English is a fascinating language that is rich in idiomatic expressions, which add color and depth to conversations. Mastering these expressions can greatly enhance your fluency and help you sound more like a native speaker. In this article, we’ll take a look at 21 of the most common English expressions and delve into their meanings and origins, so you can confidently incorporate them into your everyday conversations.
21 Common English Expressions
Here are 21 must know English expressions with their meanings and origins. From everyday idioms to timeless proverbs, these expressions will enrich your communication and deepen your understanding of the English language.
Best thing since sliced bread
“The best thing since sliced bread” is used to describe something that is considered exceptionally great, innovative, or valuable. It implies that the thing being referred to is a significant advancement or improvement over previous or existing options.
While sliced bread may not seem so innovate now, it was once a novelty. The origin of this expression can be traced back to the introduction of commercially sliced bread in the early 20th century. Prior to that, bread was typically sold as whole loaves, and individuals had to slice it themselves at home. Can you imagine!? Sliced bread revolutionized the way people consumed bread, as it made it more convenient, time-saving, and consistent in thickness. Maybe they should use that in a commercial!
Piece of cake
If somebody describes something as a “piece of cake” it implies that the task at hand requires minimal effort or presents no significant challenge. In other words, it means that is very easy or simple to accomplish.
The origins of the phrase are unclear, however, it is thought that it might originate from celebrating an easy victory or success. Cake is often associated with celebrations and joyous occasions, and taking a piece of cake requires minimal effort. Therefore, the phrase “piece of cake” was used to describe an effortless accomplishment.
Break a leg
Fortunately this phrase isn’t taken literally, you don’t actually want someone to break their leg when you say it! It’s actually used to wish someone good luck, especially before a performance or important event.
The exact origin of this expression is uncertain, but it’s believed that the phrase originated in the theater world during the Elizabethan era. Actors would often bow or curtsy at the end of a successful performance, and bending the leg at the knee was seen as a sign of acknowledgement and appreciation from the audience. Therefore, the phrase “break a leg” could have been a way to encourage actors to perform exceptionally well, resulting in them doing numerous curtsies at the end of the show and the bending or “breaking” of their legs.
Hit the nail on the head
The expression “hit the nail on the head” is used to indicate that someone has made an accurate or precise statement, identified the core issue, or arrived at the correct solution. It implies that the person has metaphorically struck the nail directly on target.
The origin of this expression can be traced back to the practice of carpentry and construction. When hammering a nail, accuracy is crucial for securing the nail properly. A slight misjudgment can result in missing the mark or damaging the material. Therefore, the phrase “hit the nail on the head” evolved as a metaphor for achieving precision and accuracy.
It’s raining cats and dogs
“It’s raining cats and dogs” is used to describe a heavy or torrential downpour of rain. The origin of this phrase is uncertain, and there are several theories regarding its beginnings. One plausible one comes from Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, cats were associated with storms and dogs were associated with wind. Therefore, a phrase like “raining cats and dogs” could be a way to describe a powerful and stormy rainfall.
Barking up the wrong tree
Another dog themed expression! “Barking up the wrong tree” is used to indicate that someone is directing their efforts, accusations, or attention in the wrong direction or toward the wrong person. It suggests that the individual’s assumptions or accusations are misguided or misplaced.
“Barking up the wrong tree” can be traced back to hunting practices involving dogs. In the past, when hunting animals such as raccoons or squirrels, dogs were commonly used to track and pursue them. These animals would often climb up trees to escape from the pursuing dogs. If a dog mistakenly barked at the base of a tree while the prey was actually in a different tree, it was said to be “barking up the wrong tree.” Effectively, the dog was wasting time, energy, or resources on a mistaken assumption or accusation.
Cost an arm and a leg
If something is very expensive it can be said to “cost an arm and a leg”. It is one of the most common money expressions and implies that the cost of the item or service is so exorbitant that it feels as if you would have to give up a body part to get it, symbolizing a significant sacrifice or loss.
One theory suggests that the phrase originated from the practice of commissioning portraits in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, artists would charge different prices based on the level of detail and the number of body parts included in the portrait. Adding arms and legs to a portrait was considered more intricate and time-consuming, thus increasing the cost significantly. Hence the phrase “cost an arm and a leg”.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is a cautionary phrase that advises against relying too heavily on a single course of action, investment, or opportunity. It suggests that diversifying your options or spreading risk is a wiser approach than concentrating everything in one place. It is often used in financial or strategic contexts to encourage individuals to diversify their investments, distribute their efforts, or explore multiple options to mitigate the potential impact of failure or loss.
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to the famous book titled “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605. In the book, a character named Sancho Panza advises Don Quixote not to have all his wealth and valuables in one bag or basket, as it would be risky. His quote translates as “It is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.”
This advice serves as a metaphor for the broader concept of not putting all one’s resources or hopes in a single venture.
If you thought one egg based phrase was enough, just wait until you see these chicken expressions and sayings!
In the heat of the moment
This expression refers to acting or speaking impulsively, without thinking clearly, due to heightened emotions or pressure. It suggests that actions or decisions made during intense or emotionally charged circumstances may not be well-considered or rational and may end up being regrettable decisions.
The phrase emerged in the English language during the 19th century and has since become a commonly used idiom. It can be traced to the physical effects of intense emotions on the human body. When individuals experience strong emotions such as anger, passion, or excitement, their heart rate increases, blood rushes, and they may feel a heightened sense of urgency. This physiological response is often associated with the metaphorical idea of “heat” in relation to emotions.
A penny for your thoughts
“A penny for your thoughts” is a way of asking someone to share their thoughts, opinions, or what they are currently thinking about. It is often used to encourage someone to open up or engage in a conversation.
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to the 16th century. During that time, “penny” was a common unit of currency in England, and it held a higher value relative to its worth today. The phrase was used as a polite and light-hearted way to inquire about someone’s thoughts or feelings, suggesting that their thoughts were valuable enough to be worth a small monetary reward.
Nowadays, it is used as a friendly and informal request for someone to share their thoughts or insights without any expectation of an actual monetary exchange.
The ball is in your court
“The ball is in your court” is used to indicate that it is someone else’s turn or responsibility to take action or make a decision in a given situation. It suggests that the initiative or control has shifted to the other person, and it is now up to them to proceed or respond.
This all comes from the sport of tennis and is one of the most used sports expressions in the English language. In tennis, when one player hits the ball over the net to the opponent’s side, it becomes the opponent’s turn to hit the ball back. The phrase “the ball is in your court” draws from this tennis metaphor, to express that it is now the other person’s opportunity or obligation to make a move or take action.
Once in a blue moon
The expression “once in a blue moon” is used to describe something that happens very rarely or infrequently. It implies that the event or occurrence is highly uncommon and unusual.
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to the scientific phenomenon known as a “blue moon.” A blue moon refers to the occurrence of a second, additional full moon within a specific time period, typically a calendar month. This phenomenon happens because lunar cycles are slightly shorter than calendar months. As a result, every two to three years, an extra full moon appears in a month, leading to the expression “once in a blue moon.”
Break the ice
To “break the ice” is used to describe the act of initiating or starting a conversation or interaction, typically in a situation where people are unfamiliar with each other or feeling awkward. This is usually done in a friendly or relaxed manner and in some cases is achieved by telling a joke.
The origin of this phrase dates all the way back to the 17th century and originally referred to the practice of breaking ice to clear a path for boats or ships to navigate through frozen waters.
The elephant in the room
“The elephant in the room” is used to describe an obvious problem, issue, or controversial topic that people are aware of but actively choose to ignore or avoid discussing.
It’s possible that it derives from Mark Twain’s story “The Stolen White Elephant” published in 1882. Twain describes an elephant that is stolen and carried through town. The townspeople are fully aware of the presence of the elephant but choose to pretend as if nothing unusual is happening. This story is believed to have popularized the concept of an obvious but unaddressed matter, giving rise to the expression “the elephant in the room.”
Actions speak louder than words
The expression “actions speak louder than words” conveys the idea that what someone does holds more significance or reveals their true intentions and character more effectively than what they say. It suggests that people’s actions and behaviors often carry more weight and credibility than mere verbal promises or statements.
The origins of this phrase can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy. The concept of “actions speak louder than words” can be found in the writings of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, who emphasized the importance of virtuous behavior and moral actions as true indicators of a person’s character.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a common proverb that advises against forming opinions or making assumptions based solely on outward appearances. It suggests that true value or worth cannot be accurately determined by superficial or initial impressions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it draws its inspiration from the practice of assessing books based on their cover design or physical appearance. In the past, books were often bound in plain covers or had unremarkable exteriors, which did not necessarily reflect the quality or content within. I think it’s fair to say that the same still applies today!
To kill two birds with one stone
“To kill two birds with one stone” is used to describe the accomplishment of two objectives or tasks with a single action or effort. It implies efficiency and effectiveness in achieving multiple goals simultaneously.
The origin the phrase “to kill two birds with one stone” is thought to trace back to the story of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek Mythology, where Daedalus killed two birds with one stone in order to get the feathers of the birds and make the wings.
Take it with a grain of salt
“Take it with a grain of salt” means to approach or interpret something with scepticism or caution, understanding that it may not be entirely accurate or reliable. It suggests that you should not fully believe or accept something at face value.
The phrase can be traced back to ancient Rome to the naturalist Pliny the Elder. In his work “Naturalis Historia” he documented a recipe for an antidote to poison, which involved adding a grain of salt to it. The threat of poison was therefore said to be taken “with a grain of salt”, in other words not so seriously.
Cross that bridge when you come to it
The expression “cross that bridge when you come to it” is used to suggest that one should not worry or plan for a future problem or situation until it actually happens. It advises against unnecessary concern or anticipation of potential difficulties that may never arise.
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to an old proverbial saying that appeared in various forms in different cultures. The specific expression “cross that bridge when you come to it” first appeared in writing in the year 1851 in the work titled The Golden Legend by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The full line was, “Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it, is a proverb old and of excellent wit.”
The phrase later became more prevalent in the 20th century, drawing on the image of a bridge as a metaphorical obstacle or challenge. Rather than expending energy on worrying about or planning for future difficulties, it advises people to address problems only when they are encountered directly—similar to crossing a physical bridge when one reaches it on a journey.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” is used to convey the idea that significant achievements or complex tasks require time, patience, and persistent effort. It emphasizes the importance of gradual progress and the need to avoid expecting immediate results. It’s almost like it’s talking about building a website!
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to medieval French literature in a poem that included the line, “Rome ne fu pas faite toute en un jour”.
To cut a long story short
“To cut a long story short” is used to summarize or abbreviate a lengthy or detailed narrative, explanation, or anecdote. It suggests that the speaker will provide a concise version of the story or omit unnecessary details to get to the main point or conclusion quickly.
The expression likely evolved from the common practice of storytellers, speakers, or writers realizing that their narratives were becoming overly lengthy or losing the interest of their audience. In an effort to keep their audience engaged or to convey the essential information, they would interrupt themselves and summarize the story briefly, cutting it short.
And with that, I will cut a long story short and bring an end to this list of 21 of the most common English expressions with their meanings and origins. I hope they proved to be educational and remember to keep learning English. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.