Don’t Want to be an American Idiom

I am thankful to have been born in the USA for many reasons. Taco bell, the 4th of July, but mostly because I don’t have to struggle through learning English, with its nightmarish rules and expressions, as an adult. English is my native language, and I still struggle with the idioms, after 25 years! What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean, anyway?? Today I wanted to share my five favorite idioms, what they mean, and where they (may have) come from.

When The Sh*t Hits The Fan

Meaning: There will soon be messy consequences

Used in a sentence: “The sh*t is really going to hit the fan when they find out you’re not filing your reports!”

 Where this might have come from…

This idiom is related to, and may be derived from, an old joke. A man in a crowded bar needed to defecate but couldn’t find a bathroom, so he went upstairs and used a hole in the floor. Returning, he found everyone had gone except the bartender, who was cowering behind the bar. When the man asked what had happened, the bartender replied, ‘Where were you when the shit hit the fan?’ [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1989]

This expression alludes to the unmissable effects of poop being thrown in to an electric fan.

The first recorded use of this phrase is in Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. In this context, the use of shit is referring to problems or difficulties in World War 1, while the image of the rotating fan implies that those problems will be spread around.

Other more polite forms of the phrase include eggs, pie, soup, and “stuff”, ex., “when the egg hit the fan.”

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

 I have always thought this Idiom sounded slightly gross. The meaning of the phrase is basically, “Keep a good lookout, pay attention.”

Used in a sentence: “I lost my keys, so if you could keep your eyes peeled for them, that would be great.”

 Where this might have come from…

Apparently, there have been two versions of this saying used, as early as the mid 1850’s and early 1900’s. One uses the word “peeled,” (as above) the
 other uses the word “skinned.” (keep your eyes skinned) Its undetermined which one was first, but they both have the same idea of taking off the outside of your eye to make sure you are seeing clearly.

It’s possible that the literal peeling or skinning of vegetables or animals in order to open them is where the idea for this phrase comes from.

More Than You Can Shake A Stick At

 What a weird one. But then, aren’t they all? This phrase basically just means “a lot.”

Used in a sentence: “Have you seen that woman’s closet? She has more shoes than you can shake a stick at!”

 Where it may have come from:

One possibility is that it from the counting of farm animals, which could have been done by pointing a stick at each animal in turn. “More that you can shake a stick at” could just imply: “you could wave your counting stick until your arm falls off, and you still wouldn’t reach the end.”

Another idea is that it comes from battle, where it was popular in some cultures to shake a stick at the conquered enemy.

Get Someone’s Goat

 To let someone get your goat just means that they have succeeded in making you annoyed or angry.

Used in a sentence: “Ron’s constant whining really gets my goat.”

 Where it might have come from…

This idiom is said to come from horse racing, and was first used in magazines in the early 1900’s. Horses can be temperamental, and in order to keep their animals calm and relaxed, jockeys often kept a goat as a stable companion
for the horse. Goats don’t get flustered easily, and their presence in the stable had a calming influence on the horse. In order to ensure that a competitor’s horse didn’t perform well in a big race, rival owners sometimes stole the goat the night before the big event! The absence of the goat made the horse moody, and as a result it didn’t perform well in the race. So when you say that someone has got your goat, you are comparing yourself to the horse, who is upset and angry.

Close, But No Cigar

This one I’m sure you’ve heard before! This idiom basically implies “To fall just short of a successful outcome and receive nothing for your efforts.”

Used in a sentence: “We were only one point away from winning last night! So close, but no cigar!!”

 Where this might have come from…

This saying was first heard in the 1935 “Annie Oakley film. There may have been a time in the 20th century where cigars were among the prizes that could be won at carnivals, (however this has not been confirmed.) If this is true, then this could have been a popular phrase at the carnival games, shouted to contestants who came close to winning a prize, but just missed it.

What is your favorite idiom, and what does it mean?

18 thoughts on “Don’t Want to be an American Idiom

  1. Nice post, Hannah!
    Idiomatic expressions drive ESL learners crazy. English is not an easy language to learn as an adult. Another item that drives foreign students crazy are the overlapping synonyms.
    I mean…. what other language has twenty-nine ways of describing someone as being inflexible – or angry – or big – or a pain in the ass?
    On the other hand, those synonyms make English a wonderful language for writers, and especially for poets.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed reading your post – I’d never heard of that last idiom though. I have so much fun teaching idioms to my EFL students as they find them absolutely hilarious, especially the expression “to cook the books”! Idioms make English such a colourful language; a couple of my favourites are “it’s raining cats and dogs” (a classic) and “to bark up the wrong tree”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true. There are so many!! I’m so glad I don’t have to learn them! They just don’t make sense! Imagine learning words, and then having them be put together in a sentence where the words mean completely something else!! What? Lol!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Trust me, they make absolutely no sense in other languages either! A lot of French idioms are based around food, so “mind your own business” becomes “occupe-toi de tes oignons” (look after your own onions, literally)… there are so many others, but they’re something I struggle with! Utterly bonkers… but so entertaining!


  3. These are so funny! It is really amazing to see their origins! I have an old paperback book titled “The Dictionary of Cliches” which addresses these idioms! I’ll have to dig into that one a little more (I wonder where “dig into” came from, LOL!).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. to follow on from one above ‘he really knows his onions’ – I wonder if that comes from the French.
    From my grandma: ‘Don’t cast a clout till May is out’ meaning keep your warm clothes even after Easter – May could be either the month or the blossom.
    ‘There’s enough blue in the sky to make a sailor’s trousers’ Nope, no idea.
    ‘Red sky at night, Shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’ Classic British fixation with the weather.
    ‘He’s a couple of sandwiches short of the full picnic’ Not really with it.
    From my business life: ‘Either s**t or get off the can’ make your mind up now.
    Or those expressions meaning something is the best, always animal related: The cat’s whiskers, the bee’s knees and my favourite the dog’s bollocks.
    Oh and thanks for the follow…

    Liked by 1 person

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