The Unusual Origins of English Idioms

English is a language rich in idiomatic phrases, which add character and variety to our speech. It is often difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of many of the idioms we use, simply because they may well have been in use in spoken English long before they made their way into text. Nevertheless, the ideas and imagery we use when expressing ourselves reveal a lot about the history and culture of English-speaking peoples.

Historical and mythological idioms

Most likely originally coined by those wanting to show off their knowledge of history and ancient mythology, which was a hallmark of learning and distinction during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, historical and mythological idioms allude to real or mythical events and characters throughout history. You may hear people speak of having a “sword of Damocles” hanging above their head, when referring to an ever-present sense of danger or doom, or having “crossed the Rubicon” when they have reached a point of no return.

Military and maritime idioms

As a sea-faring nation that built an empire on from its naval prowess, British English abounds with military and maritime-themed phrases. You may hear people talking about avoiding “burning bridges” or “toeing the line”.

Literary idioms

English literary idioms draw upon our varied literary culture, most coming from the man credited with standardising English spelling: William Shakespeare (“break the ice”from The Taming of the Shrew and “wear my heart upon my sleeve”from Othello). More recent additions include “down the rabbit hole” and “mad as a hatter” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Animal idioms

As a nation of animal lovers, it is no surprise that the birthplace of the English language should allude to our four-legged friends (particularly the canine variety). From describing something messy or disastrous as a “dog’s dinner” or a “pig’s ear”, to failing to acknowledge “the elephant in the room”, English has an abundance of animal-themed idioms.