The 12 idioms of Christmas: popular English phrases explained
People all over the world use ‘idioms’ to express everyday thoughts. Here we explain some of the more common – and fun – ones used in English at Christmastime
“Has the cat got your tongue?” “Yes, when pigs fly!” “It’s all Greek to me!”
Idioms are short phrases in English and other languages that don’t actually mean what they say, but convey a very different meaning. You have probably heard the above phrases before, but do you know what they mean? (We’ll tell you at the end of this article if you don’t.)
For example, if your friend says, “Let’s paint the town red!”, he or she does not mean you should buy red paint and brushes and sneak around Dublin painting all the buildings red. It means: “Let’s go out and have some fun.” (The term comes from the times when celebrating included lighting fires outside at night.)
Another fun example is if someone says it was raining cats and dogs last night – an idiom you might hear in Dublin a lot. It doesn’t mean that there were family pets falling from the sky, but that it was raining very heavily.
As you can see from the above examples, idioms often tend to be fun. They are also really good to know if you want to become a better English speaker. Idioms are something we focus on in our classes here in Englishour.
Here are some English idioms and other common phrases you might hear in Ireland at Christmas:
- Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas: This means that someone is choosing to do something which will not be good for them. After all, where do turkeys end usually end up on Christmas Day in Ireland?
- Good things come in small packages: If something or someone is small, they can still be very good. In other words, size is not important. This applies to Christmas presents too.
- Stocking stuffer/filler: This is a small Christmas gift brought by Santa Claus which can be put in the traditional stocking left at chimneys by children on Christmas Eve. It has nothing to do with women’s legs and tights!
- To beat the holiday blues: Often at times like Christmas, people feel lonely or sad (‘blue’) because they miss family or friends. ‘Beating the holiday blues’ means cheering yourself up by doing positive things.
- Deck the halls (with boughs of holly): This means to brighten up your home or workplace with Christmas decorations. Holly is a bush with green leaves, white flowers and red berries whose ‘boughs’ (branches) are used as decoration at Christmas.
- It’s the thought that counts: This refers to Christmas presents you receive. It means that it is not the value of the gift that matters, but the fact that someone bought you one in the first place.
- Kissing under the mistletoe: Mistletoe is a green plant which, like holly, is used as a decoration at Christmas. People used to kiss under it in ancient times as a way of welcoming someone. Now it is just for lovers!
- To light up like a Christmas tree: This means that someone has dressed up in their fanciest clothes. These days, in Ireland, as you may have noticed people tend to light up like a Christmas tree by wearing Christmas jumpers.
- Tis the season to be jolly: This phrase is used at Christmas to make people feel happy or jolly. The month of December is about celebrating the past year and looking forward to the next one.
- ‘Bah! Humbug!’: This is a way of complaining about someone who doesn’t ‘enter into the Christmas spirit’. The phrase was most famously used by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. A ‘humbug’ is an unpleasant, deceitful or grumpy person; ‘Bah!’ is a way of dismissing them.
- The 12 Days of Christmas: In Christian tradition, this is the period of time between the birth of Jesus (December 25th) and the arrival of the Three Wise Men or ‘Magi’ (January 6th). It is also the title of a famous English carol (Christmas song or hymn).
- To ring in the New Year: This refers to the sounds of bells that are heard at midnight on December 31st as the coming of the New Year is celebrated.
And finally: ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last’ is not an idiom but a line from the famous Christmas song, Fairytale of New York, sung by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl. The male protagonist is fighting with his partner, saying he can’t be happy with her at Christmas (‘arse’, a crude term for bottom, is here used like a curse) and hopes they break up.
But don’t worry! The song ends on a happier note as he sings to her:
“Can’t make it all alone,
I’ve built my dreams around you.”
Happy holidays to all our students, past, present and future!
And those idioms from the start:
“Has the cat got your tongue?”: Used when someone is refusing to talk or make a comment on a situation.
“Yes, when pigs fly!”: Used when something will clearly never happen.
“It’s all Greek to me!”: Used when someone can’t understand anything.
When communicating through English, there will always be options presenting the speaker with a language choice. In this blog, we will show you ‘Switching’, a technique which will open up the range of language choices available to you.
In English, the language choice of the speaker will be either in a formal style or an informal style or perhaps somewhere in between and the formal style is often a direct translation from the learner’s language:
I told Peter everything he needed to know
The informal style will not be a direct translation but could rather be a PHRASAL VERB:
I filled Peter in.
In Englishour, we believe that learners today who come to an English speaking country to learn English want to become familiar with the informal side of English. To them, it’s new and exciting and is often something they have never come across before.
As well as opening up exciting new learning opportunities, there are clear advantages to making these language choices. Firstly, the informal side of English is often much shorter; more concise. English speakers love this! When non-native speakers use idiomatic language, English speakers really appreciate this and the door to a deeper communication is opened a little more. The journey from formal (translation) to the informal is something I call ‘switching’.
Switching is moving between the formal and informal. It is moving away from direct translation towards metaphor and image-based language.
Here are some examples:
A journalist, Peter Factotum, is talking about a corrupt director of a company who he suspects is destroying the environment illegally. In telling us about the director and his experiences he has used several phrasal verbs giving us information:
He has to answer to the shareholders
He tried to play down his role in the forest’s destruction
I tried to sound him out to see if he would reveal anything
He let it slip (it slipped out) that his company was responsible
He left out the fact that he had been in prison
I can’t wait to fill in my editor
Now lets understand!
- – To answer to someone – To whom do you answer to? Do you have anyone to answer to?
If you have a boss, then the answer is yes!
If you have parents, then the answer is yes!
You answer to the person who is responsible for you. The person to whom you answer to is the person to whom you have to justify your actions. People, who are self-employed have nobody to answer to (except perhaps themselves). Single people have nobody to answer to. Do politicians have anybody to answer to? Of course! The electorate. So who do you have to answer to?
- – To play an action/a fact down – This means that you try to make it seem less important than it really is. People often play things down because they are modest. For example, if I won a gold medal in the Olympics and I say ‘Oh it’s nothing’, then I am trying to play down the medal. In the case above however, the director is trying to play down something negative, saying it has no importance when actually, it does!
Politicians often try to play down their mistakes and play up their successes!
- – To sound someone out – This is where you get a ‘preview’ to see how someone feels about an issue. You may feel that is too early to ask them directly, so you ‘sound them out’ first to get an idea how the reaction might be. For example, if you want to ask your boss for a raise you don’t ask directly ‘can I have a raise?’ Instead, you sound them out by talking about money in general and getting a feel for what they might think. Then you may or may not ask for the raise.
Therefore the idea of ‘sounding someone out’ is the idea of talking loosely about something to gauge their reaction.
- – To let it slip – The phrasal verb is to slip out, but let it slip sounds better so we will use that form. This one is easy. It means that you told a secret accidentally. You opened your big mouth and said something to someone that you shouldn’t have! Perhaps you let it slip that he was hiding in the next room or that Mary’s surprise birthday is on Saturday. Basically, you let the cat out of the bag! Have you ever let something slip? Was it something important? What did you do?
- – To leave out (a fact) – If you leave out a fact, you don’t say it. It’s that simple. I told the police my name and address but I left out the fact that I’m not staying there. Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you leave out. Think about your CV. Did you write EVERYTHING or did you leave out a few things? Be honest!
- – To fill someone in on something – This means to give someone the necessary information about a situation. It basically means ‘tell them everything’. For example, if you go on holidays, when you arrive back in work/school, your colleague will fill you in on what has been happening and all the gossip. When Steven fills in his editor, he will tell her everything about the story he has. Look again at the original sentence at the top:
I told Peter about the project.
So with switching, we try to replace the formal with the idiomatic:
I filled Peter in about the project.
‘Switching’ is being able to manipulate language
Now, let’s add some more verbs that you can ‘switch’:
When Peter Factotum fills his editor in about the story she will either think that it is a good story or a bad story. If she thinks it is bad, then Peter will have to persuade her that he should write it.
He will have to talk her into letting him write it.
When you were a teenager you had to talk your parents into letting you do things. Like what?
You can also talk someone out of doing something.
He wanted to sell the house but we talked him out of it. – We dissuaded him!
If there was a situation where several journalists wanted to write the story:
Peter would pitch for the story
The idea of ‘a pitch’ is important in English. People pitch ideas to others in order to sell a product or get support.
We pitched the idea of an environmentally-friendly car to the managers and they loved it!
When there is competition to ‘win’ an account, for example, you pitch for it.
Every advertising agency in the city pitched for the McDonalds account.
In this case however, it is unlikely that Peter would have to pitch for the story as:
He came up with it.
He thought of it. It is his story.
Formal ➙ Informal
Informal ➙ Formal
The context will decide which option you use.
It’s up to you – You choose!
|Literal translation (formal)||Native equivalent (informal)|
|He is responsible to nobody|
|He answers to nobody|
|He made the situation seem less important|
|He played down the situation|
|I tried to get an idea of what she was thinking|
|I sounded her out|
|He accidentally said it|
|He let it slip|
|I omitted it|
|I left it out|
|He told me everything|
|He filled me in|
|I persuaded her to do it|
|I talked her into doing it|
|I dissuaded him from doing it|
|I talked him out of doing it|
|We gave a presentation to get the job|
|We pitched for the job|
|He thought of a great idea|
|He came up with a great idea|
|It’s up to you|
Look at the following sentences. You will see the long formal version. Translate to the shorter informal version by switching:
Eg: He told me accidentally___________➙_He let it slip.
- I asked him questions to see what he was thinking_➙
- He persuaded me to sell my car to him__➙
- We presented hoping to attract the new client__➙
- I told them that the situation was not as bad as they believed__➙
- Her only boss is the owner, nobody else_➙
Now try to do the opposite. Look at the informal and make it formal:
Eg: I left out the fact that I was unavailable___➙_____I failed to say that I was unavailable.
- He came up with a brilliant plan__➙
- They played down the disaster in the interview_➙
- She talked me out of selling_➙
- I let it slip that he wasn’t qualified_➙
- They pitched for the Medford account_➙
- Start using switching in your everyday life. Every time you want to say something, try to think of two ways to say the same thing and make a language CHOICE.
- In your professional life, try to use all of the above verbs in the next week.
- In your personal life, try to use 5 of the above verbs in the next week.
- Write a list of ten situations you know you will be in, in the next 7 days. Identify if they are formal or informal situations. Which side of the English language would you prefer to be using in each? When going to each, make decisions about the language choices that you will make before the event and then follow them!
- Show your colleagues the two versions and ask them which they use. Try to talk about language to as many people as possible.
- Keep switching. Learn to manipulate language so that you sound like you WANT to sound!
By John Ryan ©2018
Shortcuts in English
When thinking about phrasal verbs and idioms it occurred to me that they are just like shortcuts on a computer. Shortcuts are things like:
• Ctrl+C (Copy)
• Ctrl+X (Delete selected item and save a copy to the clipboard)
• Ctrl+V (Paste)
• Ctrl+Z (Undo)
Obviously, when you start learning how to use a computer, you don’t immediately start learning shortcuts. You learn the long version first and when you have reached a particular level of expertise you can then start learning and using shortcuts. People who are very proficient on computers use shortcuts all the time. People who have an elementary level of knowledge usually don’t.
The reason shortcuts exist is that there are certain things which we do over and over again.
For example the copy and paste function is one you perform many times daily if you regularly use Word on a computer. Because of the frequency with which we perform the action, it can be tiresome repeating the same actions over and over again, hence the shortcut.
It’s exactly the same in language. There are thousands of ideas which we regularly express to each other. These are specific ideas which may convey a feeling that we have in a particular situation at a particular time. The nuances of the idea may be really subtle and therefore to express it properly might take a lot of words. That’s where the shortcut comes in. Here are some examples of the long version and the shortcut expressing the same thing.
Everybody worked together and therefore saved time and effort – shortcut – We all pitched in
He spoke for a long time about his car. It was really boring! – shortcut – He went on and on about his car
I don’t know where it came from. It might have been stolen – shortcut – It fell off the back of a lorry
From the A1 to the B1+ levels we don’t learn too many phrasal verbs and idioms. It’s really at B2 that this side of the language comes into the spotlight for the learner who then begins to use language in a more metaphorical way. This is a very exciting time for the learner because this is when they feel that they are speaking and listening ‘like native speakers’.
Native speakers of course love and use this type of language all the time.
Instead of saying I was very ‘excited and nervous’ before my speech, I was ‘keyed-up’. Instead of saying ‘it is very isolated and nobody goes there’ say ‘it’s off the beaten track’. These little phrases are shortcuts. They are a means of saying a lot with little language. And that is a thing of beauty.
Learners who get good at these shortcuts sound very natural when they speak. They also find it easy to understand native speakers as the language is common and familiar. However, it’s not easy to get there. There are many phrasal verbs and the lists of idioms are long indeed. But it is possible. Here are some more examples of shortcuts:
I said something stupid socially – I put my foot in it.
I managed not to laugh when I really wanted to – I kept a straight face
I am very busy at the moment and probably have to refuse your offer – I have a lot on my plate.
In Englishour, this form of language plays a large part of our syllabus. It’s fun to learn and it’s fun to teach. So in future, when faced with a phrasal verb or an idiom, don’t think of it as ‘hard language to understand’. Just think of it as a shortcut – an easy path to expressing an idea.