English Idioms and Standing Out in a Crowd


I’m pretty stereotypically English in a lot of ways. I love cricket, I eat and cook an alarming amount of curry, and I have a ‘generic’ but strong English accent. The generic aspect to it is thanks to growing up in various parts of the South East, but the strength I think has increased in the years since I moved to the US.

I think this strengthening of my accent happened in two stages. The first stage was when I first started my current job straight out of my PhD. During my PhD I was primarily working with native English speakers: there were a few international postgrads and academics, but the University of Warwick was a primarily white institutuon, at least when I was there. However, when I started my career almost all of my clients were based somewhere in mainland Europe, including Switzerland, France, Denmark, and Germany. They all spoke excellent English, but I tended to speak clearly and precisely to make myself as easy to understand as possible. This is especially important when describing complex technical concepts; I didn’t want to have people waste brain cycles on just understanding the words, I wanted people to be able to understand the content itself.

This then changed slightly when I shifted to working primarily with US-based clients. There was no longer a language barrier to worry about, I was dealing almost entirely with people who knew English as a first language again. However, even though the primary reason for my clear elocution was gone, I found myself articulating my words even more clearly than before! I think it was almost a sense of childlike petulance; I wasn’t going to be influenced by these Americans with their bastardization of my language1I realize that this is historically incorrect, and that modern-day American English has more in common with historical English accents, as described here: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180207-how-americans-preserved-british-english but at least emotionally I feel my position is justified, I was going to rebel!

As time went on this got more and more pronounced, until I realized I started using obscure and sometimes archaic English idioms that I’d never dreamt of using previously. I know what you’re thinking, isn’t there a risk that my point will be lost, especially if I’m attempting to communicate a particularly subtle technical concept? I agree in part, and that’s certainly a risk, but I always use those idioms in a situation where either I have already explained my point accurately, or where I follow -up with a clarification such that I am sure people have understood me. In short, I feel like the risk is minimized as much as possible.

In terms of why I do it, I think again it’s a form of rebellion, but also a way of emphasizing my difference from the rest of the US population. I am strongly pro-immigration: I think that both a diverse and integrated population builds a stronger and more resilient nation, and that diversity and integration can only happen through high levels of immigration. I’m not going to go too much into my political position, but I think patriotism is fine as long as it’s based on a shared sense of values with the overwhelming majority of a diverse population. If there is no overwhelming majority, then there is no country, and nothing to be patriotic about. Countries always have some degree of diversity, and if there is no integration, then the minority will have no say in what those values are, and they will end up subjugated.

However much I hate to say it, I am the sort of immigrant that even anti-immigration people like (or at least tolerate). So if I can demonstrate that differences are good, or at least, not bad, maybe I can play a very small part in bringing this deeply divided nation together. Due to my current status, I’m somewhat limited in other paths forward, even if they are guaranteed by the consitution2https://www.thenorthstar.com/immigrants-wanting-to-show-solidarity-with-black-lives-matter-movement-grapple-with-high-risks/.

So that’s the purpose of this page! I’m going to catalog the odd idioms that fall out of my mouth, an idea of what I mean by it, and some interesting notes on the etymology of the phrase if I can figure it out.

Idioms & Proverbs

Teaching your Grandmother to suck eggs

Don’t try and explain something to someone who obviously knows a lot more about the subject than you do. Turns out it’s probably Spanish in origin3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teaching_grandmother_to_suck_eggs, but English has a history of stealing words, phrases, countries, so why stop now…

Alls well that ends well

This one is extremely internationalized I know, but it’s got a great flow, and it’s strongly linked to Shakespeare, even if maybe not originated by him4https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/alls-well-that-ends-well.html.

In for a penny, in for a pound

This one only really makes sense if you aren’t intending to pay, which is a dangerous strategy if you care about your credit score…

The proof of the pudding is in the eating

You can only be sure that something will work by actually doing it. A hypothesis is fine, but it’s useless if you can’t prove it

Bob’s your Uncle

Literally just means ‘there you go’, or ‘there it is’. Wikipedia seems pretty unsure about where this comes from, so therefore it must be a mystery! 5https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob%27s_your_uncle

To send someone to Coventry

To ostracise or exclude someone. Seems to originate from the Civil War6https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Send_to_Coventry, I particularly like it because I lived in Coventry for about 5, and I can confirm being sent there would be horrible…

That takes the biscuit

To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious7https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/take_the_biscuit. This came up today in relation to an article on the BBC. Great phrase to use when someone oversteps the metaphorical line.