Do you understand me?


While procrastinating again, (will I ever stop this unpleasant habit?) I was browsing a popular UK newspaper site online, and found an interesting piece about common sayings in the English language that foreigners find hard to understand.

Read more:

If you’ve got sweet Fanny Adams to do and it’s brass monkeys outside, you might just go doolally. But while most of us would know that means we’re going mad because we have nothing to do and it’s freezing cold, linguistics experts in Switzerland have identified these three sayings as among the most baffling in the English language.

Here are their top ten most baffling sayings. How many do you know?

1. Bob’s your Uncle
Meaning: To achieve something with great ease.
Origin: In 1886 Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Lord Salisbury) made Arthur Balfour Chief Secretary of Ireland, to the surprise of observers at the time. Arthur Balfour was ‘Bob’s’ nephew.

Fly by the seat of your pants
Meaning: To do something without a clear plan, to improvise.
Origin: A 1938 headline describing Douglas Corrigan’s 29-hour flight from Brooklyn to Dublin. Corrigan had filed for a transatlantic flight two days earlier but was rejected because his plane was considered unfit. On landing, he claimed his compass had broken.

Skeleton in the cupboard
Meaning: Something embarrassing to hide.
Origin: Until the 1830s it was illegal to dissect human bodies, so medical schools and doctors had to buy them from grave-robbers and hide them in case of raids. William Thackeray, writer of Vanity Fair, used the phrase for the first time in print in 1845.

Bite the bullet
Meaning: To have to do something very unpleasant.
Origin: Soldiers operated on without anaesthetic bit bullets to help with the pain.

Mad as a hatter
Meaning: To be completely insane.
Origin: In the 18th and 19th centuries mercury was used by hat makers, who were poisoned by the chemical.


Eat Humble Pie
Meaning: To submit to something below one’s dignity, to admit error.
Origin: Umbles, from Middle English, comes from Old French nombles meaning loin. It refers to offal, a meal for the poor.

It’s brass monkeys outside
Meaning: Freezing cold weather.
Origin: ‘Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. A ship’s cannon balls used to be stacked on a brass structure called a ‘monkey’ – the brass would contract in cold weather and the cannon balls would fall off.

Go doolally
Meaning: To go mad.
Origin: After the Indian garrison town of Deolali where British soldiers waited, sometimes for months, to be taken back to Britain after their tour of duty. There was nothing to do and many may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sweet Fanny Adams
Meaning: Emphatically nothing at all.
Origin: Fanny Adams was the eight-year-old victim of a murder in 1867. Her body was cut into pieces and thrown into the River Wey in Surrey. A ballad about the killing referred to her as ‘sweet’ and it later became a term in British Naval slang – or jackspeak – to refer to an unpalatable stew.

10  Haven’t seen you in donkey’s years
Meaning: In a long time.
Origin: Donkeys’ longevity – some die in their 60s. Or Cockney rhyming slang, ‘donkey’s ears’ meaning years.

Cockney rhyming slang!  Now there’s another great topic……..


12 thoughts on “Do you understand me?

  1. I hope you are having a fantastic time sailing from island to island. I imagine the mediterranean to be littered with dead bodies these days due to all the capsized refugee boats


  2. Thanks for looking at my blog. It’s such a shame that people have a bad impression of Greece with the migrant problems. The refugees are only reaching the small number of islands closest to Turkey. They do not go from island to island. We have never seen any problems at all, partly because this year we are sailing in the Ionian, right over the other side of Greece near Corfu. It is still perfectly safe to go to Greece and Turkey, even to the islands involved.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well I sure don’t have any bad impressions about Greece and can well imagine myself visiting there before too long. I’ve never been there before but have just transited through Athens Airport on two occasions. I’m also from the UK (Bournemouth) but these days I’m here in Lisbon, Portugal.


  3. Interesting one about the hat makers going insane because of mercury. There is speculation nowadays that too much heavy metals in the body may contribute to depression and memory loss or confusion. Mercury (amalgam) fillings come to mind……… they are still used in Ireland. Great list, thanks for sharing.


  4. Pingback: Discovering New Blogs (March 21, 2016) – Shmaltz and Menudo

  5. Oh I love this list of weird phrases we use – language is great isn’t it? I’m always accused of using old-fashioned sayings and words, but I like to keep them alive for future generations:)


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