Idioms By Izzy Cohen

The Izzy Cohen’s page with idioms was restored thanks to Orion Code.

Note: For teachers of English and advanced students.  An analytical article about idioms and their origin. Well-researched, well-written and well-presented with tongue in cheek, this is guaranteed to set you thinking.  Whether you agree, or not, we would like to hear your comments.


  • Article by Izzy Cohen (Scroll to next box)
  • Bibi’s Addendum
    • Language Notes
    • Argument, Observations & Further Explanation
  • Your comments


  • Queries about idioms
leblanc [ ] wrote:
 … Some cognitive linguists argue that idioms make sense because they are motivated by conceptual structures independent of language, while some argue (B.Keysar B.M.Bly, 1999) that people understand idioms because they had already learned the true meanings of idioms and that the above-mentioned conceptual structures do not exist.  Gibbs et al. demonstrated that mental imagery plays an important role in the comprehension of idioms. Are these mental images spontaneous when we encounter idioms? Or they are just a medium for those who are not familiar with the idioms?
I think an idiom (in English) is generated and understood by an English speaker in much the same way as any other foreign word or expression, e.g. “bon appetite”, “deja vu”, or “e pluribus unum”. The difference is when we say, or write an obviously foreign expression, we know it is “foreign” and we expect the listener/reader to recognize it as such and understand it.An idiom is a word or (usually) a phrase from an ancestral or foreign language that has become (re)spelled as common words of the target language. This “definition” is in complete agreement with the etymology of the word “idiom”… from Greek for: something that you (borrow and) make your own.There are several classes of idioms:

Class 1 – “clear text” foreign words/phrases that have been
transliterated directly into common target-language words. Often the motivation for the original transliteration was to make a pun.


Class-1: Examples using the [ancient sound] of some letters:

to rain cats and dogs

Hebrew maBooL GeSHeM SHQi3a = torrent rain descends, was
maBooL Ge[T]eM [T]Qi[G]a ==> PoLe CaT aNd DoCGa ==> (raining) cats and dogs [Docga was OE for a 4-legged dog.]

to let the cat out of the bag

Aramaic KiSHoT BaGaD = truth + betray, or betray by revealing the truth, was Ki[T]oT BaGaD ==> (let the) CaT ouT (of the) BaG

Has the cat got your tongue?

The same KiSHoT = truth occurs in the expression “Has the cat got your
tongue?”, that is, is the truth stuck on your tongue … usually said to
a child who doesn’t want to lie but also doesn’t want to utter the truth. [See Bibi’s comment]

to be left holding the bag

The same BaGaD = betray occurs in the expression “…left holding the
bag”. You have been betrayed by your friends / associates. They got away, but you are left holding the bag. [See Bibi’s comment]
When you use these idioms, you do not feel like you are using a foreign word/phrase and the words used may indeed call to mind their ordinary referrents. “It’s raining cats and dogs. Be careful. Don’t step on that poodle.” But the meaning you convey remains the meaning of the original foreign/ancestral term.
Other examples using common animals include “Welsh rabbit” (merely a list of its ingredients: milk or cheese + ale on toast) and “White rabbit”, the very first thing one must say at the beginning of the month to ensure a “month bountiful”. Both of these involve a het-W parallel.

XaLaV = milk + SHaKHaR = ale + PaT (lexem) = piece of bread, toast… was [W]aLav + SHakhaR + PaT ==> WeLSH RaBBiT   [See Bibi’s comment]

XoDeSH = month + RaBaH = increase, be bountiful, was [W]oDe[T] + RaBa[DH] ==> WhiTe RaBBiT


Class 2 – Transliteration of an ancestral/foreign metaphor (coded meaning).


Class 2

to beat the living daylights out of someone 

I’m gonna beat the “livin’ daylights” outta ya < liver and lights, where “liver” is the most dense body part and “lights” was the OE word for lungs, the least dense body part. The meaning was figurative. The speaker did not intend to literally extract the liver and lungs.

to kick the bucket 

< proto-Semitic KaGav B’KayDen => Hebrew 3aGav
B’3a:DeN = to make (physical) love in Paradise. This is still a middle-East metaphor for dying. On a less erotic note, we say “He went to his eternal reward.” Both expressions are a euphemism for dying, a way to avoid saying “He died.”


Class 3 – Translations into the target language of foreign-1 puns that had been transliterated into foreign-1 from “clear text” foreign-1 or foreign-2 words/phrases.


Class 3

to escape by the skin of one’s teeth The classic example is Job 19:20 (to escape) “by the skin of my teeth” meaning “hardly, barely, with difficulty”. In Hebrew, Job said B’3oR SHiNai = skin of my teeth. But Job was making a euphemistic pun on the Hebrew word B’KoSHi = barely, with difficulty… at a time when the Hebrew aiyin had a velar G/K sound, as in 3aZa = Gaza. 
I have found several Latin => Hebrew pun => English translation (of the Hebrew) examples:

to count sheep (to go to sleep)

Latin sopor sond = sleep soundly ==> Hebrew (li)SPoR tZoN = count sheep (to go to sleep)

a hair of the dog (that bit you)

Latin Saccharomyces cervisae = Brewer’s yeast ==> Hebrew Sa3aR MiNSHaKH KeLeV = hair bite dog, i.e., “hair of the dog that bit you” = a hangover remedy. Cf the Greek 3-headed dog CeRBerus.


Class 1 + Class 3 is a (sometimes redundant) combination of these


Classes 1 & 3

Break a leg!

Example 1: “break a leg” = said to an actor to wish him/her good luck.
The normal term in Hebrew or Yiddish would be BRaKHa/BRaKHos = blessing/s.  The pun is the Hebrew term for a knee or leg: BeReKH … both of which sound like the English word “break”.  The translation of the euphemism / pun is “leg”, hence “break a leg”.

to be cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey (Br-r-r-r, it’s brass monkey’s tonight!)

Example 2: (cold enough to) “freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. It means, cold enough to make you shiver.  Most dialects convert a P-sound to B. Hebrew PeLeTZ = shiver, tremble. Compare English palsy.  Hebrew P’LiZ = brass
P to B => BaLLS
Hebrew K’Foo = frozen
Hebrew KoF = monkey
Drop the K => oFFSo, “balls off” is a transliteration, while “brass monkey” is a translation, of the Semitic pun PeLeZ KoF = brass monkey on the plain
text PeLeTZ K’Foo which means “shiver frozen”.


In order to machine-translate idioms without table look-ups, one needs to determine the original source-language and sometimes to determine an intermediate language from which a translation was made.

As for human usage, I think all of this is irrelevant. If “e pluribus unum” = “out of many, one” had become an English idiom, it might have been spelled “a flower-bush you name”, but it would still mean “out of many, one”. And it would have been used just like the foreign phrase is used.

Izzy’s  Notes:-

  • For “rain dogs and polecats” in 1635, see  and
  • dog having been docga in OE
    • OE docga dates from 1050. It may be a reversal (with de-nasalization) of Latin CaniD
  • That the shin had a T-sound is well-accepted by Hebrew linguists. SHoR = ox had been ToR as in Taurus. The word “SHeN” means tooth and giving the shin a dental sound makes it cognate with Latin dens, Greek odon, and Sanskrit dan. In so-called Rashi script, the shin looks like a modern tet turned 90 degrees clockwise. 

Bibi’s Addendum-1

Language Notes

to be left holding the bag

I have never heard this one;  this does not mean it does not exist.  Nevertheless, there is an idiom:  to be left holding the baby.  This can be interpreted literally and metaphorically, but whichever way, it means someone must take responsibility.

Has the cat got your tongue?

This is also used when a child is too shy to speak.

Welsh Rarebit 

Grilled cheese on toast is known as Welsh Rarebit, but pronounced Welsh rabbit and considered by many to have the spelling of ‘rabbit’

Bibi’s Addendum-2

Discussion & Observations

Bibi’s Comment:  I have to be honest with you. I do not agree with all you say;  however, that is good,  because it leads to healthy discussion and perhaps other teachers will feel the same.  Many of our idioms reflect our former way of life and are therefore linked to our history.

Izzy’s Cohen:  Of course there are some of these, but they really are few and far between. For example: ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’, but one doesn’t hear that expression very often any more.’s Comment:  I have never heard this expression, but that does not mean it does not exist – somewhere or other.  Nevertheless, it is not in common use. 

Izzy Cohen:  Do you also feel that there was not sufficient contact to enable these phrases to be borrowed into English? 

Bibi’s Comment:  There was definitely sufficient contact between Londoners and the Jewish community, but not all over England. Around Whitechapel and surrounding areas, there was a huge Jewish community which dominated traditionally for centuries. Forest Gate shops and Stratford market had a high level of Jewish traders. There are less now. 

Izzy Cohen:

First account of Jews in England: 691
Jews expelled from England by order of King Edward I on 12 July 1290

With a website name like you should appreciate the idiom “face the music” = face the consequences.  This idiom entered American English at about 1850 … following a large wave of German Jewish immigration in the 1840s, about 55 years before the much
larger wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. [My grandfather arrived in the States from Belarus in 1905.]

There is nothing musical about the music in “face the music”. It comes from
Yiddish maskone mem-samekh-kuf-nun-aleph = inference, conclusion, from
Hebrew maskana mem-samekh-kuf-nun-heh = conclusion, inference, deduction.

What do you think?

This section awaits your comments.