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Weird and wonderful English words and phrases

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English can sometimes be a bit of a minefield of confusing idioms and words, for native and non-native speakers alike. From Shakespeare to the military and cockney rhyming slang, many of the things we say in everyday conversation have peculiar beginnings.

Here is a handful of unusual words and phrases the team at came up with and that are found throughout the English language, with curious meanings and even more interesting origins.


The noun kerfuffle has been in existence since the early 1800s, but there are two thoughts as to how it came to be in the English language. It’s believed to have come either from Scottish Gaelic or from Celtic Irish, the languages which were used in Scotland and Ireland at this time. The word itself means to make a fuss or having a disagreement, usually used when two people are loudly debating different points of view.

Beat around the bush

This phrase means to avoid the point, so if someone is discussing a topic and deliberately avoiding the key factors, they’re said to be beating around the bush. Often when people are doing this, it’s to avoid talking about something difficult or unpleasant. The phrase stems from medieval times when game birds were scared out of their hiding places from under bushes to be killed. To hit the bush directly might be dangerous, which is where the analogy comes from.


Woebegone is a great adjective and is used to describe someone who is looking really sad. The word can be broken down into two parts: woe, which means extreme sadness, and begone which is an old-fashioned word for surrounded. To translate it directly, woebegone means to be surrounded by sadness – the word itself comes from the Middle Ages.

Three sheets to the wind

If someone is described as being ‘three sheets to the wind’, they’re very drunk and walking unsteadily as a result. The phrase actually comes from sailing terminology, where sheets refers to the ropes which fastened the sail – two per sail. If one of those four sheets were not properly fastened then the ship would be difficult to control against the wind and would be moving erratically, as if it were drunk. 


The adjective scrupulous means to have moral integrity and painstaking attention to detail when it comes to the proper way to act. By contrast, an unscrupulous person is considered to be someone who lacks morals and a conscience. Scrupulous comes from the word scruple which means a weight of 20 grains. It’s an incredibly precise measurement used in apothecaries which gives us the word we know today.

To get someone’s goat

If someone or something has ‘got your goat’, it’s really irritated you – a phrase that stems back to the 19th century. During this time, nervous horses would supposedly be calmed down by having a goat placed in the stall with them. Rival horse owners would steal these goats (or ‘get’ them) to antagonise the horse and win the race.


Similar to kerfuffle, cacophony is also related to noise and means a mixture of horrible and unpleasant sounds. For example, if you were subjects to screeching birds, a crying baby and a car alarm all at once, it would be a cacophony. The word comes from a Greek word comprised of kacos,meaning bad, and phone which means sound. It’s believed to have entered the English language some time during the mid-1600s.

A flash in the pan

If someone has a brief but unrepeated success with something, it’s often described as a flash in the pan. This expression comes from when flintlock muskets were used – they had small pans which held gunpowder and if this flared up without a bullet being fired, it was described as a ‘flash in the pan’.

Wear your heart on your sleeve

Shakespeare gave us this phrase, which means to be honest and open with your emotions. This phrase was first seen in Othello, Act 1, where Lago says, ‘But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve’, which meant he would be exposed.


This word means getting what you deserve, or ‘just desserts’, and was used many times during the 1920s on film sets, and then remerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The word comes from the phrase come up, which means to appear before a judge in court, hence the meaning we know today of getting what you deserve.


Related blog post: One Third Stories Review: An imaginative way to teach your child a new language



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