Weird Words and Intriguing Idioms

English is wacky. (And wonderful?)

I spend a lot of time around people whose mother tongue is something other than English. And as a native English speaker who’s admittedly taken my language way too much for granted for most of my life, I have come to the undeniable conclusion that English is weird.

Attempting to explain the difference in pronunciation between sucks and socks to a Spanish speaker is challenging for both of us… not to mention navigating the vowel shift between ship and sheep with a Portuguese speaker. Let’s not even tread upon the precarious minefield of bitch vs. beach!

“English is hard, OK?! I’m sorry!!!” I’ve been known to exclaim, throwing up my hands in defeat.

And what about the baffling verbal and written shortcuts many English-speakers take. Some of my faves [favourites] are thx [thanks] and the minimalist k [OK].

“But why bother shortening a two-letter word? Why is that necessary? I don’t understand,” says a Colombian-born Canadian.

Sadly, I have no answers.

Then there are the silent letters. Useless. Taunting. Unexplainable.

A comb for your hair… but don’t pronounce the “b.”

Night and knight – yes, they mean totally different things. Yes, they’re pronounced exactly the same. No, I don’t know why.

So. I freely admit it. English is often weird and frustrating to those who learned it later in life. I feel lucky to be a native speaker who has never had to think about its oddities… until now.

But all is not bad. We also have some funky expressions and words that I love sharing. Here are some of my faves.

  • Whatever floats your boat (“You like to put ketchup on your pancakes? Why not, whatever floats your boat!”)
  • Let’s blow this popsicle stand (“I’m ready to go, let’s blow this popsicle stand!”)
  • In one fell swoop (“In one fell swoop, the pandemic changed the lives of everyone around the world.”)
  • Better than a kick in the pants (“You only got a $3.00 tax refund? Well, I guess it’s better than a kick in the pants.”)
  • Discombobulated (“I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was or what time it was. I was completely discombobulated.”
  • Rigamarole (“It was a massive rigamarole to gather all the paperwork I needed to apply for that program, including reference letters from five former professors.”)
  • Kerfuffle (“The roaming street performers caused quite a kerfuffle by doing acrobatics in the middle of the road while dressed in creepy clown costumes.”)
  • Keener* (“He had already finished all the assignments by the time classes started – what a keener!”)
  • Hole in the wall,** mom and pop, and greasy spoon (“Cosmos diner is a tiny greasy spoon with less than a dozen seats. It’s a legendary hole in the wall that doesn’t look like much, but it’s got the best home fries in Montreal. I really hope it doesn’t lose its mom-and-pop charm now that it’s been bought out!”)

*One of my all-time favourite Canadianisms
**Interestingly, this one means something completely different in the UK, where it refers to an automated teller machine (ATM), aka bank machine… a more literal hole in the wall, to be sure.

14 replies on “Weird Words and Intriguing Idioms”

I like “j walking” and “stuffed”. When I lived in Australia I bought an Aussie dictionary full of these types of expressions. I’m sorry we never talked about this subject before!! Miss you, K.P.
kisses from Brazil!

As a native French speaker, I find that English is one of the easiest language to learn. Conjugation tables? Can you even call them tables? Gendered nouns and adjectives? Nah! My biggest issue is a fairly standard one: words pronounced differently despite their similar spelling. For example, why are “comb” and “tomb” pronounced so differently? But in all fairness, we have a ton of those in French.

Dear Kathryn and Alexandre,

Yes, English does have a great deal of “Weird Words and Intriguing Idioms”. For example, “sanction” is a tricky word that seems to contradict itself. It is the same word with opposite meanings.

On the one hand, the verb form of the word means “give official permission or approval for (an action).”

On the other hand, it can also mean “impose a sanction or penalty on.”

A very common grammatical problem nowadays is the use of two successive or contiguous verbs. For example: “National boundaries help maintain the unique beauty among different countries.”

There are at least two solutions:
(1) “National boundaries help [to] maintain the unique beauty among different countries.”

(2) “National boundaries help [in] maintain[ing] the unique beauty among different countries.”

In any case, English grammar has been suffering from a significant decline in many circles. Poor expressions and ungrammatical constructions are all too common.

I have painstakingly prepared a significant summary of the most common and/or egregious problems with corresponding solutions at

What’s even worse is that it’s regional. Some places pronounce i’s as e’s so a safety pin can be pronounced/(heard) as a safety pen.

> **Interestingly, this one means something completely different in the UK, where it refers to an automated teller machine (ATM), aka bank machine… a more literal hole in the wall, to be sure.

Hey Kathryn! Great post. _But_, we use both meanings of this phrase in the UK. There are a lot of pubs over here that literally style themselves as, “The Hole in the Wall”. Including this one in the town where I grew up which is sited at an actual hole in the ancient Roman wall:

I want to learn a second language. My parents and grandparents (and beyond) spoke French but that tradition died with me and my siblings. I wish I would have taken the time to learn French when growing up. My grandparents said that when they were in school, speaking French was discourage…English only, please. That is so crazy.

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