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5 bizarre English phrases and where they come from

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

English language is chock-full of various idioms, phrases and sayings with interesting origins which doesn't make any sense when they are translated literally. Some of them sound particularly weird to a non-native ear, but they are widely used in everyday speech and should be on any learner's vocabulary lists.

Keep scrolling to read about these bizarre expressions and the history behind them which can be very surprising at times:

Hold your horses

Meaning: said to tell someone to wait, slow down, or stop for a moment

Origins: The exact origin of this idiom is unknown (the literal phrase is as old as Homer’s Iliad dated to the late 8th or early 7th century BC), but it first appears as an idiom we know today in the American newspaper Warren Democratic Advocate (1842).

“‘Hold your horses,’ says he, ‘and if you want to hear the greatest shaving story that you ever did hear, just keep cool.’ “

The elephant in the room

Meaning: an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about, or something that prevents fun conversation

Origins: Like with the previous idiom, its exact origin is unclear. However, some trace it back as far as a little fable called “The Inquisitive Man” by Ivan Krylov, which tells about a man who spends three hours at a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things but fails to notice a literal elephant in the room.

Turn a blind eye

Meaning: to ignore something that you know is wrong; pretend not to notice

Origins: The phrase allegedly comes from a comment made by British Admiral Horatio Nelson. Legend has it that Nelson once slyly pretended not to see the signals from his superior telling him to retreat, deliberately holding the telescope to his one blind eye.

Couch potato

Meaning: a lazy and inactive person; a person who takes little or no exercise and watches a lot of television

Origins: This phrase is believed to be invented in 1976 by two Californians named Robert Armstrong and Tom Iacino. Iacino dropped it randomly while on the phone, humorously referring to his friend who liked to lazily watch television on the couch (some believe it to be a pun on "boob tube", US slang for TV, and “tuber”, the edible part of a potato). Robert Armstrong – a cartoonist – was inspired by this and drew his first “couch potato” characters, which became famous in 1983.

Beat around the bush

Meaning: To avoid getting to the point of an issue

Origins: This phrase is believed to hark back to the practice of bird hunting. Hunters hired men who would literally beat around the bushes with sticks and other objects in order to draw out their game, while the main point of the hunt was actually capturing the birds.

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