It can be hard to explain idioms commonly used in English when we as teachers are unsure of the meanings ourselves!
Invariably, students will hear idioms in songs and on TV shows and ask you what they mean. Be prepared with the background knowledge and turn their curiosity into an interactive history lesson with these 8 strategies.
Be Prepared to Explain Historical Idioms Efficiently
At the Eleventh Hour
This expression is used frequently to refer to completing a task at the last minute before a deadline. English speakers use the 12 hour clock as opposed to a 24 hour clock, so the eleventh hour is the last one to finish a project or event on a certain day. “He finally got the paper in at the eleventh hour.”
Blow off Some Steam
The steam engine was popularized for trains in the United States in the 1800’s. When pressure builds in one, steam has to be “blown off”, or released from the mechanism. This expression is widely used by Americans when they need to relax after being in a stressful or pressure situation: “I need to blow off some steam and go golfing.”
Chew the Fat
Native Americans would chew whale fat like gum, socially or to pass the time. 'Chew the fat' refers to sitting and talking socially about lighthearted subjects with someone. “Let’s get together and chew the fat after work.”
Turkeys are white, bumpy, and cool to the touch when dead and plucked. This expression refers to the way one looks going through withdrawal from a drug quit without assistance: cold and pallid and moist to the touch. “I quit smoking cold turkey.”
Jump on the Bandwagon
Political campaigns in the world’s oldest democracy would try to engage people to listen to a speaker and vote for a candidate with wagons of musical bands before TV and cars. If people “jumped on the bandwagon”, they were offering their support literally to that candidate that was using popularity to gain votes. This expression is used in English to refer to joining a cause or movement, especially one that is popular, or rooting for a sports team that is likely to win a championship. “I jumped on the bandwagon and tried that new diet everyone is talking about.”
On the Ball
This term comes from baseball. When a pitcher has good control of the game, he is “on the ball”. English speakers say they are “on the ball” when they are on top of a situation, a project, or just completing a task. “He was really on the ball and got that project done before the deadline.”
Once in a Blue Moon
The Farmers’ Almanac was used throughout America, which was predominantly agricultural until after World War II, to predict weather conditions annually. The Almanac listed the full moon cycle. It is rare for a month to have two full moons, but if it did, the first one would be in red letters and the second in blue. Hence, the expression “once in a blue moon” means that something occurs very rarely. “My daughter eats broccoli once in a blue moon.”
Ring a Bell
Modern America was created by settlers colonizing new towns across the North American continent. Towns almost always had a church with a bell as a central meeting place. Before alarms, electricity, and phones, the bell was rung to remind townspeople of events and hours. Hence, if a clue or signal “rings a bell”, it is an alarm trigger to remember to do something or just to remember something in general. “My mom calling me rung a bell that her birthday is next week.”
Teaching techniques: use these activities together or separately to teach and reinforce history idiom learning.
- Slide Show with historical cartoons, and/or old pictures: Put together a slide show to show a page from the Farmers’ Almanac, a political bandwagon, a steam engine, etc. This will make the terms come alive for students!
- Match the definitions: Separate the students into two groups. Give idioms on paper cut outs to one group of students, and then modern situations that apply the idioms to another group. Instruct them to walk around the class, talk to each other in English, and find their matches.
- Act it out or draw it out: Make a charades game or a drawing game as a check for learning after you have explained the concepts. Students should act out the words in their phrases or draw the concepts in two teams. The team has to guess the phrase in a minute or less to get a point.
Inject a bit of history into your class and/or convert your conversation course into an educational experience with American history idiom explanations!
They can be powerful tools to help students make word and concept connections that help elucidate ideas in English and are also interesting to learn.