Decoding idioms for non-native English speakers

Imagine, for a moment, that English is not your native tongue. Now imagine that a colleague sends you a work email with the following message about a project you'd just completed, and that — not being a native English speaker — you must take their message entirely literally: "Hey, I hate to say it, but you really dropped the ball on this project. You've cut too many corners. Did you bite off more than you could chew? To make a long story short, while I'd personally love to cut you some slack, I can't let you off the hook here. I'll do my best to keep the big boss lady at bay, but I need you to go the extra mile and go back to the drawing board. The ball is in your court now. I hope you can get your head around it this time and pull a rabbit out of the hat." 

If you took all this literally, you'd likely worry that your colleague had lost his marbles — er, lost his mind — entirely. Why on earth is he talking about balls, papercrafts, eating food in an ill-judged manner, truncating stories, cutting you, embedding hooks in your skin, your boss lady adrift in a bay, race mileage, something called a "drawing board" (is that another craft?), more balls, some sort of brain-wrapping activity, and magic tricks?

Idioms — phrases that have come to have certain meanings that can't be deduced from the individual words used — are something we ALL learn over time. My native-English-speaker fiancé, who isn't exactly the sporting type, has often amused me with tales of the sports metaphors he willfully misunderstood and misstated throughout his childhood: "batting 100," "going the full 10 miles," etc. But it's doubly hard for non-native English speakers trying to navigate our idiom-laden world. 

One of my current clients is a company largely comprised of non-native English speakers. Their native tongues include Russian, Portuguese, and other languages. While I try to limit idiom usage in my communications with them, the fact that I have a hard time with it tells me how incredibly common idioms are in the phrasings I use and the world at large. So in honor of my wonderful colleagues at Distillery (hi everybody!) and a lovely German friend named Marc, this blog focuses on decoding some of the idioms that they've found most useful or confusing over the years. Beyond that, I want to do my part in raising awareness about being more careful with idiom usage in communications with non-native English speakers. So before we jump in, I plead with you: please don't make it harder on our non-native English-speaking friends by overusing idioms. After all, they already went to the trouble of learning our language, which is more than most of us can say. :)

Without further ado...

  • "A pot calling the kettle black." Meaning: This is when someone criticizes someone else for a fault they also have. You're pointing out the hypocrisy of the person's statement. Ridiculousness: Apparently, historically speaking, everyone's kettles and pots were black? My own kettle is a pleasing green.

  • "Bring it on!" Meaning: This is an informal way to express one's confidence in being able to tackle a challenge that's at hand. Ridiculousness: Bring WHAT WHERE?

  • "By the skin of my teeth." Meaning: This is used to refer to a situation in which you managed to accomplish something, but only just barely, narrowly escaping defeat. Ridiculousness: Supremely well-stated by one of my colleagues: "Well, it hurts me to imagine that my teeth have skin on them."

  • "Hit the books." Meaning: This simply refers to studying something very intensely. People may also use it to express that they feel they don't yet know enough about something: "I'd better hit the books." Ridiculousness: Go ahead and HIT those books. HIT THEM! They won't hit back.

  • "Don't have a cow." Meaning: This expression is used to tell someone to calm down about something. While it was made exceedingly famous by our yellow friend Bart Simpson, people have apparently been saying it as far back as the '50s. Ridiculousness: If you use this in the presence of non-native English speakers, you deserve the blank, confused looks you're going to get, because your literal meaning is as follows: "I can clearly see that you don't have a cow in your possession, but I really must implore you not to give birth to one."

  • "Eat your own dog food." Meaning: The concept here is that if you are responsible for a service or a product, you should be willing to use/eat/drink that product before subjecting others to it. (Just imagine if politicians had to treat lawmaking this way. What wondrous fun.) Ridiculousness: I shudder to imagine the makers of Alpo having to start staff meetings by digging into that horrific dog food.

  • "Face the music." Meaning: This means you need to face the negative consequences of whatever you did. Ridiculousness: Why does "music" stand in for "negative consequences" when the majority of us LIKE music?

  • "Hit the nail on the head." Meaning: This means to get something exactly right. It can also be shortened to the pleasing "You really nailed it!" Comparative Lack of Ridiculousness: If you think about it, this one actually makes sense. The metaphorical image is of a hammer and a nail. You're trying to pound the nail as effectively and accurately as possible, so you want to hit the nail straight... on its head. You don't want to mess around and miss the nail, or nail it in at an odd angle, do you?

  • "Kill two birds with one stone." Meaning: This simply means to do two things at once. Maybe you need to take out the garbage, so you figure you may as well grab that screwdriver from the garage on your way back in. Ridiculousness: Please draw me a diagram showing me how you are going to kill both of those flight-capable birds with a single throwing object.

  • "Knock your socks off." Meaning: This expression describes something that's really impressive or amazing. You could also express your own amazement by saying that something "really knocked my socks off." Ridiculousness: Did we at least begin by knocking off the shoes? Or do the socks somehow escape the shoes while the shoes remain miraculously on the feet?

  • "Let's call it a day." Meaning: We're ceasing activity for now, and we're more than likely happy about doing so. We Americans LOVE "calling it a day" after we feel we've worked sufficiently hard to feel self-satisfied. Ridiculousness: Calling non-day things "days" is just so... satisfying?

  • "Now you're talking." Meaning: People say this to express enthusiastic agreement with something you've just said. Ridiculousness: "Yes, I do happen to be talking right now; what of it?"

  • "On cloud nine." Meaning: If someone says they're on cloud nine, it means they're blissfully happy about something. I googled this one out of consummate curiosity, and apparently, a 1950s US Weather Bureau classification defined "Cloud 9"-type clouds as those perfectly fluffy cumulonimbus clouds that all children draw with crayons by age six. Ridiculousness: "No, not the eighth cloud. Or the seventh heaven. Keep going... yep, there it is, cloud nine!"

  • "Pitch in." Meaning: If you "pitch in," you join a collaborative effort with enthusiasm and vigor. You help out. You do your part as a member of a team. Ridiculousness: Our modern references for the word "pitch" typically have to do with baseball. In the context of baseball, "pitching in" makes no sense.

  • "Take it with a grain of salt." Meaning: If someone says this to you, they're telling you that while whatever's being said is only partly worth believing, and it'd be smart to stay a little skeptical about it. For example, one might say, "Promises made by politicians during elections are best taken with a grain of salt." This one is apparently quite historic: it seems that Pliny the Elder, way back in 77 A.D., said something to the extent that salt makes everything a little easier to swallow. Ridiculousness: So you're saying that just ONE minuscule grain of salt will do the trick in all situations?

  • "The best thing since sliced bread." Meaning: This is an expression used to emphasize how enthusiastic someone is about something. For example, if a fancy new VR headset comes on the market, you might say, "WOW! This is the best thing since sliced bread." Ridiculousness: Actually, no, you wouldn't say that at all, because in the modern age we're no longer super-impressed by pre-sliced bread.

  • "Way to go!" Meaning: You did good. If someone says this to you, they're expressing their approval or excitement about whatever you just did. Ridiculousness: The innate silliness of this one is best typified by another non-native English-speaking colleague's comment: "It sounds like it's not to cheer someone up, but rather tell him there is plenty room for improvement." As in, "Dude, you've still got a long way to go on that."

  • "What's his/her face." Meaning: People say this when they're referring to someone they know whose name they cannot remember, and whose name they're too lazy to try to remember. Ridiculousness: This one makes very little sense, as you do not actually want whomever you're asking to describe the person's face. Please don't inflict this on anyone.

If you still haven't had enough idiom fun, check out this idiom-learning app, which uses highly amusing illustrations to highlight and teach our ridiculous American idioms. And remember: have mercy on our non-native-English-speaking friends and colleagues. Because sometimes, we native English speakers do use idioms to the point of idiocy, and the habit doesn't do them — or us — any favors.