What are idioms and why is it important to learn them?
According to wordreference.com, idioms or idiomatic expressions are expressions or phrases that do not follow the regular rules of grammar, or whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meaning of their individual parts.
When you learn a new language, learning the idiomatic expressions particular to that language and culture is important for several reasons. First, you’ll be able to better understand native speakers. Since idioms are often used to intensify the mood of a conversation–be it light or serious–understanding common idiomatic expressions might save you from the embarrassment of responding inappropriately. Second, knowing a broad selection of idioms makes you a more interesting conversationalist. When you properly use idioms, your speaking will be more colorful and attention getting, so people will listen more closely to you. And finally, you’ll sound more like a native speaker when you use idioms in the right place and at the right time.
But there are so many idioms in English! How do I start learning them?
There are literally thousands of idioms in most languages, English included. It can be difficult to know where to start. One way is to take courses at an English school that emphasizes real-world communication. With this type of teaching, useful idiomatic expressions are included in the daily lessons, along with general vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
For self-study of idioms, one very effective technique is to focus on idioms that are related to a specific season or holiday. The Halloween season is a colorful and exciting time of year that brings to mind many idiomatic expressions. Let’s consider a brief history of this holiday and then explore some of the scariest and spookiest Halloween idioms that it recalls:
What is Halloween?
Halloween is a holiday celebrated each year on October 31. The tradition originated with the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to keep ghosts and spirits away. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Some of the traditions of Samhain later became integrated into All Saints Day, and the evening before (known as All Hallows Eve), which later became Halloween. Over time, Halloween became a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, wearing costumes and eating treats.
What are some spooky idioms for Halloween?
Watch out for the witches
The witching hour: The time of night when magical or supernatural events are thought to occur, usually around midnight.
Witch hunt: This is a popular Halloween idiom even nowadays. It is used to unfairly accuse someone of a crime or other misdeeds without reliable or sufficient evidence. It comes from the period in American history when women (and sometimes men) were accused of being witches for merely being eccentric or being present when undesirable events occurred. The latter could include failure of livestock to reproduce, a poor harvest, spread of contagious diseases, etc. In idiomatic use, it’s frequently used to talk about accusations against politicians or other well-known people that have not been officially proven.
A witches’ brew: A combination of potentially dangerous ingredients. Example: Plastics and fertilizer run-off have created a witches’ brew of chemicals in our water supply. It can also be used figuratively to speak about combinations of morally repugnant ideas.
Beware of black cats and bats
Cats (especially black) are associated with witches, as it was said during the Middle Ages that witches could turn themselves into black cats to avoid being discovered. Bats are associated with Halloween because of their preference for living in dark and mysterious places, such as caves and abandoned buildings.
Like a bat out of hell: This means to move at a very high speed.
To have bats in the belfry: This means to have disordered thoughts, to be crazy, or to be eccentric. This is a metaphorical type of idiom, referring to the way bats would flutter around the upper stories (also called belfries) of ruined churches, as an eccentric’s thoughts seem to randomly move about their brain.
A scaredy cat: This is a person who is afraid. It is usually said of someone who won’t attempt a specific challenge.
There is an interesting Irish myth behind the carving of faces onto pumpkins during Halloween. This myth tells the story of Stingy Jack, who cheated the Devil for monetary gain. When Jack died, God banned him from heaven, and the Devil didn’t let him into hell, so Jack was doomed to roam the earth endlessly. In Ireland, people carved scary faces out of turnips to frighten away Jack’s wandering soul. When Irish immigrants moved to the U.S. they began carving jack-o’-lanterns from pumpkins, as these were native to the region.
To turn into a pumpkin: This refers to unpleasant consequences that may be suffered if one misses a deadline or curfew.
A pumpkin head: A stupid or inept person might be called a “pumpkin head.”
Pumpkin: “Pumpkin” in some parts of the US, is a term of endearment. It’s similar in use to “sweetheart” or “darling.”
Ghosts, or spirits, are of course one of mainstays of the Halloween season. Fear of the spirits of the dead is one of the reasons for the custom of wearing costumes at Halloween. It’s a time when the barrier between the world of the dead and of the living was thought to be more easily crossed. Wearing a costume could either be a way to scare all the ghosts back to their world, or to prevent the wearer from being recognized by an individual spirit seeking revenge against them.
To ghost someone: This means to suddenly cut off all communication with someone, usually without notice. Example: After the couple had an intense argument, she ghosted him. He never heard from her again.
A ghost town: A formerly inhabited place where all the residents have left or died off. It can also be figuratively used to describe any deserted or empty place. Example: During the World Cup, everyone is at home or at a bar watching the matches. The streets are like a ghost town.
A ghost writer: A person may want to write a book on a topic they are expert in or familiar with, or even an autobiography, but doesn’t have the writing skills needed. In this case they will often employ a ghost writer, who produces the actual text. However, the client’s name will appear on the book cover as the author.
To come back to haunt someone: This refers to a mistake, failure, or even a criminal act done in the past that affects the perpetrator long after. Example: The candidate’s bankruptcy years ago came back to haunt him during the election. The voters didn’t trust his fiscal management skills.
To not stand a ghost of a chance: This is a way of saying that something is very unlikely to happen. Example: I’m cheering for my team even though they don’t stand a ghost of a chance of winning the match. The other team is just too strong!
To be spooked: This means to be frightened, often by something unseen or surprising. Example: My cat keeps hissing at nothing. She seems to be spooked by something only she can see.
A snowball’s chance in hell: Used to describe an impossibility. Example: After the couple broke up, he told everyone there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell they would get back together.
To play the devil’s advocate: This is to pretend to take the opposite view of what you believe to be right, or against the general consensus of a group. It’s actually an analytical technique that can allow a better understanding of the reasoning behind the counter position (“the devil”) so it can be more effectively refuted.
Bodies and body parts
To dig one’s own grave: To make mistakes that will cause one’s own downfall.
To spill one’s guts: This is one of the most popular Halloween idioms that it’s commonly used in series and everyday language. When someone spills their guts, they tell you everything about something secret or private. Example: After a few glasses of wine, my friend spilled his guts to me about his romantic problems. He told me every last detail!
To be scared stiff: To be so frightened that one can’t move. Example: When she saw a large snake slither by, she was scared stiff. She just stood there without moving.
The graveyard shift: This is a work shift that runs through the early morning hours, typically from midnight to 8 a.m. During these hours, the outside world is usually very quiet and still, as in a graveyard or cemetery.
To have skeletons in the closet: To have secrets that could potentially harm or even destroy a person’s reputation or career if they were revealed.
Learning English doesn’t need to be scary!
Studying English or any other new language can be scary or even a bit frightening. It can even scare some people stiff! The best way to get over your language learning fears is by taking a course at an accredited language school offering classes in a relaxed, student-friendly environment. At LANGUAGE ON teachers are experienced in making students feel at ease and comfortable at all levels of English. Our intensive English course and semi-intensive English course include the study of frequently used idioms so you’ll become confident in communicating in English as native speakers do.
There’s no reason to be a scaredy cat about learning English at LANGUAGE ON!