Six English Expressions and How to Use Them

Several yellow rubber ducks lined up in a row - image by Magoosh

Idioms in English are fun! These kinds of everyday English expressions are one of the most interesting things you can learn as you study English. It’s amazing how different cultures use images to describe different things and actions, and there is usually an interesting background story for these expressions.

Also, idioms are necessary to know. To become fluent in any language, you must understand the expressions that native speakers use. Otherwise, you could find yourself in some confusing and/or awkward situations.

In this list, we will look at six everyday English expressions, breaking down their meaning and usage. We’ll also provide a little background so you’ll have a reference for remembering each of these English expressions.(And you can also find more of these, with good memory aids, in Magoosh’s English Expressions pdf.)

*Memory experts agree that creating a story about something you want to remember boosts your memory of that thing.*

Cold Turkey

Illustration of a turkey without feathers representing "cold turkey"

Meaning of this English Expression

To ‘quit cold turkey’ means to abruptly stop an addictive behavior. It generally refers to drugs, alcohol, or smoking, but can be used regarding addictive behaviors like playing video games, gambling or smartphone usage.

The expression typically refers to quitting something that has a period of withdrawal, but it can be used to comically talk about quitting something that isn’t actually hard to quit.

Use

“Can I get your dad a beer?”

“Nah, he’s not drinking anymore.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, his doctor said he was having some heart issues, so he quit cold turkey a few months ago.”

 

“How did your friend quit smoking?”

“I’m not sure. She had a lot of motivation because of her daughter and quit cold turkey last year.”

“She went cold turkey?”

“Yeah, it was amazing.”

 

“Wow, I spent so much money today. I’m done with shopping! I’m quitting cold turkey.”

“Ha! Until you get another paycheck?”

“Well….”

 

Origin

The origins of quitting ‘cold turkey’ are ambiguous, but here’s what we know about the expression. The phrase first appeared in print in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It evolved from similar English expressions like “talk cold turkey,” which was used as a request for someone to stop speaking formally and start speaking plainly.

It has always meant to abruptly stop something, but linking the phrase to addiction became more common in the early 1900s. The phrase was used to refer to the physical look of opioid addicts who had recently stopped using. Newspapers in New York City described their appearance as cold and pale. The addicts also had ‘goosebumps’ on their skin, so it solidified the term in history.

Up in the Air

Snowboarder up in the air


Meaning of this English Expression

‘Up in the Air’ is refers to a plan or issue that is unresolved. The phrase creates the idea that something is floating with no destination, like a balloon or leaf.

Use

“Have Karen and Jeff finalized the plans for their trip?”

“No, I think the dates are still up in the air.”

 

“They decided to make another sequel to Jurassic Park?”

“I dunno. I think the talk about it is still up in the air.”

 

Origin

This is an English expression that no one really knows the origin of, but it doesn’t need a specific backstory to be memorable. The figurative language in the expression is self-explanatory. It has been in use since the 1700s and was stated as ‘in the air’ by writers at the time.

Coin flipping, which of course involves tossing a coin up in the air, could be another possible origin. , However, it’s worth noting that the practice of coin flipping dates back to Roman times, well before any English expressions– or the English language itself– existed.

I’m Broke

Man opens up an empty wallet


Meaning of this English Expression

‘I’m broke’ means to have no money. The term is used literally when referring to someone who has lost all of their money, or as slang to exaggerate a lack of money. It can also be used comically when someone with money claims that they’re broke.

Use

“Do you want to get a pizza?”

“I can’t right now. I’m broke,”

“That’s okay, I’ll buy this time.”

 

“When the stock market crashed in 1929, thousands of Americans went broke overnight.”

 

“Hey dad! Can I get that toy?”

“Not today, I’m broke.”

“No you’re not!”

 

Origin

Broke is the short form of broken, which is how William Shakespeare originally used the term in Act 1 of Richard II.

“The King’s grown bankrout like a broken man.”

 

Translation: “The King has grown bankrupt like a broken man.”

 

Over time, the idiom shortened to broke and had several variations with the same meaning: stone-broke, flat-broke, dead-broke, broke to the world. It has always referred to being reduced to poverty or broken into poverty.

Chin Up

A woman laughing

Meaning of this English Expression

When someone says to ‘keep your chin up’, they mean that you shouldn’t get discouraged or give up. People use the idiom to encourage someone to stay cheerful or strong despite a bad situation. People often use the phrase when someone loses their job or experiences the loss of a loved one.

Use

“Hey Katie, have you had any luck finding a new job?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, keep your chin up. Something good will come along.”

 

(Seeing her friend is sad)

“Chin up John. Your mother wouldn’t want you to be sad right now.”

“I know.”

“Let’s go for a walk and talk about the good times.”

 

Origin

The origin of ‘keep your chin up’ is American, although it also relates to the British expression ‘keep a stiff upper lip’. The phrase started to be widely used in the late 19th century, and the original printed use of the term was in a 1900 edition of a Pennsylvania newspaper called The Evening Democrat.

“Keep your chin up. Don’t take your troubles to bed with you – hang them on a chair with your trousers or drop them in a glass of water with your teeth.”

Sit Tight

A young girl in a coat and hat sits on a piece of luggage at a train station

Meaning of this English Expression

Sit tight is a fairly simple idiom, much more self-explanatory than many other English expressions. It means to remain where you are and wait patiently, or don’t take any other action until asked or told to do so. The phrase is mostly heard in waiting areas.

Use

“Hi, I’m here for my 9:30 appointment.”

“Thank you. Just sit tight over there and the doctor will be with you soon.”

 

“What happened!?”

“I tripped on that rock over there.”

“Oh no! Just sit tight, and I’ll go get some help.”

 

Origin

This phrase originated in the 18th century in Great Britain. Most attribute the reference to a bird that sits very still and very quietly when hunted by a predator. The bird won’t move until the predator makes a move.

Devil’s Advocate

Devil's advocate

Meaning of this English Expression

‘Playing the devil’s advocate’ is one of the more complex idioms in English. It means to advocate for an unpopular opinion or idea for the sake of argument. The goal of playing the devil’s advocate is to analyze the validity of an opinion or idea.

People play ‘devil’s advocate’ to help others see a different point of view. It helps in the act of mediation (intervention in a dispute in order to resolve it), so that two parties can resolve their issues.

Use

“Wow, paying for university is getting more and more expensive every year.”

“True, but to play devil’s advocate, you’re receiving some of the best education in the country. Better teachers require higher pay.”

 

“Wow, she can be so rigid sometimes.”

“Well, let me play devil’s advocate and ask, ‘Doesn’t she have a right to be rigid?’ I mean, she worked nearly 10 hours a day for over a month on the project, and she just wants everything done correctly.”

“I see your point.”

 

Origin

The origin of ‘devil’s advocate’ makes it seem quite literal. The current use of the expression began in the 18th century, but the idiom originates from the Latin term ‘advocatus diaboli’. This was a church title created by the Pope in the 1500s.

Someone who worked for the church as a devil’s advocate would need to create a list of arguments against someone nominated for canonization (the official admission of a dead person into sainthood). If the person was still viewed as good and holy after the arguments, then they would be recommended for approval to the Pope. In spite of referencing the devil in a religious sense, this position wasn’t viewed negatively by the church or society. Over time, the term has evolved into the meaning we understand today.

Use These English Expressions Together

When it comes to truly mastering English expressions, context is everything. In other words, you don’t just use new expressions in isolation– for the best learning, use these English expressions with each other. Tell someone you’re trying to keep your chin up, even though you’re broke. Play the devil’s advocate on reasons someone might not want to quit a bad habit cold turkey. You get the idea, but make sure you keep your examples natural. Work these expressions into common English sentences used in daily life.

No comments yet.


Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors.

We highly encourage students to help each other out and respond to other students' comments if you can!

If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service from our instructors, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

Leave a Reply