Every language is full of expressions and old sayings that bring life to conversations and stories. Mostly, these popular sayings are charming and humorous. But some can show the seriousness of a situation.
To be a well-rounded speaker of any language, it’s important to know and understand some of these expressions. They can help a speaker convey (to communicate or make known) meaning or let a listener in on more colorful and complex meanings from speakers.
In this article, we’re looking at old English sayings that have stood the test of time (idiom; something that has remained in use even after progression of time and fashion). They may be old-fashioned but are still popular and understood by speakers of all ages.
To help ESL learners liven up their conversations, here is our List of Old Fashioned Sayings to Make You Sound Like a Native English Speaker.
1. “Happy as a Clam”
Meaning: To be very happy! More specifically, happy and free from any danger.
Background: Originally, the saying was: Happy as a clam at high tide.
This is an old saying of the American Northeast where clams are a staple (key element of something) in the diet. Generally, people dig up the clams at low tide because they’re difficult to find when the water level is higher.
So, one would imagine that the clams are happier at high tide when they’re not being harvested as food.
Over time and as the saying spread to other regions, the “at high tide” portion dropped from use.
Example: She was as happy as a clam after she moved from her old apartment.
2. “A Little Bird Told Me”
Meaning: This is a way of telling someone you know a secret without revealing the source of the information.
Background: No one really knows the origin of this old saying. However, there are guesses that it originated in older texts like the Bible and Norse Mythology. Another theory is that the phrase comes from a fairy-tale (a children’s story that includes magic and imaginary things) written by Hans Christian Anderson. One of the characters in the story states, “You must not let anyone know that you have a little bird who tells you everything; then all will go even better.”
Example: A little bird told me that you might be getting a promotion next week.
3. “Pardon My French”
Meaning: Used to excuse oneself when using profanity or crude language. Typically, the phrase is said before the profane word or phrase but can be stated afterwards.
Background: Up to the 20th Century, France and England weren’t very friendly towards each other. In fact, the two countries fought a war that lasted over a hundred years. So, one may think that the phrase is meant to insult or belittle French people.
However, this phrase has no ill intentions towards the French and under most circumstances, isn’t viewed as an insult by French people.
It originated in the 19th century when English speakers commonly used French expressions to seem more refined or cultured. When listeners didn’t understand, the speaker would apologize for speaking in an unknown language.
Over time, the phrase transformed into an apology for using foul language. No one really knows why, though some speculate it may have been a jab at the upper class.
Example: Pardon my French, but this pie is damn-good!
4. “Head Over Heels”
Meaning: To be very excited about something, especially love
Background: The original (and sometimes still used) interpretation of this old saying is more literal and somewhat violent. It means a person is literally upside down.
But in the late 18th century, the meaning turned more figurative (not literal, metaphor) to mean that things are out of order or not in place. And by the early 19th century, the phrase had its current meaning which is mainly tied to being in love.
Example: Marcus and Emily were head over heels in love after their first date.
5. “A Sight for Sore Eyes”
Meaning: Very pleased or relieved to see someone or something.
Background: Scholars trace the origin of this phrase back to the 1700s, but the meaning of it flipped (or reversed) over time. Originally, it was used as a negative saying that meant that the speaker’s eyes hurt at the sight of something.
However, by the early 1800s, it changed into a positive phrase with the meaning we have today. All modern usage of the phrase is positive, so don’t confuse the phrase with the term eyesore (something viewed as ugly, especially a structure or building).
Example: The fireman holding a rope was a sight for sore eyes after being trapped in the well for an hour.
6. “To Save My Life”
Meaning: No matter the effort or desire, something that can’t be completed (at that moment). The phrase follows a negative verb phrase.
Background: The first example of this old saying dates back to 1848 from author Anthony Trollope. He stated in his book The Kellys and the O’Kellys, “I shan’t remain long, if it was to save my life and theirs; I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”
Since then, the phrase’s usage has expanded and can be heard in many colorful ways because the negative verb phrase changes to fit each situation and context.
Example: I couldn’t bake a cake to save my life!
7. “Cup of Tea”
Meaning: To like or prefer something
Background: As the most popular beverage in the world behind water (for obvious reasons), drinking tea is a daily part of life for billions of people. However, drinking tea is a bigger part of British culture than most.
So in the late 1800s, British society began using the phrase as a way of saying that they really like or enjoy something. Later in the early 1900’s, the opposite, or negative, version of the phrase made its way into the language (not my cup of tea).
Example: Going hiking on the weekends is my cup of tea!
These old sayings may have a lot of history, but that’s what makes them so widely known! Try adding some of these phrases into your conversations and see how people reply and react. You just might surprise your listener with your native-level English skills!