As a wise Business English tutor once told me: "English is a crazy language", none more so than when it comes to idioms. The Unique Languages dictionary (the biggest dictionary in the English-speaking world) defines an idiom as "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words", and therefore very difficult for non-native speakers of the crazy language.
During a lull in work at Unique, my boss tasked me with the privilege of coming up with the ten most popular words in the English language. This is an unscientific list with no statistical accuracy at all, but the idioms are well-known to native speakers and you will probably hear them a few times over the next week if you are listening hard enough.
1. Out of the blue
The literal definition of this is "suddenly", as in "Tommy appeared on the doorstep out of the blue. I would say that it is popular because it is relatively easy to remember, and native speakers are more likely to use it as it seems more literal and emphatic than just using the one word.
2. On the Ball
A person who is "on the ball" is quick to understand something. There is some confusion as to where it derives from exactly, although sport is the best guess by linguistic scholars who believe that it is a furthering of the expression "to keep one's eye on the ball", i.e. to focus.
3. "A piece of cake"
This means "it is easy" and has become almost a cliche (native English speakers are therefore more likely to simply use the word "easy"). It comes from the United States, although a US native is more likely to say "as easy as pie."
4. "A fish out of water"
If you are in unfamiliar territory then this is the idiom to use, as in "John felt like a fish out of water on his first day at his new company." It is visual, simple and probably one of the few idioms that comes close to actually providing a clue in its' vocabulary as to what it actually means.
5. "Hit the nail on the head"
This expression is appropriate for those moments when somebody says something so wonderfuly correct that it deserves acknowledgement. The earliest source for this expression can be found in an autobiography written in 1438.
6. "Call it a day"
In Japan, when office workers "clock off" (end the day) they say to each other "Otsukare-sama Deshita", which loosely translated from Japanese means "Thank you for your hard work." In the western world, there is no equivalent, and I think that this is the closest. It is slightly more negative however, and means that the worker has had enough and wants to go home.
7. "The ball is in your court"
This clearly derives from tennis and is therefore another British English expression. You are more likely to hear it used in Business English, and it means that the focus is on a particular person to make a decison.
8. "To play devil's advocate"
Sometimes, you need to continue the conversation and rather than agreeing with your counterpart, you want to take the contrary view, hence "devil's advocate." In a sentence, you might say "I am going to play devil's advocate here."
9. "Kill two birds with one stone"
This is another idiom that has become a bit of a cliche, which is a shame as it is actually a much easier way of saying it in a more literal way, which would take a long time. It meansto achieve two things at the same time.
10. "To cut corners"
Lots of people cut corners at work or in their personal life. It means to try and save money, sometimes time, but usually money at the expense of significant quality. It is an old hunting term from the 19th century.
To learn more idioms in English, contact Unique Language Training Solutions on 020 3566 0145, by e-mail or by filling in the form on this page.