Pictures are far more descriptive than words.

I tried to describe that fantastic sunset and then she just showed them a photo. You know it’s true – a picture paints a thousand words.


A very widely and commonly used proverb/adage.

Actions show one’s character more than what you say.

She spoke up for the immigrants but he gave them a bed in his house – actions speak louder than words.

The United Kingdom – 17th century.


Eating one’s lunch while still working. (A Pun on ’Al fresco’.).

I’m too busy to come to the cafe this lunchtime – I’ll be lunching al desko.

USA and Britain, in the 1980s

Widely used, but mainly in the 30/40s generations who work in offices.

In the open air.

The weather’s lovely, let’s have our lunch al fresco on the terrace.

The United Kingdom adaptation of an Italian expression


Incomprehensible, as Greek is to someone who cannot speak it.

He says that quantum physics isn’t so difficult but it’s all Greek to me.

Shakespearian, from Julius Caesar, 1601.


A jumble of words or letters, often referring to organisations known by their initials, like CIA or BBC.

All those institutions of the European parliament are confusing – a real alphabet soup.

USA. An early 20th century adaptation of the name of the soup made from pasta letters.


Avoid speaking.

I knew his wife wasn’t faithful but I didn’t like to say – I thought it best to bite my tongue.

Britain. Early (pre 1000AD) English, in the form of hold or keep one’s tongue.


A question addressed to someone who is inexplicably silent. The implication is that the person’s tongue is missing.

All you have to do is tell us who attacked you and we will arrest them. Why so quiet? Has the cat got your tongue?

America, 19th century.

Worldwide, but little used amongst the young.

The American spelling for the piece of furniture known elsewhere as a chaise longue.

You must be tired. Why don’t you lie down on the chaise lounge?

USA, late 19th century. The misspelling of ‘chaise longue’ causes some amusement in France.


An unbelievable tale.

She said that she went to school with George Clooney but she’s only twenty two – I think it’s a cock and bull story.

Britain, 17th century, although the precise source is unknown.


Please forgive me for swearing.

Bugger – excuse my French.

Britain, mid 20th century.

Britain, mostly by the older generation.

Hear rumors about something from an anonymous informal contact.

The girls in the dorm were talking and I heard it on the grapevine that Judy is pregnant.



Make the precise correct point.

Churchill hit the nail on the head when he called Hitler a dictator.


In a few words. Concisely stated.

Our profitability has dwindled to a point where we cannot continue to meet our creditors demands. In a nutshell; were broke.

The UK in the 19th century.


An admonition not to swear.

Hey kids, I’m on speakerphone to Granny so mind your language.


Keep quiet. Say nothing.

I’m telling you this in confidence – remember, mums the word.

Britain, 18th century.

Mostly Britain.

Something said in confidence that the one speaking doesn’t want repeated.

The minister won’t talk to reporters since his last off the record briefing got into the papers.

USA, 1930s.


A story that has been told repeatedly and which has lost any originality.

Grandma brings out that story about her meeting the Queen every Christmas. It really is a hoary old chestnut.

Britain – 19th century.

Worldwide, but most common in the UK.

Something said in confidence that the one speaking is happy to have repeated.

As finance minister I’m on the record as supporting increased spending on welfare, and you can quote me on that.

USA, 20th century.


An instruction to shut-up or be quiet.

Okay kids, the lesson has started. Pipe down and I’ll begin.

USA, 19th century. Probably deriving from an earlier British Navy source.

Worldwide, if a little dated.

A foul mouthed person.

I couldn’t believe that string of swearwords that Jill gave the teacher – she’s a real potty mouth.

USA, mid 20th century.

Worldwide, but not particularly common.

Cockney rhyming slang for talk.

He just goes on and on about his hobbies – rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!


Mostly Britain.

Eloquent or persuasive manner of speech.

Reagan didn’t always have much in the way of policies but he certainly could hold a crowd with his silver tongued speeches.

Britain, 16th century.


Said when someone that you have just been talking about arrives.

Did you know that Jim is gay? Oh, talk of the devil – here he is.

Britain, 17th century.


Said when a storyteller doesn’t want to bore his audience with a long involved account.

Macbeth has dozens of characters and is a very complex play. To cut a long story short, Macbeth dies.

Britain, 18th century.


An exact, precisely corresponding to, copy of another’s words.

I was sure of what I had seen of the robbery. I made sure that the police took a word for word copy of my report of it.

Britain, 13th century.


Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.