Accent reduction students from all over the world participate in our online classes for accent reduction. One of their favorite parts of the class is learning about the American idioms and other common English sayings. In a continuing part of our idioms series, we feature down to the wire, get a leg up, and tie the knot. We hope you enjoy learning about these idioms and where they originated to become part of everyday standard American English.
Once in a Blue Moon
Definition: An extremely rare occurrence.
Example: I mainly get nothing but junk mail sent to my account but once in a blue moon I’ll get something important.
Origin: A “blue moon” refers to the second full moon within a given month. The phrase was first mentioned in 1821, given at that time the phenomenon of two full moons in a month was viewed as having an aura of mysticism.
Today “blue moon” months are clearly explained by science and can occur as often as once every 32 months, although this documented regularity is not well known by the public. In 1999, careful review of the Marine Farmer’s almanac editions from 1932-1957 revealed each edition asserted the belief that if one of nature’s four seasons produced four full moons, the third should be known as a “blue moon.” This rule had been interpreted as applying to the second full moon in a month, in part thanks to a 1946 article published in Sky and Telescope magazine and a 1980 radio show.
Put a Little English on It
Definition: Employing a grip on an object so as to create spin and late movement, often seen in a sports context.
Example: ” Johnson put a little English on it to pick up a spare in this frame.
Origin: The use of the term “English” to convey unusual spin placed on an inanimate object in order to induce the desired movement has roots in American vernacular, starting around the mid 19th century, most likely in billiards. Certain game situations dictate that the ball be struck from unusual angles with a cue stick, thereby theoretically placing the ball closer to the intended pocket. This practice is known as “side” in Britain.
The phrase has since been grandfathered into any sport in which players must contend with a ball, including basketball, tennis, golf and baseball, among others. The phrase is often uttered as a mean of last resort as in “well if you can’t figure out how to zip up your coat you’ll just have to put a little English on it to align the zipper with the teeth and pull upward.
Some believe that the term “English” in the phrase came about due to a misinterpretation of the French word “angle” as being “anglias”, which loosely translates to “England”. This phrase may have also developed thanks to English skilled card players who became prominent in the U.S., although this is likely a reflection of Americans’ tendency to label anything even slightly derogatory as foreign rather than the truth. This is similar, but not related to “body English”, where an individual tries in vain to influence the outcome of a shot in sports by contorting the body.
The Writing on the Wall
Definition: Being able to foresee an often unspoken outcome.
Example: Can’t you tell she doesn’t want to go out with you? The writing is on the wall.
Origin: This phrase was derived from the Aramaic phrase mene mene tekel upharsin’, which is featured in the book of Daniel chapter 5, as part of the story of Belshazzar, who was having an extravagant feast in a sacred temple, desecrating certain relics by using them as wine glasses, when a disembodied hand wrote a ominous phrase intended as a warning.
However its true meaning remained ambiguous to Belshzzar, who recruited Daniel to interpret it once and for all. This effort is recorded in the 1611 King James’ Bible, with each word in the phrase mene, mene, tekel, upharsin being representative of a different coin in Babylonian currency and strongly urging Belshazzar to divide and relinquish his kingdom to the Medes and Persians at the behest of God. Belshazzar was too consumed with fulfilling his own desires to heed this warning and consequently the Babylonian empire collapsed upon Belshazzar’s death at the hands of Mendes and Persians.
Want More Idioms?
Accent Pros has a continuing series on common English phrases and American Idioms. Be sure to check out other blog posts to find your favorites and learn how to pronounce them with standard American English. Ready for an accent reduction tutorial or a complimentary accent screening? Check out the private on-line courses for accent reduction designed for students all over the world.