EC San Diego Learns The Lingo: Common American Idioms Explained!

ECSD student Ibrahim and staff member Tina knock on wood for good luck - they want to avoid getting a parking ticket unlike their friend Elisabeth!
ECSD student Ibrahim and staff member Tina knock on wood for good luck – they want to avoid getting a parking ticket like their friend Elisabeth!

Every language in the world is structured by the culture in which it is used. The use of idioms in a language is culturally and historically influenced, and English idioms in the United States are no exception. Here are some commonly-used English idiomatic phrases that may seem strange to ESL students and other English learners:

  1. “Riding shotgun”: This phrase is commonly spoken as “I get shotgun!” or “I call shotgun!” when three or more people are getting into a car – when “shotgun!” is called, the speaker reserves the right to sit in the front passenger seat (and therefore not get stuck with everyone else in the back). The phrase is originally from the days of the Wild Wild West in the 1800’s, when stagecoaches were the main type of transportation in the US. “Shotgun” refers to the front passenger seated next to the driver- that person would be in charge of protecting the stagecoach with…a loaded shotgun!!
  2. “Pass With Flying Colors”: Don’t know why passing a test “with flying colors” makes your teacher happy? It’s because you have gone beyond their expectations and done extremely well! The phrase originates from the necessity of passing ships to identify themselves by flying their national flag – this helped ships to identify pirates from innocent trading vessels. If you have passed with flying colors, you have identified yourself as extraordinary!!
  3. “Let the Cat Out of the Bag”: This idiom is common, but has a strange connotation – a cat in a bag? That doesn’t sound pleasant! In fact, to “let the cat out of the bag” means to divulge a secret, often a secret that no one wants told. The phrase comes from the Middle Ages, when traders would trick customers by telling them they were buying a pig in a bag, when in fact it was a street cat. These traders made sure their secret wasn’t divulged too quickly by warning their customers to keep the bag closed until they returned home – and when they did, the cat was out of the bag!!
  4. “Knock On Wood”: Superstitious? Well, this idiom is all about superstitions and good luck – the phrase means that whomever is knocking on wood is hoping for good fortune. Often people will say “knock on wood” following a description of bad luck, such as:  “My car broke down today” with the response “My car is still running OK, knock on wood”. The second speaker is saying knock on wood in a manner that implies he/she does not wish their car to break down, too. The saying has trickled down from the Middle Ages, when people believed that possessing or touching wooden religious relics ensured good luck.
  5. “Three Sheets To The Wind”: This idiom is well-known, but not commonly used in the 21st century. It is a polite way of saying that someone is extremely intoxicated, and originates from English Naval terminology of the 18th Century. Originally spoken as “three sheets in the wind”, the idiom refers to the three main sails of a ship caught in an erratic wind, making the ship behave in uncontrollable, uncoordinated, and dangerous ways on the open sea.

These are just a few of the well-known American idioms that EC San Diego students can practice! Alongside learning English grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, becoming familiar with common English idioms helps ECSD students to learn about American culture and history!!