English Phrases That Don’t Translate Well

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English Phrases That Doesn't Translate Well

Have you ever come across an English phrase that sounded familiar, but you couldn’t quite figure out what it meant? It’s likely that you’ve encountered one of the many English phrases that don’t mean what the words themselves imply. These phrases can be confusing and even misleading. In this blog, we’ll explore some of the most common English phrases that don’t translate well. Let’s dive in and find out what these phrases really mean!

Break a leg

“break a leg” is commonly used to wish someone luck before a performance. However, when translated literally, the phrase doesn’t make much sense. How can someone break their leg and have good luck?

The phrase originated from the theatre world. It’s believed to have first appeared in the 19th century when the audience would stand and cheer for a great performance. The standing ovation was thought to bring good luck, so performers would bow and say “break a leg” to the audience to encourage them to keep standing and clapping.

Performers have since adopted the phrase in other fields, such as music, dance, and sports. While it may not make sense when translated literally, the phrase is still used to convey the same meaning: wishing someone good luck and success.

Costs an arm and a leg

Costs an arm and a leg is a phrase often used to describe something expensive, but it doesn’t make sense when you think about it literally.

When you break it down, it sounds odd to say that something is so expensive it would cost you an arm and a leg. After all, there’s no way you could pay for something with a limb. But this phrase has been a part of our language for centuries and indicates when something is very costly.

Butterflies in my stomach

Butterflies in my stomach is a phrase that has been used to describe nervousness or anxiety for quite a while, but when you look at it literally, it doesn’t make much sense. After all, why would butterflies inside your stomach make you feel nervous or anxious?

It turns out that the phrase has a much deeper meaning than what it implies on the surface. The phrase “butterflies in my stomach” is a metaphor for the type of anxiety and nervousness that we all experience at some point in our lives. Just as a butterfly flutters around in a stomach before it is released, so too does the feeling of nervousness and anxiety flutter around in our stomachs before it is released.

Read Also: Weird English Words To Add To Your Vocabulary

Piece of cake

The phrase “piece of cake” means something is easy to do or has been achieved easily. But when you think about it, the cake is quite difficult to make, and it usually takes a lot of hard work and skill to get it right. So why would something that takes a lot of time and effort be used to describe something that is supposedly easy?

The origin of the phrase “piece of cake” is extremely interesting. The phrase is believed to have its roots in the military, where it was used to describe something that was easy to do or had been achieved easily. The idea was that a piece of cake was easy to eat, unlike something more complicated such as a big meal.

Raining cats and dogs

“It’s raining cats and dogs” is widely used to describe particularly heavy rain. But it doesn’t make much sense if you take the phrase literally.

This phrase has a long history, dating back to the 1700s. One explanation is that it originated from the Greek myth of Zeus, king of the gods. Zeus sent his daughter, Pallas Athena, to earth in a chariot drawn by cats and dogs. This was a sign of his great fury, and it was said that the sky rained cats and dogs when he was particularly angry.

Another explanation is that the phrase originated from a stormy night in England. People lived in thatched-roof homes in the 17th century, and the wind and rain would often blow out the roofs, leaving the homeowners to pick up their cats and dogs that were blown away in the storm.

Despite its origin, this phrase is still used to describe heavy rain today. 

Hit the nail on the head

The phrase “hitting the nail on the head” has been used since the mid-1800s, and it means to do something correctly, accurately, or precisely. The phrase is often used when someone has guessed or done something correctly.

But why is it called “hitting the nail on the head”? The saying might have come from carpentry, as a carpenter would know if they had hit the nail on the head if they had nailed the wood they were working on correctly. If a carpenter hit the nail wrong, it could have caused the wood to be damaged. Thus, “hitting the nail on the head” describes getting something right the first time.

The phrase is also used in other ways. It can describe a person’s intelligence or ability to make a correct decision. It can also be used to express admiration for someone who has said or done something correctly.

Bite the bullet

“bite the bullet” is often used to describe enduring something unpleasant.

The earliest known usage of “bite the bullet” can be traced back to the 18th century and the practice of having soldiers bite on a bullet during a medical procedure. 

Before anesthesia and painkillers, the only way to dull the pain of surgery was to have the patient bite down on a bullet as a distraction. This gave rise to the phrase “bite the bullet,” meaning enduring something unpleasant, often painful.

Today, “bite the bullet” has become more figurative. It is often used to describe a situation where we must face something difficult or unpleasant but must do so to achieve a greater good. 

Read Also: Most Attention-Grabbing Longest Words in English!

Drive someone up the wall

The phrase “drive someone up the wall” is commonly used to describe a situation where someone is annoying and unbearable. It is quite a vivid expression to describe a very vexing and irritating moment.

However, if you were to look at it literally, the phrase does not make any sense. How can you drive someone up the wall? It is physically impossible.

The phrase “drive someone up the wall” has existed for centuries, so people have likely felt these same frustrations for centuries too. Interestingly, the phrase originated in the United States in the late 1800s. It quickly spread throughout the world and is still used to this day.

Hold your horses

We’ve all heard the phrase, “hold your horses.” It’s a phrase used when someone needs to be told to be patient and wait for something to happen. 

The phrase’s origin can be traced back to the 18th century when horse-drawn carriages were the primary mode of transportation. Back then, when someone wanted to slow down and stop the carriage, they would have to “hold their horses”—physically hold onto the reins to slow the horses down.

However, over time, the phrase began to take on a more figurative meaning. While the literal definition of “holding your horses” is to slow down a horse-drawn carriage, the more figurative meaning is to practice patience and not get too excited or worked up about something.

Keep your chin up

“Keep your chin up” is a phrase to encourage or motivate someone feeling discouraged. It is a reminder to stay positive and find the strength to keep going, even when things seem grim.

However, if you think about it in terms of metaphor and symbolism, you can see the true meaning behind this phrase.

It is a reminder to stay strong and face life with courage and a positive attitude. It is a reminder that no matter what life throws at you, you can rise above it and remain confident in yourself and your abilities.

Keep your chin up you to put aside your worries and doubts and hold your head high, knowing you have the strength, courage, and determination to get through anything.

Read Also: English Words With Same Spelling and different Meaning

Spill the beans

“Spill the beans” refers to revealing a secret. 

The phrase is believed to have originated in Ancient Greece when it was used to refer to an ancient voting system. The system involved a large urn filled with white and black beans, representing votes for and against a candidate. Voters would cast their votes by placing the colored beans in the urn. If voters wanted to reveal the vote results, they would “spill the beans” by tipping the urn over and revealing the vote count.

The phrase eventually became English in the 16th century, but initially, it was used to describe something else entirely. It was often used to reveal a secret “buried” in one’s heart. Over time, the phrase’s meaning shifted, and it came to represent the act of revealing a secret.

On the ball

When someone says “on the ball,” it usually means they are very alert or knowledgeable about a topic. It’s an expression often used to describe someone well-informed or particularly good at something.

It’s easy to see why the phrase has become so popular. It implies that the person is knowledgeable, quick-thinking, and capable of handling a situation as it arises. It also infers that the person is organized and on top of their work.

 The phrase is derived from a literal translation of a Latin phrase, “in pila,” which translates to “in the ball.” The phrase was first used in the 16th century and referred to someone agile and alert, as if they had a ball at their feet and were ready to react quickly.

Go the extra mile

Go the extra mile is a phrase that describes going above and beyond what is expected of you.

The phrase has its roots in the Bible. It references a verse from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples to go the second mile. In other words, he was telling them to do twice as much as was asked of them.

At first glance, this instruction may seem extreme. But it makes perfect sense in the context of Jesus’ teachings. He wanted his followers to demonstrate compassion and kindness towards their fellow man. He wanted them to go beyond what was expected of them and to do more than was necessary. 

Read Also: Professional English Words To Use In Workplace

Out of the blue

Out of the blue – it’s a phrase we’ve all heard before and likely used ourselves. It’s used to describe something unexpected.

In the 1920s, when it was used to describe something completely unexpected. It’s thought that the phrase was used because blue skies (or a clear, blue sky) often suggest a peaceful atmosphere, so something unexpected coming from that atmosphere would be completely unexpected.

Speak of the devil

Speak of the devil is an old phrase that describes someone who shows up unexpectedly.

The phrase “speak of the devil” is believed to have originated from the Latin phrase “Vade Retro Satana,” meaning “go back, Satan.” This phrase was used to ward off evil spirits, which were believed to be lurking when someone was unexpectedly spoken of.

Today, the phrase is used humorously to describe someone who unexpectedly appears. It is often used light-heartedly, so it doesn’t make sense when translated literally. It’s used to express surprise and shock at the unexpected appearance of someone, and it can also be used to acknowledge the person’s presence.

Call it a day

When we talk about the phrase “calling it a day,” we usually refer to the end of a work day or shift. It’s a way to express that we’ve finished our tasks for the day or are about to leave the workspace. It brings closure to our day and a clear distinction between work and rest.

But when we look back at it, the phrase “calling it a day” doesn’t make sense. We’re not actually “calling” anything but just ending it.

In a nutshell

In conclusion, English is a language full of words and expressions that don’t make sense when translated literally. With the help of free language learning apps like Zoundslike, you can learn these kinds of words and improve your English language skills. Download now and start your language learning journey today!

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