Learn some interesting English idioms and the stories that lie behind them.
We’ll show you what they mean and also how to use them in action.
In this video you’ll learn about these common English idioms:
- put your best foot forward
- burn the midnight oil
- spill the beans
- born with a silver spoon in your mouth
- be on- get off your high horse
- win hands down
If you enjoyed this video, you’ll like the first in the series. Click here to see it.
Interesting English idioms
Do you know what it means if you burn the midnight oil?
Or if you win hands down?
Or if you spill the beans?
They’re idioms we use all the time, and we have more.
But where do they come from?
We’ll show you the stories behind them and how we use them in action.
Put your best foot forward
The first idiom we have for you is ‘Put your best foot forward’.
It’s interesting because it has a different meaning in British and American English.
In British English, if we put our best foot forward then we try as hard as possible to do something, even when it’s really difficult or we’re really tired.
Oh my! What a mess!
Do you think we can clean all this up?
Sure we can. Come on. Let’s put our best foot forward.
So for you it’s about making an effort.
It’s different in American English. When we put our best foot forward, we want to impress someone and gain their approval.
I just had a haircut because I have a job interview tomorrow. I want to put my best foot forward!
So what’s the history of this idiom?
In the past, when a gentleman was bowing to nobility, he’d put one leg in front of the other to make the bow.
I’m a gentleman, so when I’m greeting someone, I literally put my best foot forward. It makes a good impression.
So in the past, we literally put our best foot forward to impress someone.
So it’s more like the American meaning than the British one.
Burn the midnight oil
OK, the next idiom: ‘Burn the midnight oil’.
We say this when we’re talking about working hard late into the night.
I’m so tired. I didn’t go to bed till three last night.
Me too. I was burning the midnight oil trying to get this report finished.
Oh. I was playing PUBG.
You can probably guess the story behind this one. Before electricity, people used candles or oil lamps for lighting. So when you stayed up late working, you literally burned the oil.
And the oil was pretty expensive, which implied the project you were working on was pretty important. It still implies that today.
Spill the beans
OK, next one: spill the beans.
This means to reveal secret information. It’s when you tell somebody something that should be kept private.
Ooo. So what happened at the meeting?
I can’t tell you. It’s confidential.
Did Kathy get the job? Come on, spill the beans!
No. The last time I told you a secret you told everyone.
But this time I won’t tell anyone.
Kathy got the job.
Hey everyone. Kathy got the job!
You did it AGAIN!
There are various theories about this idiom. One says it comes from ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy.
In ancient Greece citizens voted for their political leaders in different ways. And one way was to use beans.
You’d put a white bean in the jar of the candidate you wanted and a black bean in the jar of a candidate you didn’t want.
But sometimes people spilled the jars and then the secret vote was secret no more.
Do you think it’s true?
Probably not, but it’s a nice story.
Born with a silver spoon in your mouth
OK, next one: born with a silver spoon in your mouth.
If someone’s born into a rich or wealthy family, we can say they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
So tell me about yourself.
OK. Well, Daddy was a banker and Mummy was the daughter of a viscount, so we were comfortable. What about you?
Well, my father was a coal miner.
Oh, he owned a coal mine!
No, he worked in a coal mine. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.
So what’s the story behind this?
It comes from an old custom. When a baby was born, people would give it a silver spoon as a gift. Silver is a luxury gift, so not everyone could afford it and babies who received a silver spoon were wealthy.
And these days it can also suggest that they’re spoiled which has negative connotations. Spoiled children can do what they want and get what they want and may behave badly because of it.
I think in other countries a silver spoon might still be a traditional gift, whether you’re wealthy or not.
Tell us if you have that custom too.
On your high horse
Here’s the next one: on your high horse.
If someone’s on their high horse then they’re acting like they think they’re better than other people, like they’re morally superior.
And they think they’re right and other people are wrong. Let’s see it in action.
Ah Jay. This website plan is too complicated.
No way. This is my best work.
But you could make simpler and then it would be cheaper to build.
Cheaper? I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my work for money.
Don’t get on your high horse!
But it’s very complicated. Think about it. Try to see from my point of view.
Thinking like you gives me a headache.
So you got on your high horse when I told you you had to make something cheaper.
Yes, I took, the moral high ground. I was interested in quality not money.
OK, so what’s the story behind this idiom?
Well, in the past, common people walked and only rich and powerful people had horses. Superior people rode.
Getting off your high horse, literally meant getting off your horse and coming down to the level of ordinary people.
And we apply it to people who think they’re superior.
OK, we have one more: hands down
If we win something hands down, it means we win easily and without a lot of effort.
Well, what’s my score?
One hundred and thirty-two.
Oh that’s better than last time. What’s yours?
Three hundred an eighty-seven. I won hands down again.
This idiom comes from horse racing. Jockey’s control their horses by holding the reins, the leather bands attached to a bar in the horses’ mouth.
And if a jockey is a long way ahead in a race, they can take their hands off the reins and put them down.
They can sit back and relax and still win.
If you win hands down you win easily and without any doubt.
Without doubt is another part of the meaning. Hands down means without question.
For example, watching our videos is hands down the best way to learn new idioms.
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This is the second in a series of videos on the etymology of common English idioms – so their origins and history. Click here to see the first one.
If you’ve ever wondered where an idiom came from, or how we use it in practice, you’re going to love this series.