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Galimatias Blog


Kirjoittanut: Rytkönen Claire / 19.6.2019 17:59

Just before the holidays we would like to take a last chance to boost your English. Perhaps you will also use English  over the summer, travelling for pleasure or business, or in between the breaks at a summer cottage?

Young lady resting on hammock with book summer

The holidays might be a good occasion to refresh your English, especially since there are thousands of idioms in English... and some of them might be great fun or can cause funny misunderstandings. Some will be familiar and easy to understand, such as ”money doesn’t grow on trees” while some will have direct Finnish equivalents, for example ”a bee in his bonnet = ”herne nenässä” or ”like two peas in a pod” = ”kuin kaksi marjaa”.

Imagine you go for a meal with international colleagues or friends one evening while attending an event. Your guest says, “ The host said we will go Dutch, or was he pulling my leg?”

These are two very important social idioms:

  1. a) to go Dutch means each person pays their own bill.
  2. b) to pull someone’s leg means to joke.

It is good to understand these idioms in order to know:

  1. exactly who will pay, how much and
  2. whether a statement is serious or not.

The literal meaning in these examples gives no assistance at all but knowing the idiom will help you resolve the issue. Here for example are a range of idioms with a non-literal meaning to express a positive or a negative situation.

Can you tell - which ones are positive and which are negative?

the bee’s knees, 

a cash cow

monkey business

a white elephant

the cat’s pyjamas a dead horse

a dog’s breakfast

a pig’s ear



They are as follows:




The cat’s pyjamas


The best/ absolutely great
”The new update is the cat’s pyjamas.”

The bee’s knees


”This is the bee’s knees –I recommend it!”

A cash cow



A regular high money earner
”This product is the cash cow of their range.”.


A white elephant

Something large and very expensive to maintain
”The old premises were a white elephant.”


A pig’s ear

A complete mess
”He made a pig’s ear of the whole project.”


A dog’s breakfast

A total mess

”The presentation was a dog’s breakfast – terrible to watch.”


Monkey business

Irregular, irrational or even  fraudulent activity
”These figures don’t add up.
I suspect monkey monkey business.”


A dead horse

An impossible to sell product or idea.
”The technology is out-of-date. They are selling a dead horse.”


It would be hard to guess many of these, however learning them could make the difference in instantly understanding if a reaction is positive or negative.

Idioms that sound much worse than they are
However, some idioms do provide a clue but the meaning is far better than it sounds. Watch for these ones as they can be tricky!

“One more drink for the road?” is not an encouragement to drink drive but rather a way to call for a final drink before ending an evening.
“I am over the moon about my daughter’s engagement.” does not mean the parent is confused about the daughter’s choice, rather that he/she is delighted that the daughter has found a partner.
Likewise, “I could murder a Chinese”  is not an encouragement of ethnic violence but rather Chinese (or it could be Indian/Thai) refers to a  Chinese meal and murder/kill is often used as an expression for a very strong desire to eat.

This overstatement is a common pattern in English idioms. Very often idioms and expressions fall into the two categories of overstatement (playful exaggeration) or understatement or euphemism (a softening term for a difficult topic).

Idiomatic overstatement can be found in common social expressions such as
“I made the flight by the skin of my teeth.”  - I just barely made the flight with seconds to spare.
“He is grasping at straws.” - He is desperately trying to find any possible hope or solution

In addition, there are literally hundreds of inventive idioms expressing that someone is unattractive, unintelligent, slightly mad, tight with money, or drunk. New idioms are created regularly and taken up with enthusiasm in English if they are effective.


In English is common to “skate over “(mention lightly) topics such as death, job loss, body functions, disappointment and arguments.

For these delicate situations special idioms called euphemisms are used. Euphemism is a Greek word deriving from “eu-” meaning “good” and “phemism” meaning “expression”. Thus a good expression for a sensitive theme.

Here is a sample of some of the most common areas:

Job loss

If a colleague tells you that, “John was let go and is between jobs.” this is a sensitive way to let you know that John was sacked and is currently unemployed.  Companies often use euphemisms to describe sacking workers. For example, expressions such as “downsizing, restructuring, decruiting, destaffing, releasing, rightsizing”. These are just a few of the very many used in this area. 

Body functions

Again, as in many cultures, English speakers may not be comfortable drawing attention to their body functions. Therefore a wide range of euphemisms have grown up surrounding the act of going to the toilet. You may be familiar with, “I must powder my nose” or,” I must wash my hands.” However you should be aware that some euphemisms for toilet visits are rather puzzling.
“Nature calls”
“I am just going to see a man about a dog”
“ I am just going to see a man about a car”
In such a case – do not panic, your guest will soon return.

Arguments and problems

Lastly sometimes English speakers may use certain euphemisms in confrontational situations.
Although sounding soft they could indicate quite a serious dispute.
Thus a couple who are “having a slight wobble/hitting a small bump/not seeing eye to eye” may actually be on the edge of a divorce. Similarly a problem which sounds relatively minor “not everything that could be desired/ not quite up to scratch/ not exactly on the same page” could mean a complete disaster.

This usage is particularly common in British English and differs from American English.
A famous example of this is the misunderstanding which happened between British and American forces at the Battle of Imjin River in the Korean War in 1951. 800 British troops were surrounded by 30 000 Chinese Communist forces. The British General contacted the American military command to say that the situation was “a bit sticky”. US command took this to mean that the situation was difficult but could be resolved. No reinforcements were sent and the brigade was almost completely wiped out. Thus euphemisms can cost clarity while aiding understatement and sensitivity.

If you would like to avoid tricky or even fatal misunderstandings, contact Galimatias or watch our short and fun video for free what to say to easily avoid confusing situations at a lunch in English.

Lataa video Confusing situations during a business lunch!   

Wishing you a wonderful summer!

Aiheet: rallienglanti, English, englanti, kesäkurssi

Rytkönen Claire

Kirjoittajana Rytkönen Claire

English language professional, Head of English at Galimatias


Galimatias on vuonna 1996 perustettu valmennusyritys, joka tarjoaa palveluja yrityksille, organisaatioille ja julkishallinnolle.

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