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5 Useful English Expressions

Idioms refer to phrases where their common meaning cannot be understood simply from the meanings of the individual words. They are cultural elements of speech and can prove a barrier to those who are speaking a non-native language. Five common English idioms are given below, together with their meanings, origins, and examples of their use in everyday use.

Step up to the plate

The origin of this phrase was in the American sport of baseball. A batting player must step towards the “home plate” in order to be ready to strike the ball. Its common use is to refer to a) the taking on of responsibility generally and b) acknowledging responsibility that already exists.

Example of a) “Since you have been ill lately I suppose I will step up to the plate and take on tomorrow’s presentation”

Example of b) “Stop being so lazy, you need to step up to the plate and provide for your family!”

Doubting Thomas

This phrase is a biblical reference. One of the twelve Apostles of Jesus, Thomas, did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until Jesus appeared before him. The phrase is commonly used to refer to sceptics and those who make a habit of requiring proof for any statement.

Example: “John is such a doubting Thomas, if you said it was raining outside he would want to see your umbrella and if you said it was cold he would check a thermometer.”

A Baker’s Dozen

This phrase comes from the tradition that bakers had of when they were serving a dozen (i.e. twelve) baked goods to a customer, adding in one extra so that there could be no accusations that the goods were underweight. Nowadays it is used simply to refer to any group of thirteen items.

Example: “My parents had many more children than is usual. There is a baker’s dozen of us all together.”

Pass the buck

Coming from the world of poker, this phrase refers to an object that is given to the winner of each game so that they do not forget that they are responsible for the prize the next time. In common use it means a) to transfer blame to somebody else or b) to pass responsibility to someone else.

Example of a) “Don’t try to pass the buck to me, I had nothing to do with that project and I won’t have anyone say that it is my fault.”

Example of b) “I am completely snowed under today, so I am going to have to pass the buck on tomorrow’s presentation.”

Stealing thunder

This phrase may have come from a 17th Century writer, John Dennis, who built a thunder-noise machine for a play. The idea was then copied by others. The phrase is currently used to describe actions or speech that take attention away from another.

Example: “I can’t believe that you proposed to your girlfriend at my wedding. You have completely stolen my thunder.”

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