Posted by: Jack Henry | October 8, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Idioms

Dear Editrix,

Do you ever hear strange expressions like “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”? I have heard many strange expressions, and since English is my second language, it has me a bit confused. Where do these expressions come from? And what do they mean?

Eagerly awaiting your reply,


My dear Alan,

You have stumbled upon what we call idiomatic phrases! Idiomatic phrases are tricky because they are made up of words you might already know, but when they’re put together in a phrase, they mean something completely different from the individual words. Using your example, I am sure you know the definitions of the individual words “I will be a monkey’s uncle.” But together, that phrase means, basically, “What a surprise!”


“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” exclaimed John’s mother, “John actually did his own laundry this week!”

Idioms show up in a lot of different languages. When I was in Spain, we had an entire class focused on idiomatic phrases. We had to learn how to say them in Spanish, what the literal translation was, and what the idiomatic translation was.


“Un gato con guantes no caza ratones,” translates literally to “A cat in gloves catches no mice.” What it means idiomatically, though, is “Nice guys finish last.”

What makes idioms doubly interesting is that just because the idiom is in one language, does not mean all speakers of that language will understand it. For example, a Spanish speaker from Mexico or Chile may have no idea what the Spaniard is talking about when they mention cats in gloves because these phrases “grow” in the countries they are from, not necessarily from the language that is used. That’s one of the reasons they can be so difficult to figure out. I’m watching the British Baking Show, and people always talk about being “chuffed to bits.” In American English, that means nothing. The dictionary tells me “chuff” is a regular sharp puffing sound that a steam engine makes. In Britain, it means “very pleased.”

Here is a website where you can search for the meaning of English idioms (both British English and American English): The Free Dictionary.

You also asked where idioms come from and I’m afraid the answer is that they just develop over time. There’s no one source, and as I said, they can vary from country to country, even if the countries speak the same language.

I’m sorry that the answer isn’t crystal clear, but maybe some of these will entertain you and make up for that: Ridiculous Idioms.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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