Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

Honesty is the best policy • Bird in hand • Best things in life are free • Actions speak louder • The early bird • Murphy's Law • Hope for the best • All good things • Practice makes perfect

Hello, everyone! Every culture creates a shared wisdom that’s handed down through the generations, and that wisdom is often expressed through short sayings. In English, those short sayings are called many things - proverbs, aphorisms, adages, maxims, sayings, sometimes laws, and even old saws.

It’s not important, really, to know the differences between all of those. Just know that they are all words for short statements that are intended to communicate a truth about the world and often to teach morals or rules for good behavior.

Sometimes those statements are very direct. Other times they are more poetic and metaphorical. Some are quite old, while others are relatively new. There are many, many examples. Let’s take a look at a few. I’ll definitely have to come back to more in the future.

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Direct and metaphorical aphorisms

Let’s start with one saying that’s intended to teach a moral - Honesty is the best policy. Honesty is telling the truth. And a policy is a rule. So, this one is fairly straightforward. If “honesty is the best policy”, then telling the truth is always the best way to live your life. In other words, never lie.

Other aphorisms are less straightforward than that one - for example, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. What in the world does this mean, with birds and hands and bushes? Think of the bird as food that you will eat. You already have one, so you will be okay. But suppose you see two more birds sitting on a bush.

You could decide to let go of the bird you have to try to grab the two birds. However, you could end up with nothing at all. That might not be worth the risk. That bird you already have has the same value - or worth - as two you might or might not get. In other words, sometimes it’s best just to hold on to what you have, rather than take a chance of risking everything.

Proverbs in popular music

These kinds of short moral sayings are so common that they end up being used everywhere, including in popular music - for example, the best things in life are free. This saying is referring to things that are incredibly important to us - like love, friendship, peace of mind, a sunny day - but don’t necessarily cost us money to buy. Many popular songs have been built around this saying, including one by the Beatles:

Note how the Beatles play with the meaning of the saying by singing that free things are great, but really they just want money.

Aphorisms in the workplace

Many aphorisms are very useful in the workplace, as well as in daily life. For example, actions speak louder than words. Actions - that is, physical things that we do - don’t actually speak with a voice. But they do show what we’re capable of doing and willing to do. In that sense, they speak about us. Now, imagine that an employee or a service provider is telling you all the wonderful things that they will do for you. The words might sound good. But in the end, “actions speak louder than words”. You want to see results.

Another common saying involves birds again - the early bird catches the worm. Imagine the sun is coming up in the morning. You hear all sorts of birds chirping and start to see them flying around. It’s likely that, in part, they’re looking for breakfast, which could be worms.

The earlier a bird wakes up, the more likely it is to find breakfast because the rest are still asleep. “The early bird catches the worm.” Although this saying applies in all parts of life, in business, think of it as the first-mover advantage. If you’re first to market with your products, you’re likely to keep the lead over your competitors.

Watch out

Many of these aphorisms or proverbs have been part of English for a long, long time. But every once in a while, a new one becomes popular. That’s the case with Murphy’s Law - Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The idea here is that the universe is an absurd place that will always make things hard for humans, no matter how much we work to make things perfect. While this notion has been around for a long time, this particular phrasing only became popular in the 1950s in connection with an engineer named Edward Murphy and the US space program.

A related common saying is hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Similar to Murphy’s Law, this saying advises us to be optimistic about the future, but not have too much faith in our ability to plan that future. We can and should always hope for the best outcome possible, but we should always guard against the worst possible outcome. Put differently, you should strive for great things, but protect against risks.

All good things…

Okay, it’s time to finish. After all, all good things come to an end, which is a common saying when you’re ending something. Note that it can be used in two ways - honestly and ironically. For example, you might honestly feel a bit sad that something fun or good is ending, so you say “all good things come to an end” as a way to comfort yourself. However, sometimes people use this phrase ironically after a bad experience. They are humorously calling the bad experience good as a way of dealing with it. Jokes often help in this way.

Want more? Plus, practice makes perfect

As I mentioned there are many more examples of aphorisms, proverbs, and adages. I will cover more in future editions, but if you can’t wait, check out this handy list from Lemon Grad for more.

To get started using these sayings, try to include just a few in your daily speech. You’ll get better over time. After all, practice makes perfect. I’ve covered this saying in a previous post. It means if you work on something long enough and hard enough, you’ll eventually get really good at it.

I should also let you know that many of these sayings are so well known that they often get shortened to just the first half of the saying. For example, “actions speak louder than words” can become “actions speak louder”. A “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” can become “a bird in the hand”. Native speakers will fill in the second half of the saying in their minds automatically.

The British are coming!

In every newsletter I try to include a bit more content about the English language and the culture surrounding it. I found this article from the Wall Street Journal to be interesting and funny:

Thanks to the pandemic, many children are watching a lot more TV nowadays. One of the most popular kid’s shows right now is “Peppa Pig” from the United Kingdom. It turns out that many small children in the United States are starting to use words and pronunciations from British English. If the US isn’t careful, it might lose a generation of speakers to British English! 😆 However, there’s not much to worry about, I think. The article says “Spongebob Squarepants” is still the most popular children’s show. Or, maybe that is something to worry about!

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