Idioms are a tricky part of any language. They’re known and understood by nearly every native speaker, but to ESL speakers, they can seem like gibberish. However, learning some funny idioms in English can give you the inside knowledge you need to understand a lot of conversations, especially jokes.
In this article, we will define and explain some funny idioms you might hear in everyday English conversations. We’ll also tell you about the origin and examples of idioms with sentences, so you’ll know how to use them in context.
Funny Idioms in English
The Elephant in the Room
Meaning: A very big and obvious problem that no one is speaking about.
Use: People use this funny idiom in a wide range of situations, from business to casual conversation. It is appropriate any time there is a huge issue that no one seems to want to deal with.
Carol: Ever since John took over as manager last year, we’ve had issue after issue in every department.
Joe: Well, if you ask me, it seems that John is the elephant in the room that upper management doesn’t want to talk about.
Origin: As far as funny idioms go, you might hear this one pretty often. However, no one can pinpoint its true origin. The first use of this funny idiom dates back to the 1930’s, but it simply meant something obvious and out of place. That is not quite the definition we use today.
The origin may have come from the 1935 Broadway musical Jumbo which featured a scene with a man leading an elephant across the stage. The man is stopped by a police officer who asks about the elephant. The man replies, “What elephant?”
Regardless, we do know that this funny idiom’s definition as we know it now became widespread in the 1950’s.
Can you think of any other funny idioms with animals, either in English or your native language?
Cat Got Your Tongue?
Meaning: Someone cannot find the words they need or want to say.
Use: We use this funny idiom in light situations when someone simply cannot come up with something to say. One should avoid using it when someone is trying to give a presentation or is speaking in a formal situation. It could appear rude or annoying.
Man: Wow, you look…
Woman: What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?
Man: (laughs) Yeah, I guess so. You look amazing.
Origin: While the usage of this funny idiom is lighthearted now, the origins are a little disturbing. There are many theories out there, and none are very pleasant.
One theory is that the English Navy (circa the 18th and 19th century) used a device called a “Cat-o-nine-tails” to punish prisoners for talking. The officers would use the idiom as a sickening gesture.
Another theory states that, in ancient Egypt, they used to cut out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feed them to the royal cats. This practice may have made it into English speech over the centuries.
The third theory comes from the Middle Ages in Europe. It was thought that if you encountered a witch or warlock (a woman or man with the ability to use magic), they would have their black cat steal your tongue so you couldn’t speak about the encounter. Fortunately, we’ve moved on from such ridiculousness, but the idiom remains.
Pot Calling the Kettle Black
Meaning: Someone is being hypocritical.
Use: This funny idiom is used as a retort to criticism from someone who is also guilty of the same fault. You can use it in any situation where you’re being criticized by someone who does the same action. However, it can be considered either a funny idiom or a serious one, depending on the context. Be sure you fully understand the implications of using the idiom.
Chris: I swear, you are always late!
Christina: Well that’s the pot calling the kettle black…
Origin: One of the earliest uses of this funny idiom comes from a 1620 translation of the Spanish book Don Quixote. After the book spread through the literary world, many authors from the 17th century began using it in poems and other works. It’s been a common idiom of the English language ever since.
When Pigs Fly
Meaning: The idea that something is very unlikely to happen.
Kid 1: You know what? I think I’m going to score 25 goals this season.
Kid 2: Yeah right. That’ll happen when pigs can fly.
Origin: As a literary device, this funny idiom is known as an adynaton, which is how it was originally used in a Scottish proverb centuries ago. It became very famous in the 19th century from usage by the English author Lewis Carroll in his famous work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Put a Sock in It
Meaning: Be quiet or stop talking.
Use: This is one of our colloquial funny idioms and should never be used in any formal context. It would be very disrespectful to say it to an elder. However, if you really need someone to stop talking and want to get your point across, tell them to put a sock in it.
Child: She took my chair, and then she wouldn’t get up.
Mother: Joey, you’ve been complaining about your sister all week! Put a sock in it, go in there, and learn to get along. I have work to do.
Origin: While no one can pinpoint the exact origin of this funny idiom, it can be traced directly to its use in Great Britain in the early 20th century. There are multiple examples found in newspapers dating back to 1919.
Have a Bone to Pick (with Someone)
Meaning: You have an issue or grievance that needs to be discussed.
Use: While this could be considered a funny idiom, the context shouldn’t be taken lightly, as you would usually say this to bring up an issue that you need to discuss with someone. Know that its usage points out that the conversation may not be very pleasant. Be mindful if using this in a business situation or with an elder.
Manager: Hey John, I have a bone to pick with you. I noticed a few employees were clocked in last week but saw on the camera they weren’t here. Let’s go to my office to talk about what happened.
Origin: This funny idiom (at least in the literal sense) dates back to the 16th century and refers to a dog continuously chewing and gnawing on a bone to pick it clean of meat. It’s a metaphor for a conversation that will go on for as long as it would take for a dog to completely pick a bone. I suppose people in the 16th century had time to watch their dogs chew bones…
After reading about some of these funny idioms, hopefully you have a newfound understanding of how odd the English language can sometimes be.
Do you have some funny idioms in your language to translate? Let us know in the comments below!
If you’re looking for more laughs, check out these 15 funny idioms you may not know!
Finally, if you want to take your English learning (and knowledge of funny idioms) to the next level, Magoosh offers personalized online tutoring, along with a range of interactive speaking activities, for adult English language learners. Visit our appointments page to schedule an introductory lesson with one of our highly qualified tutors.