At the last count, the English language contained more than a million words. These can be combined in a multitude of ways which can express complex ideas and multi-layered meaning. They can also be combined to express apparent nonsense. Thanks to its long and illustrious history, the language has come to be peppered with phrases that, though commonly used, seem more than a little bizarre. This can be more than perplexing for those taking an English course in London or elsewhere, so here’s a list of the top 10 weirdest English expressions and an explanation for each one.
1. ‘Break a leg’
This phrase is uttered to actors before they go on stage as a form of good luck.
2. ‘Here’s mud in your eye’
Used as a toast and thought to derive from horse racing, where the winning horse might kick mud in the eye of the trailing beasts.
3. ‘I’m going to see a man about a dog’
Often said prior to the speaker going to the toilet. The phrase is used to mask the true nature of the speaker’s business. The phrase was first used by a character seeking to extricate himself from a tricky situation in the 1866 play the ‘Flying Scud’.
4. ‘On tenterhooks’
Spoken to express eager anticipation. The phrase refers to the hooks used to fix wet cloth on to a drying frame (the ‘tenter’).
5. ‘Raining cats and dogs’
This means it’s raining heavily. This phrase is thought to be derived from the 17th of 18th century when the streets of England were particularly filthy. At the time, heavy rain would likely carry along any dead animals.
6. ‘Pig’s ear’
Language students at www.uiclondon.com may have heard this one, given that it derives from Cockney rhyming slang for beer. Outside of London, the phrase is more often used to refer to someone making a mess of something as in ‘you made a pig’s ear of that’.
The phrase is thought to derive from the 16th century proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’, which refers to people engaged in a hopeless task.
7. ‘Chip on your shoulder’
Used to refer to someone who acts as though they have been wronged by the world. The phrase originates in the US where men that were hoping to engage others in a fight would carry a chip of wood on their shoulder, and dare others to knock it off.
8. ‘Rule of thumb’
Refers to an estimated measurement. The phrase has been in circulation since the 17th century and most likely derives from the numerous ways that people’s thumbs have been used to measure everything from the temperature of beer to the distance of a faraway object.
9. ‘Monkey’s uncle’
This phrase originated in 19th century London and is used to express disdain, as in ‘I couldn’t give a monkey’s uncle’. It can also be a way of expressing surprise, as in ‘well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle’.
10. ‘A turn up for the books’
Used to express a piece of good fortune. The phrase began with bookmakers who are said to have a ‘turn up’ when an un-backed horse wins a race.