Getting confused by idioms used by Brits? Don’t be! Just like American idioms, Canadian idioms or Australian idioms, British idioms are also an integral part of how Brits speak in day to day conversations. In this blog post we talk about 20 commonly used British idioms. Once one has learned some of these, one then knows how to use them in the context of English conversation.
Here are examples of 20 British idioms and their meanings:
Pull yourself together
This means to stand back from a situation, calm down and behave naturally.
For example: You over-reacted, pull yourself together.
Meaning: You over-reacted, calm down and behave rationally.
Running on fumes
This means either you are staying awake although you have not slept for many hours or you have practically run out of fuel.
For example: I am running on fumes, as I have not slept since yesterday morning. I need some sleep!
Meaning: I am exhausted, as I have not slept since yesterday morning. I need some sleep!
For example: I need to find a petrol station soonest as my car is running on fumes!
Meaning: I need to find a petrol station soonest, as my car is about to run out of fuel!
A baker’s dozen
This means there are 13 of an item.
For example: There are a baker’s dozen of eggs being sold at the grocers now
for the price of 12.
Meaning: There are 13 eggs being sold at the grocers now for the price of 12.
This refers to a lazy person who does not do anything.
For example: The teenager is a couch potato! He sits all day in front of his laptop during the holidays and does not help his parents.
Meaning: The teenager is so lazy! He sits all day in front of his laptop during the holidays and does not help his parents.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
This means one should not make a decision with regard to a situation immediately without finding out all the facts.
For example: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Your new boss has only just started in his job and you may decide in the next couple of weeks that you like him.
Meaning: Don’t be hasty in your dislike of your new boss, as he has only just started in his job and you may decide in a couple of weeks that you like him.
Beat around the bush
This means to discuss a topic or situation without discussing the main points.
For example: Don’t beat around the bush! Tell us the truth about what happened.
Meaning: Don’t omit what really happened. Tell us the truth.
Hit the nail on the head
This means to describe exactly what the issue is or to be correct about something.
For example: The manager hit the nail on the head when he described what happened to his staff.
Meaning: The manager told his staff exactly what had happened.
This is the time immediately before a piece of work has to be finished and time is running out so all the people must work hard.
For example: It is crunch time for the students, as their group project has to be handed to the tutor in to be marked in one hour.
Meaning: Time is running out for the students, as they have to hand in their project to the tutor in one hour.
Spilt the beans
This refers to disclosing someone’s secret to someone else.
For example: He spilt the beans to his friend about his surprise birthday party.
Meaning: He told his friend all the details about his surprise birthday party.
Get it out of your system
This refers to something that a person has wanted to do for along time and has never managed to do or achieve.
For example: Climb Mount Everest and get it out of your system.
Meaning: You have talked about climbing Mount Everest for many years so do so now.
Raining cats and dogs
This means it is raining extremely heavily.
For example: It rained cats and dogs yesterday when we were walking our dog yesterday so we were drenched!
Meaning: It was raining extremely heavily yesterday when we were walking our dog yesterday so we were drenched!
Once in a blue moon
This refers to an event, which happens very rarely.
For example: A solar eclipse occurs once in a blue moon.
Meaning: When a solar eclipse occurs the moon gets in front of the sun and makes everything go dark. This happens very rarely.
A piece of case
An activity that is very easy to achieve.
For example: He found learning to speak English a piece of cake.
Meaning: He found learning English very easy.
Kill two birds with one stone
This means to achieve two different jobs at the same time or with one act.
For example: He killed two birds with one stone by visiting Edinburgh for the first time when he went to see the Edinburgh Tattoo (a display).
Meaning: He went to see the Edinburgh Tattoo and as he had never been to Edinburgh before he was able to see the tourist attractions there at the same time.
Couldn’t care less
This expression is used to imply a total lack of interest or importance or appeal in an event.
For example: He couldn’t care less about visiting London as he had been there so many times before and seen all the sites.
Meaning: He had been to London so many times before that he was not bothered about visiting London again.
This refers to a person (adult or child) that asks or cries for help when they do not need any help at all.
For example: She cried wolf that she was ill to get more attention.
Meaning: She wanted more attention, although she did not need any, so she called for the nurses for help by saying she was ill when in fact she was well.
Feeling under the weather
This means that someone is not in good health and feeling ill.
For example: The student could not go to the lecture, as he was feeling under the weather.
Meaning: The student could not go to the lecture, as he was feeling ill.
Sit on the fence
This means that someone or a country stays neutral and does not take sides in an argument.
For example: Switzerland sat on the fence during World War 2.
Meaning: Switzerland did not take sides during World War 2 and stayed neutral.
Barking up the wrong tree
This means looking in the wrong place or accusing the wrong person in a situation.
For example: He was barking up the wrong tree when he accused the person for shoplifting.
Meaning: He accused the wrong person for shoplifting when it was someone else that stole the item
Grass is always greener on the other side
Some people think that life is better if they do something different.
For example: He thought the grass would always be greener on the other side if he changed schools.
Meaning: He thought he would enjoy a different school more so changed schools and then found the new school was no better than the last.
By learning British idioms, they help to give a better understanding of the English language. Idioms also help to give a better insight into the British way of life and our culture. Understanding and using idioms improves conversation and the way of communicating with others. British idioms can vary from American idioms and it is worth learning some idioms from both countries.
Know these British idioms already and looking to learn Canadian idioms? Here is a great article from the Spoken English Practice blog
Want to expand your knowledge on British idioms to cool British slang? Read this post
This is another helpful post on British idioms.