2 people talking with British scene graphic
Charlotte Birchall

Charlotte Birchall

Charlotte a Digital Marketing Specialist. She has a wealth of marketing experience under her belt, and there is no-one better at finding their way around automations.

Read time of 6 minutes.

How many of these brilliantly bonkers phrases do you use in everyday life?

It’s safe to say we’ve got some interesting traditions. What quintessentially British idiosyncrasies would have non-natives baffled?

There are a fair few, this is true. Especially when it comes to our communication.

As the birthplace of Shakespeare, we are famed for our ability to manipulate language but there are some rather baffling phrases in there too.

Join us, as we pick our top 10 turns of phrase. How many do you know?

1. That's the badger

Three Badgers

We are nothing if not a nation obsessed with these loveable nocturnal specimens, so it is only fitting that we incorporate them into our phraseology. Unsurprisingly, this gem doesn’t refer to actually picking a specific badger out of a lineup of fellow stripey mammals.

Rather, it means to happen upon the correct solution to something or to denote that you have found the exact thing you are looking for.

The exact reasons for substituting badgers with any given object is unclear but the saying is believed to have originated in the West Country, where there are indeed a lot of badgers. Your guess is as good as mine, but I like to think the truth goes something like this:

Wild badger energetically launches itself at an unsuspecting Ford Mondeo in the depths of the night, causing an almighty dent in the bonnet. Distraught and bewildered driver reports the incident to the police. Police endeavor to collate an identity parade of all local badgers. Motorist correctly identifies the culprit with a wild cry of 'that's the badger!'.

All celebrate and the phrase becomes etched into our vocabulary.

Yes, it’s flawed but I very much enjoyed going down that rabbit hole. Or badger sett to be more accurate.

2. Give it some welly

Two pairs of wellies

Commonly believed to be a predominantly Scottish turn of phrase because of comedian Billy Connelly’s regular use of it, this is a popular utterance up and down the country.

We Brits recognise it as a pretty normal saying in everyday parlance but it’s one that never fails to confuse others. After all, what have wellies got to do with anything?

For anyone not in the know, welly is the slang term for Wellington boots, those hardy rubber beauts that were named after the First Duke of Wellington and popularised by royals and Paddington Bear alike. Quite how that relates to giving something maximum effort is a little more tenuous.

Let me explain.

Wellies are built for adverse conditions. Somewhere along the line, the mental lines between boots and feet got blurred and at some point, in the 1970s, the saying was born.

It was first popularised in sporting events such as football and motor racing to explain when a sports person was applying pressure with their foot – for example a strong kick or press on the accelerator.

3. Make a pig's ear of something

Pig's ears

Somewhat perplexingly, pigs seem to get a mixed run of things when it comes to British sayings.

Pigs in mud (or other, less printable substances) are a good thing. Their ears however, not so much. Meaning, as I’m sure you are aware, ‘to do a bad job’ of something this phrase has some solid historical roots.

The expression itself is derived from a 16th century proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’. It was later used by Stephen Gosson in his 1579 story Ephemerides and refers to people engaged in a futile task as ‘seekinge to make a silke purse of a sowes eare’.

The assumption is that if one were to actually try to make something as delicate as a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, it would end up in one almighty mess.

Pretty self-explanatory, we think.

4. Rubbing me up the wrong way

Bird with ruffled feathers

Likely to be one that we’ve all used at some point in our lives, its widely acknowledged that if someone says this, they’re feeling a bit irked.

Its exact origins are unknown, but it is believed to refer to the act of stroking an animal’s fur in the wrong direction. Which, as anyone who’s ever experimented with will know, can result in a rather disgruntled pet.

It could also be a derivation of ‘to ruffle someone’s feathers’, an idiom that comes from the mid-1800s when it was mistakenly believed that the feathers around a bird’s neck would only puff up when it was agitated.

5. Barking up the wrong tree

Raccoon in tree

Formerly meaning to ‘pursue the wrong course to obtain something’ this phrase has come to be used for any case of mistaken activity or identity over the years. It originates from the American practice of racoon hunting that was popular in the nineteenth century.

At the time, the nocturnal racoons were hunted at night with dogs. The dogs were tasked with following their prey and waiting for the hunters by the tree that the raccoon invariably run up to hide.

However, at times the wily raccoons would jump from tree to tree, confusing the loyal dog, who would be left barking, quite literally at the wrong tree.

6. Caught red handed

Red hand

This idiom dates way back to the 1400s in Scotland and is actually much more literal than one would imagine.

Back then, it referred to anyone who had been caught in the act of either committing a murder or poaching and killing an animal. The culprit would be given away because of the blood all over their hands and justice would be done.

The term was brought to a wider audience by Sir Walter Scott and whilst it could still be used in its original context, it now more commonly relates to anyone caught in the act of wrong doings of any sort.

7. Spill the beans

Spilled coffee beans

Another common one in everyday use in modern times, the most likely origin for this saying is Ancient Greece.

They used an anonymous voting system involving beans to make important political decisions. A white bean indicated a positive vote, black or darker coloured beans meant a negative vote.

The votes were cast in secret, with the beans collected in a jar and counted later. So, if the jar was knocked over either accidentally or on purpose, it was known as spilling the beans.

Which gives rise to the context we use it in nowadays to describe a secret being let out.

8. Cat got your tongue?

Cat licking its paw

Used to describe a person who is lost for words, there are a couple of possible explanations for this saying.

The first dating back to Ancient Egypt, where anyone who was found guilty of lying or blaspheming had their tongues cut out and fed to cats. Which is somewhat harsh if you ask me!

Another possible origin is similar but refers to the times of witch trials. The wayward women were believed to be able to steal a person’s power of speech by cutting out their tongue and feeding it to their familiar.

Possibly the most accepted version though lies with the English Navy.

Any mutinous sailors were subject to a vicious flogging with a cat o’nine tails – a handheld whip made of nine knotted thongs of cord that was designed to lacerate skin and cause maximum pain. The result was said to be so excruciating that the recipient would stay silent for many hours after the flogging.

9. Bite the bullet

Bullets

To bite the bullet literally means to ‘accept inevitable impending hardship and endure the hardship with fortitude’.

The phrase is drawn from the experiences of injured soldiers, who, in the absence of any anesthetic were given a bullet to bite down on.

Some believe it to come from the American Civil War, although evidence that a bullet was used as opposed to a leather strap is sparse.

More likely, it is an evolution of the British term to ‘bite the cartridge’ a term that was used in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It has the same connotations but is perhaps factually more accurate.

The term was first officially recorded in Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel The Light That Failed.

10. The apple of my eye

Apple

Dating back as far as at least the ninth century, this romantic idiom was probably in use for much longer before it was first recorded. It first appeared in King Alfred of Wessex Gregory’s Pastoral Care to describe a person or thing that one cares for above all else.

It later appeared in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and appeared in several Psalms in the King James version of the bible.

In the ninth century, the pupil of the eye was believed to be a solid object and the obvious comparisons with the spherical fruit led to it becoming known as the apple of the eye. 

Without any notable eye care, eye sight was an exceedingly valuable sense and so the idea of the pupil being the most precious part of the eye was born.