Expressions in English: Introduction

The tricky thing about expressions is that if you have never heard a specific expression in the past, the meaning might not make much sense the first time you hear it.  This can be especially frustrating for non-native English speakers.

Expressions can also be a fun way to learn about a language, and the culture behind it.

Types of English Expressions

Expressions are also known as "sayings" and sometimes "phrases" as well.  Yet there are other types of expressions, each with unique characteristics.

Idiomatic Expressions: Expressions whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up

Cliches: Expressions that have become so popular that they are considered "overused", and unattached to their original meaning.  The term can also be used to describe something outdated or unoriginal.

Proverbs: Condensed but memorable sayings, embodying some important fact of experience that is taken as true by many people

Exclamations: Loud complaint or protest or reproach, often rhetorical

Nation/Culture-Specific Expressions

Many countries and/or cultures have their own unique expressions, unique to the group who mainly uses them. For example, there are common American expressions understood by many or most Americans, that simply won't make sense to a foreign speaker the first time he or she hears one (see Baseball Expressions below).

Lost in Translation

It is not easy to translate expressions into different languages, often because part of the meaning is simply lost when translated.  This is due to the fact that the meaning of expressions is often rooted in the culture that uses them.  So, we might not understand expressions used by cultures other than our own, unless they are explained to us. 

Observe the following translation of the same expression:

English: Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed?

French: Tu t'es levé du pied gauche?

(Did you get up on your left foot?)

Both sentences actually have the same meaning(why are you cranky today?) in their individual languages, but they are expressed differently, with unique word choices. In French, the word "gauche" means "left" AND "wrong", or "socially awkward." Many English expressions come from or include French, since the two languages share a long history.

Perhaps you're familiar with a famous expression in German, Russian or Hebrew.  There are also British expressions, which differ from American ones, even though they both use English! Cheerio!

We will stick to English, 'cause that's what we do best . . . but feel free to comment (see below), and share some of your favorite expressions - either in English, or give us the English translation from another language!

Interest & Industry Expressions 

This idea of groups having their own expressions applies to any group of people, not just countrymen.  There are also specific expressions for different industries, jobs and/or interest groups.

Baseball expressions: (Home run!  as in "Your business proposal was a real home run!")

Theatre expressions: (Break a leg!)

Poker expressions  (Don't show all your cards.)

Business expressions (Cut your losses.)

Some are popular enough that they are widely understood; others are very specific and not often used outside of the community for which they were invented (i.e. "farmer expressions" might be lost on a city dweller!).

For important, modern English expressions, check out WhiteSmoke’s blog every week for updates!