Language is like a window into a culture; English idioms and phrases – and slang terms – are the perfect way to learn the habits of the English-speaking countries you travel to or discover for the first time.
British English, specifically, boasts a rich tapestry of whimsical and distinctive colloquialisms. From cheeky sayings to idiomatic expressions, we handpicked sixty English idioms and phrases to learn before you visit the UK.
10 Top British English idioms and phrases to learn before visiting Britain
The following British English idioms and phrases will undoubtedly enhance your tour in Britain. If you happen to catch one of these popular sayings commonly used in the English language, you’ll be in the know.
At a glance:
- Bob’s your uncle
- It’s raining cats and dogs
- The bee’s knees
- Chuffed to bits
- When pigs fly
- Baker’s dozen
- To have a chinwag
- Turn a blind eye
- Bite the bullet
- Brass monkeys
Bob’s your uncle
When you hear someone say this, things are effortlessly falling into place. It’s akin to saying, “There you have it.” Its mysterious origins trace back to the appointment of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, appointed by his uncle, Lord Salisbury (Robert Gascoyne-Cecil).
It’s raining cats and dogs
When the heavens open up, and rain pours down relentlessly, Brits might exclaim that it’s “raining cats and dogs.” Although its origins remain unsure, one theory suggests it dates back to the Middle Ages when animals sought refuge on thatched roofs, often slipping through during heavy downpours.
The bee’s knees
This idiom refers to something absolutely excellent and dates back to the 1920s, when flappers coined quirky expressions, with “the bee’s knees” synonymous with the height of excellence.
Chuffed to bits
When you’re overjoyed or delighted, you’ll proudly say you’re “chuffed to bits.” “Chuffed” alone denotes being pleased, but when you add “to bits,” you’re emphasising the depth of your emotion.
When pigs fly
That idiom conveys that the mentioned event or circumstance will never occur, implying that it is highly unlikely or utterly impossible. It is a colourful and humorous way to dismiss an unlikely scenario or promise.
Commonly referring to the number 13 instead of the standard 12, this term dates back to medieval times when bakers added an extra loaf to ensure fair trade and avoid penalties for underweight products.
To have a chinwag
If someone invites you for a “chinwag,” they simply suggest a chat or a conversation. This term is believed to have its roots in the late 19th century, combining “chin” (referring to speaking) and “wag” (to move or chat).
Turn a blind eye
When someone consciously chooses to ignore or overlook something, they’re said to “turn a blind eye.” The phrase’s origin traces back to the legendary naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who allegedly turned a blind eye to a signal requesting his withdrawal during a fierce battle.
Bite the bullet
This idiom signifies facing and enduring a challenging or painful situation with courage. Its origins can be traced to battlefield medicine when soldiers would bite on a bullet to endure pain during surgical procedures without anaesthesia.
When it’s “brass monkeys” outside, it means that the weather is intensely cold. The picturesque expression “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” alludes to the brass rings used to stack cannonballs aboard ships, which shrank and fell off in extremely cold temperatures.
50 popular English idioms and phrases any learner or native may use daily
Mastering the art of English common idioms is akin to unlocking the secret language of daily communication.
Whether you’re an English learner eager to navigate the complexities of the language or a native speaker looking to add a touch of flair to your expressions, these general English idioms are your passport to enriching conversations.
At a glance:
- Break a leg
- The last straw
- Barking up the wrong tree
- A penny for your thoughts
- Piece of cake
- Hit the nail on the head
- Let the cat out of the bag
- Every cloud has a silver lining
- A picture is worth a thousand words
- Break the ice
- On cloud nine
- Actions speak louder than words
- Out of the blue
- The ball is in your court
- Cry over spilled milk
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
- Full of beans
- Fit as a fiddle
- Get a taste of your own medicine
- Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
- In hot water
- Keep your chin up
- Leave no stone unturned
- A piece of the pie
- The elephant in the room
- Miss the boat
- Paint the town red
- The early bird catches the worm
- Throw in the towel
- Two heads are better than one
- Under the weather
- To compare apples and oranges
- Jump on the bandwagon
- A leopard can’t change its spots
- All ears
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away
- Cat got your tongue?
- Easy as falling off a log
- Kill two birds with one stone
- Let sleeping dogs lie
- Rome wasn’t built in a day
- The grass is always greener on the other side
- Beat around the bush
- Water under the bridge
- You’re pulling my leg
- Don’t judge a book by its cover
- All in the same boat
- It costs an arm and a leg
- Curiosity killed the cat
- Give someone the benefit of the doubt
Break a leg
When you extend your well-wishes with a hearty “break a leg!” before a performance, you’re invoking a theatrical tradition steeped in superstition. The belief goes that directly wishing someone good luck might invite misfortune instead.
The last straw
This expression refers to the final, usually minor, event or action that causes a situation to become intolerable or prompts someone to reach their breaking point. It comes from the proverb “the last straw that breaks the camel’s back”, which originated in the 18th century with the observation that adding one more straw to a heavily loaded camel’s burden can cause the camel to collapse under the weight.
Barking up the wrong tree
This colourful expression comes to the rescue when someone misinterprets a situation or points fingers in the wrong direction. Its origins harken back to hunting dogs, who would bark at the base of a tree where their quarry could not be found.
A penny for your thoughts
This timeless idiom serves as an invitation to share one’s inner musings. It hearkens back to the 16th century when a humble penny held significant value and was a common currency, underscoring the worth of one’s thoughts.
Piece of cake
When you describe a task as a “piece of cake,” you’re conveying its simplicity and ease, likening it to the effortless pleasure of indulging in a slice of cake (though not necessarily as simple as baking one!).
Hit the nail on the head
Precision and accuracy are the hallmarks of someone who manages to “hit the nail on the head.” This idiom traces its origins to the practical act of driving a nail effectively by striking it directly on its head.
Let the cat out of the bag
This idiom means to reveal a secret or disclose information that was supposed to be kept hidden. Its origin comes from the practice of dishonest market sellers who would replace a valuable piglet with a less useful cat in a bag, only to be exposed if the cat escaped.
Every cloud has a silver lining
In moments of adversity, this timeless saying reminds us to seek the glimmer of hope or positivity hidden within challenges. It goes back to John Milton’s 1634 work, “Fortune Lost and Regained.”
A picture is worth a thousand words
To acknowledge the power of visual representation in conveying complex ideas more effectively than verbose descriptions is to appreciate the essence of this well-known expression. Frederick R. Barnard famously employed it to praise the effectiveness of graphics in advertising.
Break the ice
Evoking images of ships navigating frozen waters, this idiom encourages us to initiate conversations to alleviate social tension or awkwardness. It’s the verbal equivalent of a warm handshake in frosty situations.
On cloud nine
To be extremely happy or content! This idiom describes someone thrilled, pleased, or joyful. Although the origin of this phrase is uncertain, it is thought to have derived from the classification system of cloud types, where “cloud nine” is the cumulonimbus cloud, the highest and most impressive type.
Actions speak louder than words
An ancient proverb’s variation emphasises that what someone does is more important than what they say. It highlights the belief that actions are a more reliable indicator of one’s intentions or true character.
Out of the blue
Initially, a nautical term referring to a sudden storm or weather conditions appearing unexpectedly from the blue sky, it has since evolved to describe something happening or being said unexpectedly or without warning.
The ball is in your court
It’s now your turn or responsibility to take action. This idiom indicates that it is someone’s turn to act or decide. It comes from the game of tennis, where the ball is hit back and forth between players.
Cry over spilled milk
Advising against dwelling on past mistakes, this idiom underscores the futility of lamenting over unchangeable events. Its origins date back to the expression, “It is no use crying over spilt milk.”
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Derived from agriculture, this idiom advises against relying entirely on a single thing or taking a single course of action, as it is risky and may lead to complete loss if it fails. It is a metaphor illustrating the importance of diversification and having alternative options.
Full of beans
When someone is described as “full of beans,” it means they are lively, energetic, and enthusiastic. This idiom typically refers to a person who is exuberant and full of vitality. It might have originated in the United States in the late 19th century. Beans, being a staple food, were associated with providing sustenance and energy.
Fit as a fiddle
In the 1600s, this idiom referred to a violin as a well-tuned, properly functioning instrument said to be “fit as a fiddle.” It means to be in perfect health and conveys the idea of being extremely fit and well-tuned, just like a well-maintained fiddle (violin).
Get a taste of your own medicine
When you receive the same hostile treatment you’ve dished out to others, you get a “taste of your own medicine.” This phrase, originating in the mid-19th century, often reminds us of the enduring principle that our actions can return to haunt us.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
This idiom, stemming from Aesop’s fables and popularised in the 16th century, wisely advises against prematurely celebrating success. It emphasises the importance of prudence and cautious optimism, reminding us that outcomes remain uncertain until realised.
In hot water
When someone finds themselves “in hot water,” they’re in a predicament, often of their own making. This phrase’s origin is linked to literal boiling water, indicating that one is entangled in a troublesome situation, feeling the heat of consequences.
Keep your chin up
This idiom refers to the early 20th century, encouraging resilience in adversity and emphasising the importance of maintaining a positive and determined attitude, even when facing life’s challenges.
Leave no stone unturned
This idiom from ancient Greek history encourages thorough exploration and exhaustive effort in pursuing goals. It invokes the image of a relentless archaeologist, leaving no stone unexamined in the quest for hidden treasures.
A piece of the pie
This phrase, originating in the 19th century, suggests sharing in the benefits or profits of a particular venture, akin to receiving a delectable slice of a coveted pie. It symbolises receiving a portion of something desirable or advantageous.
The elephant in the room
When there is an “elephant in the room,” it means there is an obvious and significant issue or topic that everyone is ignoring or avoiding discussing. It refers to an uncomfortable truth or a glaring problem that goes unaddressed and might have started to be used in the US in the 19th century.
Miss the boat
To miss an opportunity due to delay or hesitation is to “miss the boat.” This idiom’s maritime origins date back to the idea of literally missing a ship that departs without you, underscoring the importance of seizing opportunities promptly.
Paint the town red
Inviting a celebration with abandon, this expression conjures images of revelry and good times. Its roots are often traced to a night of debauchery by the Marquis of Waterford in 1837, who painted various objects in a town red during a raucous escapade.
The early bird catches the worm
This timeless advice, dating back to the 17th century, extols the virtues of being proactive and prepared. It suggests that those who act or arrive early have a better chance of success, akin to an early-rising bird catching its breakfast.
Throw in the towel
To admit defeat or surrender is to “throw in the towel.” This phrase hails from the boxing world, where throwing a towel into the ring indicates a fighter’s desire to concede the match. It symbolises acknowledging when further struggle is futile.
Two heads are better than one
Encouraging collaboration and collective thinking, this idiom has its roots in the idea that diverse perspectives lead to better ideas and solutions. It emphasises the value of teamwork, a concept throughout history.
Under the weather
When someone feels unwell or indisposed, they’re “under the weather.” Its maritime origins trace back to sailors who, feeling ill, would go below deck to escape the rough weather, indicating a state of physical or mental discomfort.
To compare apples and oranges
When two things being compared are fundamentally different and cannot be equated or judged by the same criteria. It suggests that the comparison is invalid due to the dissimilarity of the subjects.
Jump on the bandwagon
From 19th-century American politics, this idiom urges people to join or support a popular trend or cause. Politicians would ride on bandwagons during parades to gain public favour, emphasising the allure of being part of the crowd.
A leopard can’t change its spots
This idiom suggests that people or things cannot change their intrinsic nature. Its origins lie in the ancient belief that the appearance of a leopard’s spots was as unchangeable as a person’s character, highlighting consistency.
When someone fully listens and pays attention to what is being said, they’re said to be “all ears.” This expression highlights their willingness to hear and understand the communication, reflecting an open and receptive attitude.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Encouraging health consciousness, this phrase suggests that maintaining a healthy habit, like eating an apple daily, can help prevent illnesses and promote well-being. Its origins can be traced back to early 20th-century Welsh and American folklore.
Cat got your tongue?
Used playfully or rhetorically when someone is unusually quiet or hesitant to speak, this phrase’s origins are uncertain. It is a whimsical way to encourage someone to break their silence and join the conversation.
Easy as falling off a log
When a task or action is effortless, it’s described as “easy as falling off a log.” This idiom implies that no effort or challenge is involved, akin to the simplicity of an involuntary tumble.
Kill two birds with one stone
Originating in ancient times, this idiom advocated efficiency and productivity by achieving two goals or completing two tasks with a single action or effort. It symbolises the art of multitasking for optimal results.
Let sleeping dogs lie
Advising against resurrecting old arguments or issues to prevent further conflict, this idiom’s origins lie in the wisdom of not disturbing slumbering canines lest they become agitated. It underscores the value of avoiding unnecessary trouble or disputes.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Emphasising the importance of patience and the time required for substantial accomplishments, this phrase dates back to medieval Europe. It is a timeless reminder that significant achievements take sustained effort and perseverance.
The grass is always greener on the other side
This idiom suggests that people often perceive others’ situations as more desirable than their own. Its origins are rooted in human nature’s tendency to idealise what is unattainable or unknown, implying the allure of the unknown.
Beat around the bush
This idiom means to avoid answering a question and to waste time. To talk about unimportant things to not talk about what really matters. When someone beats around the bush, they don't directly answer a question on purpose; they may be uncomfortable doing so.
Water under the bridge
Referring to past events or problems that are no longer relevant or worth dwelling on, this idiom symbolises acceptance and moving forward from previous experiences. Its origins are tied to the image of water flowing away, carrying past troubles with it.
You’re pulling my leg
When someone says, “You’re pulling my leg,” they suspect playful teasing or joking in a light-hearted manner. This phrase, originating in the 19th century, implies that the speaker doesn’t entirely believe what’s being said, adding an element of good-natured scepticism to the conversation.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
This wise idiom implies not judging someone or something and advises against forming an opinion or making assumptions based solely on appearances. It suggests that external appearances cannot determine actual value or character alone. In the 19th century, books were often bound in plain covers; only the title was printed on the spine.
All in the same boat
This idiom, with maritime origins dating back to the 16th century, signifies that people collectively face the same challenges or share a common situation. It underscores the notion of unity in adversity, highlighting how everyone aboard a ship must navigate the same turbulent waters together.
It costs an arm and a leg
When something is exorbitantly expensive, it’s said to “cost an arm and a leg.” This expression likely emerged after World War II when soldiers returning with missing limbs needed costly prosthetics. It is a vivid metaphor for the steep price of goods or services.
Curiosity killed the cat
A word of caution against excessive inquisitiveness, this idiom cautions that being too nosy can lead to trouble or negative consequences. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th century, reflecting the enduring wisdom that too much curiosity can be risky.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt
To trust someone’s statement or excuse without demanding concrete proof is to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” This idiom encourages showing kindness and assuming innocence until proven otherwise. Its origins are rooted in the idea of granting individuals a fair chance to explain themselves, promoting understanding and goodwill.