22 of the best English idioms and what they really mean

Gulf News

So on the basis that a lot of my readers are non-native English speakers, here’s some brilliant advice on the correct use of idioms – for when you’re past that level 1 stuff 😉


Indirect negative feedback is the very backbone of modern British English

Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the world’s third-most spoken language, you’d think that English wasn’t too hard to learn. However it turns out that learning your “throughs” from your “threws” is only the start.

When it comes to understanding the British, what makes English hard for non-native speakers to grasp is the sense of irony, the context in which things are said, the timing and, most importantly, the indirect negative feedback. It can completely transform the meaning of simple discourse.

We’ve penned down some of the most common British idioms which will, hopefully, help you to understand things a little bit better.

1. You’re alright

Don’t mistake this as a compliment. The Briton does not think you’re “alright”. “You’re alright” actually means “No, thank you.”

2. Amazing

The British only use the adjective “amazing” in times of great sarcasm. Nothing is ever truly amazing. If a Briton says something is “amazing”, what they really mean is “I am indifferent” or “I am staggered at the situation and no amount of animated gesticulating will suffice.”

3. Really

“Really” is the one-size-fits-all answer to everything for the uninterested Briton. Going long on the vowels is the key to the ultimate uninterested retort. “Really” effectively translates to “I don’t care”.

4. Pleased to meet you

Once a common salutation, the expression “pleased to meet you” when introduced to someone new is an instant sign that all is not well. “Pleased to meet you” is only used to bridge a gap between social classes. It infers that you have judged, in a split second, that the other person is not the kind of person you’d like to go for a drink with. It is used to disguise the fact that you’re not pleased to see them, but you’re trying to be polite as possible so to as end this unbearable awkwardness. To a Briton, it really means “Hello, now let’s get this over with as neither of us want to be here.”

5. In a bit of a pickle

Nothing is so drenched in British understatement like the idiom “bit of a pickle.” No matter if you’re in crippling debt or you’ve misplaced your car keys, to be “in a bit of a pickle” means the same thing: cataclysmic disaster. It is used to soften the reality of the gravity of the situation. It helps keep things calm.

6. I see

Similar in context to “really”, “I see” is generally used when someone is trying to sell you an idea. For true effect, one must go long on the e: “I seeee”, with the e dropping off into a low tone at the end. It means that you are not impressed. More commonly used in work environments towards subordinates.

7. Oh, right

Said with your eyebrows raised several centimetres higher than they normally sit, “oh right” almost becomes one word when you have no idea what is being said. While you may understand the words, the subject might be alien to you and you are doing your best not to let on that you have no idea what the other person is on about.

Example Person 1: “You won’t believe this, but the new quasi-finance merger protection regulation has actually caused investment bonds to triple in the capital trust hedge fund sector so long as they’re subject to US-stipulations pertaining to theoretical wealth acquisition”. Briton: “O’right”

8. That sounds like fun

If you tell a Briton what you do for a living and they respond with “that sounds like fun”, unless you’re a (former) Top Gear host or a rollercoaster tester, then it means they aren’t impressed or aren’t interested. They are simply being polite as they don’t want to ask any further follow-up questions.

9. With the greatest of respect

When a Briton comes at you with the phrase “with the greatest of respect”, they are implying that they think you’re being daft. It’s deemed a more professional way of saying “I really think you’re quite dim”. It can be cunningly used when addressing superiors as it comes with a refined edge.

10. Not bad, actually

“Not bad, actually” is a typical English double negative. It is used in situations when we don’t want to sound curt by giving a simple one-word answer, such as “good”. “Not bad, actually” can be preceded by “yeah”, to drag it out into a barely passable sentence. It is, in essence, a Briton attempting to sound engaging without really wanting to engage.

11. I’m disappointed

If a Briton ever says that they’re “disappointed with you”, what they really mean is that they are annoyed beyond comprehension. They are so angry, in fact, that they had to take five minutes to come up with the phrase “I’m disappointed with you” to hide what they really think.

12. You must come over for dinner one night

Rest assured, if a Briton is inviting you over to their house for dinner, it is not an invitation to come over, but an invitation to leave. It is used to end a conversation that you don’t want to be having. First social interactions between new friends or colleagues always take place on neutral ground, like a bar or a restaurant, never at someone’s house.

13. I don’t want to cause a fuss, but…

If a Briton ever says “I don’t want to cause a fuss, but…” then you can pretty much guarantee he will be regaling his friends with the story about how his eggs weren’t cooked to preference for years to come. It’s how the British cause a fuss without actually doing or saying anything which could be deemed impolite. It translates as “Oi, you. You’d better sort this out now or things are going to turn ugly.”

14. I’ll bear that in mind

“I’ll bear that in mind” is a holding statement. It is used when a Briton has been given an instruction or a piece of advice that they deem is either pointless or useless. It is not a lie as it will be held in mind, but seldom applied. The Briton is effectively dismissing you.

15. I hear what you’re saying

To say to someone that you “hear what you’re saying” isn’t a lie, it is very much true. You can hear them. Sadly, what you’re hearing is garbage and the discussion must cease immediately. It is a closing statement designed to end conversations.

16. It’s an interesting idea

It’s a stupid idea

17. I might catch up with you later

This popular phrase is used when a Briton is saying they cannot commit yet, and that they will see how they get on. What it really means is that they have no intention of joining you. If they really liked you, they’d have just said yes.

18. Is anyone sitting here?

In Britain, “is anyone sitting here” means you have two seconds to confirm that the seat is being used before it is taken away.

19. Well, I guess I should start thinking about making a move

This rather long-winded statement can be easily translated to “goodbye”.

20. That’s one way of looking at it

There are numerous ways to look at things, and if you’ve chosen that “one” way, the Briton is implying that you’ve chosen a ridiculously daft way of looking at it. In essence, you’re barking mad.

21. My fault

If you collide with a Briton while in the supermarket or walking around the mall, you can guarantee that a Briton will claim responsibility. “No, no, it’s my fault sorry” – what they really mean is “if you walk into me again I will destroy you.”

22. Thank you, cheers, thanks…

There is nothing worse – literally nothing – than following someone along a corridor and having them hold all the doors open for you. Should this happen, a Briton will say a genuine “thank you very much” at the first door. At the second door they will raise an awkward smile and say “cheers”. If there is a third door then the Briton will say, under a cloud of anxiety, “thanks” under their breath. If there is a fourth door, then the situation becomes intolerable and the Briton will stop in the corridor until no one else is around.

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