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American Idioms


One of the reasons English is so difficult to learn is because it is a language full of idioms. An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning separate from the actual definitions of the words used. There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in the English language.

Here in Britain, the influence of the American film and television industry has led to many so-called ‘Americanisms’ being adopted into day-to-day language. It is not uncommon for a Brit to metaphorically talk about ‘touching base’ or ‘striking out’ without ever actually having seen a ball game. Today, to end our month dedicated to American language, we’re going to take a look at a couple of idioms that originate from across the pond. For non-native English speakers, we’ll begin with a brief definition of the idiom and follow up with a look into its origins.

Barking up the wrong tree

If you’re ‘barking up the wrong tree’ it means that you’re making a false assumption or mistake – that you have completely misunderstood something.

The phrase alludes to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of the trees that they misguidedly believe their prey are hiding in, perhaps because they’ve mistaken the correct tree for a different one in the darkness or because they haven’t realised that the animal being chased has leapt into a different tree.

According to The Phrase Finder, the earliest known printed use of the phrase was in 1832 by James Kirke Paulding in Westward Ho!.

"Here he made a note in his book, and I begun to smoke him for one of those fellows that drive a sort of a trade of making books about old Kentuck and the western country: so I thought I'd set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book."

In this context, the narrator is misleading someone by setting him ‘barking up the wrong tree a little’. After this, the phrase was used in several newspapers throughout the 1830s.

Jumping on the bandwagon

If you ‘jump on the bandwagon’ it means that you are joining a growing movement just as it is seen to be becoming successful. Another phrase with a similar meaning is ‘following the crowd’.

‘Bandwagon’ was first used in the USA in the mid 19th century to describe the brightly decorated wagon that carried a circus band. The Phrase Finder explains how, by parading these wagons through the town, circuses were able to attract and excite large audiences of followers from the general public, and by the late 19th century, politicians began to use bandwagons when campaigning for office in the hope of attracting large crowds to their ideals.

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt outright referred to the figurative practice of ‘jumping the bandwagon’ in his Letters:

"When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”

So what do you think? Could you have guessed where these two idioms originated from? If you are interested in looking at more idioms that originate in America, you can find a full list here.

Are you a second-language English speaker? Which English idioms do you find the most unusual? We’d also love to hear some idioms from any other languages you may speak. Get it touch – we’ll share the best on Facebook and Twitter!

Avani Shah


22 Jul 2013
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