10 Bizarre English Sayings And What They Mean

Have you ever travelled or relocated to a new city in the UK and been completely bamboozled by the local sayings? Have you been left needing an explanation of what someone just said?

Imagine being a new student or resident, even a tourist, either from overseas or a different part of the country, having to learn these expressions. That’s the challenge facing thousands of new freshers and post-graduates arriving throughout UK cities to begin their studies.

Learning a bit of local lingo can go a long way to easing the transition to a new city or country, helping to break down differences in cultures. Handily, student accommodation provider, Urbanest, has listed 10 British expressions and explained their meaning and origins.

‘Rub (up) the wrong way’

Meaning: To irritate someone.

Origin: It is believed this refers to stroking an animal’s fur in the wrong direction, like ‘ruffling one’s feathers’.

‘Let your hair down’

Meaning: To relax.

Origin: Aristocratic women had to wear their hair tightly up, when they got home they’d let their hair down to relax.

‘Barking up the wrong tree’

Meaning: To pursue a mistaken line of thought or course of action.

Origin: This refers to old hunting dogs barking up the wrong tree while looking for their prey. 

‘Caught red-handed’

Meaning: To be caught doing something wrong.

Origin: In old English law, if someone butchered an animal that was not theirs, they were convicted if they had the animal’s blood on their hands.

‘Break the ice’

Meaning: To get conversation flowing.

Origin: This was originally meant ‘to forge a path for others’ and referred to the breaking of ice to allow navigation boats to sail through.

‘Spill the beans’

Meaning: To reveal secret information.

History: In Ancient Greece, there was an anonymous voting system using black and white beans. The collector had to spill the beans to reveal the vote’s result.

‘Cat got your tongue?’

Meaning: A question used when someone cannot counter an argument.

Origin: The Navy used a whip called ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails’, the pain caused those on the receiving end to keep quiet.

‘Bite the bullet’

Meaning: To decide to do something difficult or unpleasant.

Origin: It’s believed that before anaesthetics, soldiers had to bite down on a bullet before enduring emergency surgery.

‘Bury the hatchet’

Meaning: To forget a conflict and be at peace.

Origin: When negotiating peace, the Native Americans would bury all their weapons to make them inaccessible.

‘Butter someone up’

Meaning: To flatter someone to get something from them.

Origin: Some believe this originated from Ancient India when people used to throw balls of butter at statues of Gods while asking for a favour.

Can you think of any other bizarre English sayings? Let us know in the comment section!

Diana Simpson

Diana is a passionate journalist and a curious soul who is on the quest of finding what she loves the most; coffee, dogs, books or traveling? Born and bred in London, writing is her healing power.