English Idioms are Hard. Just Ask Joe Biden.

Joe Biden

Do English idioms make you ill at ease? [1]  Does the thought of having to use them cramp your style or cause your heart to miss a beat?  Are you afraid you will look like a fool if you use an expression incorrectly?  Idioms trip up native and non-native speakers alike, including our business and political leaders.  Just ask Vice President Joe Biden, also a 2020 presidential candidate.

Fondly known as America’s favorite gaffe machine, Joe Biden has long been famous for his spoken blunders and miscues.  In a recent campaign speech, Vice President Biden sought to sway potential voters with a passionate proclamation of his fundamental political beliefs.  With confidence and enthusiasm, he declared, “we believe in truth over facts.”  A collective groan could be heard across America by the crowd in attendance, along with the question, come again?’   Speaking of rhetorical questions – here is a useful idiomatic practice tip, compliments of Joe Biden.  If someone asks you a question with the phrase, Come again?”, “Are you kidding me?”, or even WTF?”, chances are pretty good that you have misused an English idiom. 

This was not a one-off misstep for Vice President Biden.  While campaigning in Iowa back in August, 2019, he told a reporter that there were “at least three” genders.  When asked to name all three in a follow up question, Vice President Biden became a little hot under the collar and refused to respond further.

WTF are Idioms. Why Should Business Leaders Care?

Using idiomatic expressions and turning phrases are the essential tools of persuasion for those who must speak English, the international language of business and diplomacy throughout the world.  However, the complexities and challenges of communication in the modern world require business leaders to have more than just a fluency with English.  They must know how to communicate on a deeper level if they want to do so effectively and persuasively.  What does that mean exactly?

To answer this question, we draw upon our collective professional experiences.  We have worked and represented clients across many industries and cultures over many, many years.  We have negotiated mega business deals and multi-million-dollar settlements of commercial disputes with counterparts who spoke English as a second language.  Many spoke English fluently but were not particularly effective in negotiations.  They could discuss basic facts and details but could not communicate on a deeper, more convincing level.  However, those that spoke English with the ability to use idiomatic expressions were able to level the playing field by earning a deeper respect from their native English-speaking counterparts.  In fact, they often wielded a distinct tactical advantage because their ability to use idioms in their communications gave them a powerful tool of persuasion and a psychological advantage over their native speaking counterparts who were confronted with the reality that using English did not give them the upper hand in negotiations.  At the end of the day, no one can speak English persuasively without the ability to use idiomatic expressions effectively. 

The English language is permeated with idiomatic expressions at every level.  Native English speakers use idioms daily, whether communicating at home, at work, in public or with friends.  Multi-media, whether in the form of news or advertising rely heavily on idioms as a means of persuasive communication.  Idioms are viewed as powerful rhetorical devices, routinely used by politicians and business leaders in speeches and presentations.  With over 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the modern English language, the proper use of these phrases can be challenging for native and non-native speakers alike.      

What are idioms and why are they so challenging for second language learners?  In its most basic form, an idiom is a group of words with two defining characteristics: 1) a figurative or metaphorical meaning that is particular to a specific language; and 2) a literal translation that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Idioms are difficult because they are phrases that evolve directly from a people’s history, heritage and culture.  Learning the correct use of idioms, therefore, requires a deeper understanding of the language beyond vocabulary and grammar.

Fluency Doesn’t Cut It. Just Ask Greta. . .

To anyone under the false impression that using English idioms are a piece of cake or no big deal, Greta Thunberg would be delighted to offer you a different perspective.  The 16-year-old global climate change activist recently experienced the consequences of murderingan English idiom on a world stage.  This event is particularly interesting considering that Thunberg’s English skills are excellent, and she routinely gives speeches and interviews in English throughout the world.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg, photo by European Parliament from EU – Greta Thunberg at the Parliament, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81699733

While speaking at a rally in Torino, Italy last December, the 16-year old caused quite a stir in the English-speaking world with her ill-fated use of an old idiomatic expression.  During her speech, she tried to make the point that politicians should be held collectively responsible for taking action to combat climate change.  Specifically, the young activist vowed to put world leaders “against the wall” if they fail to address climate change.  The English idiom of putting someone against the wall; however, is a phrase associated with firing squads and assassinations of political leaders.  As a result, Thunberg’s intended message was lost in the ensuing sea of criticism caused by her idiomatic gaffe.  Instead of making a passionate and persuasive plea, Thunberg created a cringeworthy moment that left the rest of the English-speaking world wondering whether she really was calling for violence to fight climate change. 

While Thunberg’s embarrassing mistake was unfortunate, it provides an important teachable moment.  To her credit, Thunberg quickly apologized for her error as she was not intending to incite violence with her speech in Torino.  In her apology, Thunberg explained that in her native Swedish language, an expression with words akin to the English idiom merely means to hold someone responsible. Her English fluency skills were not the problem.  Rather, her mistake was in assuming that the Swedish meaning of an idiom was the same in English.  Thunberg learned the hard way that idioms and expressions rarely are universal across languages.  Their meanings are particular to a given language and derive from unique cultural experiences, attitudes and values.

Idioms are Equal Opportunity Challengers      

Greta Thunberg’s recent gaffe was not the first public misuse of an English idiom and it most certainly will not be the last.  That list is far too long to repeat here.  Nevertheless, one of those experiences is worth a mention for its educational, if not its entertainment value. 

Electrolux is a European appliance manufacturer that makes vacuums. In the early 1970s, Electrolux sought to enter the US market by launching a massive ad campaign.  In promoting its line of vacuum cleaners, Electrolux boasted about the quality of their products with the slogan, “Nothing sucks like Electrolux!” While there is no question that at least 9 out of 10 Americans want their vacuums to have good suction, it is also true that 10 out of 10 Americans really don’t want to buy products that suck.        

We can’t just pick on the Europeans when it comes to idiomatic gaffes.  The British – and even the Americans are guilty of misunderstanding and misusing expressions in the common language they share.  In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that English is the common language that divides the British and Americans.  Idioms are often the source of division as they mean different things to Americans and the British, two people that have different historical and cultural experiences, despite a shared language.  This dynamic has posed communication obstacles at the highest levels.  For example, American and British diplomats have grappled with the challenges of using a common language.  In one diplomatic session, American negotiators wanted to table the discussion of a topic.  Although the British voiced their agreement with the request, there was no actual agreement because the subject expression meant something different to each party.  By ‘tabling the discussion,’ the Americans wanted to postpone consideration of the topic.  To the British, however, ‘tabling the discussion’ had the exact opposite meaning and the Americans became quite agitated when the British persisted in discussing a topic they were done with.   

Americans can be the worst offenders as they often butcher the idioms of their native language.  That said, we should all be grateful to the many American politicians from both sides of the aisle that have so generously provided the rest of us with innumerable teachable moments.  A few notable examples from the highlight reel are worth mentioning. 

President Gerald Ford spent just over two years in the Oval Office from 1974 to 1977.  During that short time, he earned a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth when giving speeches. One of his notable gaffes occurred during a speech given at a public celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  First, a bit of background on the idiom he attempted to use.  When English speakers want to voice their own displeasure of or opposition to a certain event or situation, they use an expression that invokes the memory of a deceased love one or famous person.  Here, we say that this person would ‘turn over in his/her grave’ if he/she knew about a current event or situation.  President Ford, unfortunately, missed the mark when he said that, “if [President] Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”  Serious question:  if you were alive, would you want to turn over in your grave?  Most Americans agreed with you and elected Jimmy Carter President in 1978.     

Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous bodybuilder, turned famous actor, turned politician, became the Governor of California in 2003.  During his tenure, he announced his support for same sex marriage.  When asked by the media about his support for sex marriage, Governor Schwarzenegger confidently responded, “I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”  (As we write this, we hear C + C Music Factory blaring in our ears, “Things that make you go Hmmmm”).

Arnold Schwarzenegger, photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80653226

Last but not least, who could forget President George W. Bush’s effort to speak idiomatic Italian at the G 8 in 2008?  To get then Prime Minister Berlusconi’s attention, President Bush yelled across a crowded room, “hey Amigo, Amigo!”  It is anyone’s guess what President Bush was thinking when he broke out his best Spanglish for the occasion.  Perhaps he was using a lesser known Italo-Texan dialect?  Chissà?

Recommended Best Practices & Concluding Thoughts   

Learning how to use English expressions is admittedly difficult, but not impossible.  In closing, therefore, we offer you a few recommended best practices for mastering English idioms. 

First and foremost, there must be a recognition that idioms are derived directly from a people’s history and culture.  As such, you need to step out of your own experiences and into a different cultural paradigm to learn the proper use of idioms.  You cannot assume that an expression in your native language has the same meaning in English.  It probably doesn’t.  Just ask Greta. 

Second, understanding the context is critical.  Idioms are generally used to express a person’s opinions, emotions, feelings or attitudes.  Thus, you should identify the typical situation in which the idiom is normally used.  Did someone make a big mistake?  Did someone misunderstand a situation?  Did someone underestimate his competition?  Is someone seeking to express contrary opinions?   These are some typical situations in which specific idioms are commonly used to express attitudes and opinions.   

Third, you should identify an idiom by its theme.  For example, is this expression being used to persuade, express anger, criticism, disagreement or humor?  Remembering idioms by theme is invaluable for retention, comprehension and ultimately, for proper usage. 

Fourth, music and literature are excellent language tutors when it comes to idioms.  It is easy for most of us to remember the lyrics to our favorite songs and lyrics are often written with idiomatic expressions. Reading is also a great learning tool as novelists routinely use idioms in storytelling.  Reading also has the added benefit of allowing you to control the pace of the lesson.

Lastly, if you need to learn the idiomatic expressions and jargon used in certain business or professional industries, the traditional methods of language instruction by language teachers will be of no use.  The modern communications paradigm requires you to learn from industry experts who are also trained as language teachers.  That is because modern communication occurs on a deeper, more complex and more nuanced level.  Accordingly, an innovative learning approach is needed to equip today’s business leaders with the skills necessary to use idiomatic expressions as powerful rhetorical tools of English persuasion.

In summary, learning how to use English idioms properly is both difficult and challenging.  But it is not impossible.  In that spirit, we leave you with some encouragement from Audrey Hepburn, a famed and beloved actress who mastered English as a second language: “Nothing is impossible.  The word itself, says ‘I’m possible ‘!”  Like Audrey Hepburn, if you put your mind to ityou can conquer English idioms.


[1] For definitions of all idioms used in this article (in bold & italics), check out our Urban Idiom Glossary at the end of the article. 

URBAN GLOSSARY OF IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS

Ill at ease: To be uncomfortable in a situation or circumstance

Cramp one’s style: Something that inhibits, interferes or prevents you from doing your best

Cause one’s heart to skip a beat: Phrase used to describe a feeling of fear, apprehension or excitement

To look like a fool: To appear or come across as dumb or unintelligent

To trip up: Phrase used to describe when someone or something causes another to make an error or blunder  

Come again? Phrase used to ask someone to repeat what was just said; also, used to express anger or disagreement with someone

Are you kidding me? Phrase used to express surprise, disbelief, anger or disagreement with someone or something

WTF? Slang expression (somewhat vulgar) used more in written than spoken communication to express annoyance, disbelief or surprise at someone or something

One off: Phrase used to describe a situation or event that has occurred or will occur only one time and has or will never be repeated

Hot under the collar: To be intensely angry or upset

To turn a phrase: To use words and idiomatic expressions in a distinctive and persuasive way

To level the playing field: To take action to ensure that the competition or interaction between two or more parties is fair to all

To have the upper hand: To have the dominate or controlling position; to have the advantage in a situation

At the end of the day: A summary phrase meaning, ‘in conclusion, in summary, after everything is considered’

To cut it: To have the qualities to cope with or meet the needs of a given situation or undertaking

Piece of cake: A task or undertaking that is very easy to do or accomplish

No big deal: A phrase used to describe something that is of little importance; also, an informal

To murder something: To harm or destroy something; to make an egregious error

To cause a stir: To create something that creates alarm, excitement, or agitation in others (can be positive or negative)

To put someone against the wall: To put someone in front of a firing squad; to assassinate political enemies

To do something the hard way: To choose the most difficult or challenging means to do something (usually negative)

Equal opportunity: When used as part of an idiomatic expression, it describes a situation or circumstance that impacts everyone in the same way, regardless of background, ability, etc.  

9 out of 10. . .: An expression used to help express the opinion that something will or will not occur with certainty or near certainty (e.g. “He is late 9 out of 10 times for our weekly team meeting” 

To suck: Someone or something that is very bad or poor quality, talent or ability

To pick on: To criticize, treat badly, bully or tease

To table something (AmE): To postpone or defer discussion of a topic or subject

To table something (BrE): To bring up or proceed with discussion of a topic or subject

To butcher something: To botch or commit an egregious error

Both sides of the aisle: Phrase derived from the physical walkway the House of Representatives and Senate that separates the Democrats seats from the Republicans. As an idiom, it refers to both American political parties or both sides of a dispute

The highlight reel: A collection of the best parts, occurrences of an event or subject

To put one’s foot in one’s mouth: To say or do something inappropriate or embarrassing

To miss the mark: To make a mistake or error

To turn over in one’s grave: To be very upset about a situation; expression uses the memory of a deceased person to indicate that he/she would be extremely unhappy about an event if that person were alive today

Last but not least: A concluding phrase indicating a topic that is discussed last in the sequence but that is just as important as the previous topics discussed

Amigo: American slang word derived from Spanish used to address or refer to a good friend  

Anyone’s guess: A phrase used to describe a situation in which it is impossible to know what is true or what will happen

To break out [something]: To begin using or doing something

Chissà?: Alternative expression for ‘who knows’?

To put your mind to it: To give something one’s complete attention, effort or determination