Common English Phrases and Their Origins

ALCC common english phrases English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, in part because there are so many seemingly nonsensical rules and techniques. At times, the language can even be difficult for native speakers to grasp! Although the best way to practice the language is through conversation, it helps to understand that English has some commonly used phrases that can be confusing to non-native speakers because their meaning isn’t tied to their literal translation. Consider this your cheat sheet to common English phrases as you learn the language.

Phrase: “Break the ice”

Meaning: To break the ice means to start a conversation, initiate friendship, or prevent an awkward interaction. It’s a phrase you might hear after you’ve enrolled in classes. On the first day, students often begin introducing themselves to get to know one another during icebreaker activities.

History: In olden days, port cities in cold climates relied on ships called icebreakers to help commercial ships navigate through icy waters to get into and out of the city.

Phrase: “Caught red handed”

Meaning: To be caught red handed means that one has been caught in the act of wrongdoing.

History: An old law stated that, in order to be convicted of killing someone else’s animal, a person had to be caught with the animal’s blood on his hands or directly in the act of committing the crime.

Phrase: “Giving a cold shoulder”

Meaning: Giving someone a cold shoulder doesn’t actually have anything to do with shoulders at all! It’s a phrase for being rude to someone to let them know they aren’t welcome.

History: Back in Medieval England, this was actually a polite way to ask guests to leave. When the host started handing out cold pieces of shoulder meat, it meant it was time for guests to start wrapping up the conversation. English today, however, uses this as a rude way to let someone know they’re not wanted.

Have you heard any unique phrases during conversation? English is full of words and phrases that are commonly used and understood by native speakers, even if they don’t make much logical sense today.

Special thanks to hiroaki maeda for the photo.

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