Jumping sharks and dropping mics

23/02/22 | By Gavin Lee Davies, Mr


Jumping sharks and dropping mics

A collection of “modern idioms”, phrases that are now a part of our vocabulary at large.

By Gareth Carrol / www.IFF-books.com

No flash in the pan? Modern idioms are all around us, if only we know where to look.


Even if you’ve never heard the word before, you can bet your bottom dollar that everyone uses idioms. On a daily basis someone drops the ball or rocks the boat, and as a result someone else will blow a gasket or hit the roof. There may be hell to pay, people might be at each other’s throats for a while, but sooner or later (hopefully!) we all bury the hatchet, wipe the slate clean and kiss and make up. Often, especially when we hear them in context, “idioms” like these ones may seem more or less obvious, but plenty of idioms are much harder to work out. For instance, why do we pull someone’s leg when we tease them? And what does kicking the bucket or popping your clogs possibly have to do with dying?

Linguists – the kind of people who study languages and how they are used – now agree that these kinds of phrase are as much a part of our vocabulary as single words. Some estimates suggest that there may be up to 25,000 idioms in English, and there is no reason to assume that English is in any way special in having this many. They add colour to how we communicate, but also reveal lots about the history and culture of the people who use them. Often it is this fact that helps us to see why some idioms seem to make so little sense. If we know that bucket was an old dialect term for “beam”, we can see how an animal being strung up by its feet (tied to the bucket in a shed or slaughterhouse) might kick as it died, giving rise to a more general term even if the original meaning of bucket fell out of use. Similarly, if we know anything about boxing, we know that throwing in the towel is an indication that a trainer is submitting on behalf of their fighter. In both cases, a very specific action has become more generally applied over time, and knowing or not knowing the origin has little influence on whether people can recognise and use the resulting phrases.

The cultural history of a language can also give us valuable insights into where idioms come from. In British English, the historical importance of sailing is obvious, and as a result a lot of idioms come from the world of sea-faring, from which we get expressions like a loose cannon, by and large, batten down the hatches, to learn the ropes and all hands on deck (and many more). Other common domains include horse-racing (a dark horse, on the home straight, across the board, to win hands down), boxing (as well as throw in the towel we get phrases like a sucker punch, to hit below the belt, a glutton for punishment, on the ropes, as well as the more recent rope-a-dope), and cricket (to hit someone for six, to play with a straight bat, to be caught out, to be on the back foot, on a sticky wicket), each of which have a particular place in British culture. Similarly, German has several idioms that involve pigs, reflecting the importance of this particular animal in their history.

But just like words, idioms are born and die out, and we can soon find generational gaps in how well certain phrases might be known. Older speakers might tell you that they need to spend a penny (use the toilet), or might describe a particularly rebellious person as kicking over the traces, but both are on the decline and may be unfamiliar to a lot of younger speakers. Conversely, younger people might talk about something breaking the internet (causing a massive reaction online), or describe an impressive, show-stopping action as a mic drop. Both are phrases that we can trace back to their origins in the late 20th/early 21st century and we have detailed records of how they have evolved.

TV shows also provide a raft of phrases that have made their way into the language. As well as a whole host of memorable catchphrases and one liners, our vocabularies likely include phrases such as can I phone a friend? (an indication that help is required, from TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), have you tried turning it off and on again? (a now universal response to any kind of technological difficulties, from TV comedy the IT Crowd), and does exactly what it says on the tin, first appearing in a series of adverts for wood stain by the company Ronseal in the 1990s, and now applied widely to describe anything that performs in an entirely self-explanatory way. People have even begun to apply the adjective “Ronseal-esque” with the same meaning.

Movies have gotten in on the act, and alongside quotations such as I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore or Houston, we have a problem, modern idioms might include phrases like know where the bodies are buried (to have knowledge of secrets or underhand affairs, first used in Citizen Kane), or the usual suspects (the set of people or things normally associated with a particular situation), itself the name of a 1990s thriller movie but actually taken from a line toward the end of the enduring Casablanca. Perhaps most notably, the idea of Groundhog Day has entered the wider vocabulary as a way to refer to any “deja vu” style situation, with even those who have never seen the 1993 film of the same name (which centres around someone repeating the same day over and over) likely to have heard it applied to other repetitive circumstances.

Technology, and specifically the internet, has also contributed its fair share. As well as break the internet, first world problems (problems that seem fairly minor compared to some of the challenges facing people elsewhere in the world) began life as a self-deprecating Twitter hashtag, and the idea of a keyboard warrior (someone who engages in combative communications online) is now commonplace. More generally, water cooler moments (must-see events) have been around for several decades, politics now seems rife with people being thrown under the bus (sacrificed to save someone else), and the idea of something being not rocket science (describing something particularly straightforward) necessarily dates from sometime after the Second World War (when “rocket science” really took off as a scientific endeavour) and is now a common expression.

Sports has had its part to play as well. Someone who moves the goalposts changes the rules midway through, a tense situation might be described as squeaky bum time (a memorable coinage by football manager Sir Alex Ferguson), and defensive minded football teams (and by extension anyone acting in a particularly defensive way) are said to have parked the bus. Finally, modern literature has given us enduring phrases such as a Walter Mitty character (a daydreamer), a Catch-22 situation (an unwinnable or contradictory situation), and Sophie’s choice (describing a terrible choice between undesirable outcomes), each derived from works written in the 20th century.

The examples above all prove that idioms are not only alive and well, but just waiting to spring into life around us. Not all of them make it, but every now and again a phrase become so widespread that it does work its way into the language. So next time you’re watching TV and you hear a particularly memorable catchphrase, or someone forwards you a meme that seems to be doing the rounds, just make a mental note: before too long, you may have learned a brand new idiom.

Gareth Carrol is a senior lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK. As well as teaching and researching on topics to do with vocabulary learning and figurative language, he also created the modern idioms website (www.modern-idioms.com), which brings together a collection of idioms that have emerged from modern culture

Read Jumping sharks and dropping mics Today!

Click on the book cover to begin reading




Universe Within

Universe Within reveals that the human brain is a physical model of the universe.




Ten books you must read to make this year your most successful year to date


Iff Books publishes non-fiction. It aims to work with authors and titles that augment our understanding of the human condition, society and civilization, and the world or universe in which we live.

Non Fiction


0 comments on this article

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.