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Common English phrases you won’t hear in the classroom

If learning a new language wasn’t hard enough, every culture also has their own idioms or sayings that you probably won’t come across in the classroom. The English language is full of bizarre phrases – for some of which it’s almost impossible to guess at the origin. Luckily for you, we’ve put together this weird and wonderful list so you can get ahead and get in the know.

Bite the bullet

This means to get something over and done with quickly because it’s inevitable. The phrase is thought to be derived from a historical medical practice where patients were made to clench a bullet between their teeth to cope with extreme pain during surgery.

I know you don’t want to, but bite the bullet and get your homework done.

Pull someone’s leg

This isn’t as strange as it sounds – it actually just means to joke with or tease someone. The phrase originates from England in the 1800s. Street robbers would ‘pull someone’s leg’ by using a wire to trip them up before stealing their money and valuables.

Are you serious? Or are you pulling my leg?

Speak of the devil

You might use this saying if you’ve just been talking about someone who then shows up. The phrase is a variation on the saying ‘Talk of the Devil’ which was popular during the Middle Ages in England. This phrase was attached to the superstition that talking directly of the devil would cause that evil to appear.

I don’t think Ben is coming to this party. Oh, speak of the devil, he’s just walked in!

Under the weather

To say you’re under the weather implies that you’re feeling sick or unwell. The phrase is popular and has a few possible origins. In the old maritime days, an unwell sailor would be sent down below the deck to keep him from harsh weather. There’s another theory that the phrase originally meant you might be feeling seasick or you’ve been adversely affected by bad weather. Another similar historic phrase is ‘under the weather bow’, the weather bow being the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing.

I can’t go out today, I’m feeling a little under the weather.

Barking up the wrong tree

This phrase no longer has anything to do with dogs, but actually means to be mistaken or looking for solutions in the wrong place. It comes from early 1800s America when hunting with packs of dogs was popular. When sneaky raccoons were trying to evade capture, dogs were often tricked into thinking they’d run up a certain tree when in fact, they’d already escaped.

You’re not going to find it there, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Costs an arm and a leg

If something costs an arm and a leg, it’s considered to be very expensive. There’s some debate about where this strange phrase comes from, but a popular theory is that it originates from the early 20th century during a World War. It was commented that soldiers who lost limbs had paid a heavy price for the war.

I can’t afford to come to that concert, the tickets cost an arm and a leg.

There’s no use crying over spilt milk

This phrase means that it’s pointless to get upset about something you can’t change or something that has already happened. This idiom is an ancient proverb which has been around for hundreds of years. It’s likely that it originates from old folk tales in which fairies who were fond of milk would drink up any spills left behind.

Try not to worry about how your exams went, there’s no use crying over spilt milk.

Go on a wild goose chase

Surprisingly, this phrase has actually never been about geese at all. To go on a wild goose chase means to pursue something that is pointless or unattainable. The phrase is thought to originate from some type of 16th century horse racing. A wild goose chase was a horse race in which the lead rider was pursued by the other riders – similar to how geese fly in formation.

I’ve just been on a wild goose chase to find my cat who was in the kitchen the whole time!

Bigger fish to fry

To have bigger fish to fry means to have more important things to do or think about. The origins of this phrase are unclear, but variations of it can be found throughout Europe. The French version is “il a bien d’autres chiens a fouetter’ literally meaning ‘he has many other dogs to whip’. The Italians say it simply ‘altro pel capo’ meaning to have other things to do. In some parts of Germany, a phrase is used that means ‘I have other hedgehogs to comb’.

I can’t talk stay and talk about this, I have bigger fish to fry.

It’s a piece of cake

If something is a piece of cake, it’s easy. The saying is thought to be linked to the slave trade in America where slaves would perform a ‘cakewalk’ dance in a circle where the most graceful would win the cake in the middle. The cakewalk was invented by African-Americans in the antebellum South to satirize the stiff ballroom dancing style of the white plantation owners. Without knowing they were being mocked, these owners organized cakewalk contests for the slaves offering cakes as prizes.

Learning how to whistle is a piece of cake



There is no better way to perfect your English than by immersing yourself in the language. EF Academy International Boarding Schools open a world of opportunities for high school students by providing them with a superior education abroad, thorough preparation for university and a future that knows no borders.

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