her full potential during a match. Or when I was a child and my father would say this when he wanted me to hurry up and finish tidying my bedroom
Coach: Come on. Get your finger out and start passing the ball. Otherwise the other team will score a goal and win the match. We’re running out of time.
Player: That’s not fair! I’m trying my best.
English in Ireland #19: You could skin a cat out there
Animal cruelty pops up again and this time it’s a weather related idiom which means it’s freezing cold outside. I can’t understand the connection between putting on warm clothes to go outside and removing a cat’s skin.
Speaker: Oh my god. Don‘t go outside without first putting on a warm coat and hat. It’s absolutely freezing. You could skin a cat out there.
English in Ireland #20: Take your point, the goals will come
This is a sporting idiom which has its roots in Gaelic football where three points is equal to one goal. It basically means every point matters in the overall final score and the players shouldn’t always go for the easiest option.
Coach: Come on lads. Stop always going for goals we need to get some points on the board
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