Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

More euphemisms! • A lot to be desired • Interesting question • In over your head • Not the sharpest tool • Blowing smoke • Armed intervention • Collateral damage • Friendly fire • Late • Indisposed

Hello, everyone! Many of you liked my previous post on euphemisms, so I’m back with another batch!

Again, “euphemisms” are nice ways or indirect ways to talk about uncomfortable or sensitive topics. Sometimes we use euphemisms to be polite. Sometimes we’re trying not to hurt another person’s feelings. Sometimes we’re trying to appear neutral, rather than negative. And other times, people use euphemisms to disguise or, frankly, to lie about bad topics or bad news.

Let’s begin.

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When we want to gently criticize something or someone

A primary purpose of euphemisms is to criticize something in a gentle way. There are a few ways you can do this.

Suppose you just listened to a presentation at work, and you thought it was very, very bad. A colleague who wasn’t there later asks you what you thought of it. You want to say that it was terrible, but you don’t want to sound too critical. So, you could say, “It left a lot to be desired.” You wish it had been better, but it was not. Now, to be clear, I would not say this to the person who actually gave the presentation. If you say, “It left a lot to be desired” to the presenter, he or she will understand that you thought it was bad. Instead, only use this to describe it to other people.

Now, suppose that you have just given a presentation. One of your colleagues asks what you think is a very stupid question. You want to say that it’s a stupid question, but of course, you shouldn’t. So, you could say, “That’s an interesting question.” In this case, the word “interesting” substitutes for stupid, but no one can really tell for sure that’s what you mean.

Another possible reply is, “That’s a good question.” This one is particularly useful if you think everyone else thought the question was stupid, too. The asker looks dumb, so you want to help him or her look good again - to save face. This helps to do that.

When we don’t respect someone

Let’s be honest - we don’t always think very highly of the people in our lives. We think that some of our work colleagues, family members, or friends are not very skilled or not very smart. Of course, you don’t really ever want to say that so bluntly. So, we have some other, euphemistic ways to do so.

First, suppose someone is performing very badly at a job, at school, or at some other task. You can say he is in over his head. To understand this saying, think of a swimming pool. If the person is in deep water - deeper than she is tall - then she is “in over her head”.

If the person can’t swim well, she will drown. In this case, drowning is a kind of failure. So, a person who is “in over his head” is failing, but it sounds gentler. Again, I would not use this with the person directly. He or she will understand what you mean, so you don’t gain anything from using the euphemism.

Second, suppose you think someone is just stupid. The person might be trying hard and mean well, but they just don’t have the mental abilities to perform well. You could say, he is not the sharpest tool in the shed. We often use the word “sharp” to describe someone as smart. For example, you could say, “She has a sharp mind.” A shed, of course, is a small building where we store tools, including tools for cutting. So, if you describe someone as “not the sharpest tool in the shed”, you are saying he or she is not very smart or clever. Again, do not use this directly with the person. Only use this when talking to other people about the person.

When someone is lying

Sadly, sometimes people lie. But it’s not always a good idea to point it out directly. In my previous post, I talked about how we sometimes use the word “challenged” to create a euphemism.

I have another example here - factually-challenged. A fact is a true statement about the world. A factual statement is one that’s true. When something is “challenged”, it is struggling or has difficulty. So, a “factually-challenged” statement is one that has difficulty with the truth. In other words, it’s false. We can also describe people as “factually-challenged”. When we say this about people, we mean the person is having difficulty with the truth. In other words, the person is lying.

A similar, but not exactly the same, phrase is blowing smoke. Imagine that you can see a picture clearly. But then someone uses a smoke machine to fill the room with fog. Now you can’t see the picture well, anymore.

Sometimes people “blow smoke” with words. They bring up many unrelated points or try to change the subject. Maybe they lie about the situation. They are trying to block your clear understanding of the situation. You might say, “Listen to this guy. He’s just blowing smoke! But it doesn’t matter. I know the truth.”

When a country goes to war

Governments often use euphemisms to describe their actions, and this is especially true when it comes to war and violence.

Nowadays, few governments seem to want to openly admit they are using their militaries to attack and kill people. To avoid saying this, they say instead that they are conducting an armed intervention. The word “intervention” comes from the verb “to intervene”, which means to get involved with other people’s business. When you are “armed”, it means you have weapons. So, an “armed intervention” is using weapons in another country. But it’s not an attack or war! No, it’s only an “armed intervention”.

Also as I’ve mentioned in my previous post, death is the worst bad thing that can happen, so we have plenty of euphemisms for it. This is true when a country is at war, too.

For example, in war, civilians - that is, regular people - and not just soldiers often get killed, too. But modern militaries don’t like to say that they killed a bunch of regular people. Instead, they often say there was collateral damage. The word “collateral” has several meanings, but in this case, it means something like “extra and not intended”. And the word “damage” sounds very neutral, doesn’t it? It doesn’t directly mention human beings. So, the phrase “collateral damage” is an unclear way for a military to admit it killed nearby, regular people, without actually saying that.

Unfortunately, militaries also sometimes accidentally kill their own soldiers. Perhaps someone made a mistake when launching a weapon, or perhaps the soldiers were in a place they weren’t expected to be. But no military wants to openly say it killed its own people. Instead, governments say the soldiers died due to friendly fire. The word “fire” here means all of the bullets and bombs and missiles that are being shot and dropped around a battlefield. As for friendly, normally it means kind and nice. So, put these together, and “friendly fire” sounds better than, “Our army accidentally killed its own people.” That’s exactly why governments use it, of course.


We have plenty of euphemisms for death in everyday life, too, not just wartime. I gave several examples in my previous post. Here’s one more: late. Normally, of course, late means that you won’t be on time for a meeting. But it also often substitutes for the word “dead” when using that word would seem too blunt or impolite. For example, suppose your aunt’s husband died. It’s rude to describe him as your aunt’s “dead” husband. Instead you say he is your aunt’s “late” husband. This is gentler and kinder.

We all go poop

Finally, I also mentioned in my previous post, that there are many euphemisms for pooping and peeing. While we all do these things, we don’t talk about them directly. Often we don’t even want to say something neutral like, “She went to the bathroom.” So, we’ve come up with an even more indirect way, saying, “She’s indisposed.” This sounds very formal, but that’s probably part of why it works so well.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this second batch of euphemisms. There are still many more, so I will revisit this again in the future. Make sure to subscribe to the email so you don’t miss it.

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Idioms from other cultures

I began this newsletter after I started teaching English as a Second Language. I realized that my speech was filled with idioms, slang words, and cultural references that didn’t make sense to many English learners.

However, just because I’m a native speaker doesn’t mean I’ve heard every idiom out there! I was reading an article in the Straits Times of Singapore some time ago, and I found this passage:

"Hong Kong's education sector must not become a chicken coop without a roof," the foreign ministry wrote on the Facebook page of its Hong Kong office, using a metaphor referring to the idea that students should be protected from negative influences or ideas.

Honestly, I’m glad the article went on to explain what this idiom meant because I sure didn’t understand it!

It could have meant many things. For example, I initially thought it meant that the students would start misbehaving and causing trouble. It does kind of meant that, but I didn’t realize it meant the trouble would start after the students were exposed to “dangerous” ideas. I would not have caught that meaning. I need a “Winning Hong Kong English” newsletter to help me! 😆

Thanks again for being part of Winning English! Please like, comment, and share. I would appreciate it, and talk soon!