Fiction Writer’s Compendium: Arcane English Idioms

A idiom is a collection of words that means something other than it would seem, or rather, a group of words whose meaning is different to the individual meanings entailed by the words themselves. Popular American idioms include:

  • A dime a dozen (something cheap or commonplace)
  • Beat around the bush (to prevaricate, generally due discomfort engendered by the topic being obviated)
  • Bite the bullet (to finish something unpleasant swiftly, because it is going to happen anyways)
  • Hit the sack (go to sleep)
  • Time is money (work fast/er)
  • Under the weather (to be mildly ill)

The phrases presented above, however, are only those which are quite popular; below we will turn our attention to English idioms which are considerably more uncommon, which shall serve to both increase the depth and breadth of one’s fiction-writing resources and increase the understandability of older texts whose authors had occasion to utilize time or region specific idioms.

  1. Acid Test: the most crucial and decisive test of worth or importance. This curious idiom came from the old use of nitric acid on gold to determine its authenticity.
  2. Albatross around your neck: a burden that can not be easily dispensed. This idiom comes from Samuel T. Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner wherein one of the character’s, a sailor, shoots a helpful albatross (sea bird), bringing bad luck upon his crew, who then hang the corpse of the dead animal about his neck as punishment.
  3. As the crow flies: in a straight line, without consideration of roads. The expression is used to describe the distance between two points via the utilization of a hypothetical crow, which, obviously, doesn’t need to take roads into consideration.
  4. Bats in the belfry: insane, but in a harmless way. Synonymous with “has a screw loose,” and, “off one’s rocker.” A belfry is a church tower, which, in the idiom, is meant to represent the head, the bats occupying the tower, might cause disturbance but are not of any real harm (generally speaking) and thus represent crazed, but ineffectual thought.
  5. Behind the eight ball: in a difficult or trying position. This idiom is derived from the popular game of billiards, more commonly referred to as pool. In billiards, if one sinks the eight ball before any of the other balls on the table, the player who did so automatically loses. The expression “behind the eight ball” refers to the difficulty engendered by trying to shot a ball out from behind an eight ball without hitting the latter object in such a way as to cause it to be pocketed.
  6. Bum Steer: to give bad advice or direction.
  7. Casting (throwing) pearls before swine: to offer something to one who cannot appreciate it. This expression is taken directly from the biblical story of the sermon on the mount, wherein, it is said: Do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot.”
  8. Cock-and-bull: something too ridiculous to be believed. Taken from an English fable wherein a cock (rooster) and a bull have a extraordinary conversation.
  9. Cut the mustard: to meet a certain set of standards. Used exclusively to refer to people.
  10. Dark horse: a unknown or little known competitor in some event who is expected to win by some person or group with special knowledge. As one might induce, the phrase stems from horse-racing. It is often deployed in political settings.
  11. Donkey’s ears: a very long time.
  12. Down in the mouth: unhappy. Derived from frowning (ie. the mouth turns down at the sides).
  13. Dutch treat: a outing where everyone pays for themselves, individually. Synonymous with “Go dutch” or “going dutch.”
  14. Eternal triangle: refers to two men who both love the same woman OR two women who both fall in love with the same man. The triangle has formed the centerpiece of many romantic pieces of literature across numerous cultures through time (hence “eternal”).
  15. Footloose and fancy-free: carefree due immense personal liberty. A close inspection of the phrase will yield its meaning to the discerning. Unlike with many other idioms, footloose and fancy-free is literal (ie. one’s foot is loose and one’s fancy – whim – is free).
  16. Mountain out of a molehill: to make a big deal out of something that is, in actuality, rather trivial, all things considered. The molehill in the phrase refers to the small clumps of dirt created by moles when they burrow. Thus, the phrase means one is acting as if the dirt clumps of a mole is bigger than a mountain, which is, of course, false.
  17. Pound of flesh: the excruciating payment of a debt. Derived from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, wherein, Antonio borrows a sum from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock; when the debt is unable to be paid, Shylock demands a literal pound of Antonio’s flesh.
  18. Stuffed shirt: a pompous and wearisome man.
  19. Talk turkey: to get down to business; to be shrewd and eschew small-talk in business dealings.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve any interesting and unusual idioms that you think should be included.

Irregardless: Clarifying A Confounding American Neologism

One of the most irascible words in the English language is the American neologism, irregardless, popularized during the 20th Century and meaning: without consideration; or, not needing to allow for; or, heedless; or, without reguard. The word is a combination of both irrespective and regardless, which raises a rather peculiar problem, namely, that both of the base-words are synonyms, thus, engendering a double-negative.

Since both irrespective and regardless mean, roughly, “heedless,” when one is saying irregardless, what one is actually saying is heedless of heedless, or, more exactly, irrespective of disregard OR without without reguard.

Since here, one is disreguarding their disreguard, they are, in effect, maintaining their reguard (provided they had some to begin with), however, this is the precise opposite of the meaning entailed in the casual (as opposed to literal) usage of “irreguardless.”

The solution to this arcane conundrum is, thankfully, quite a simple one: don’t use the word. Both irrespective and regardless are synonyms to this confusing adverb, and hence, can take its place without any linguistic confusion UNLESS one is writing fiction and one is emulating a certain regional dialect.

Hath: Meaning & Usage

Hath (hæθ), sometimes heth, is a interesting word whom most avid fiction readers or students of history have chanced across. Hath comes from the Old English hæfþ (has) which comes from the Proto-Germanic habaiþi (has). In its common, Middle English and latter usage, hath is a third person, singular present tense of have (i.e. haveth) that can be used in relation to a man (he), woman (she) or thing (it), thus, it is a synonym of has (hast may also be utilized as a substitute). Example:

“He hath no knowledge of the broil.” (“He has no knowledge of the fight”)

According to the very excellent Collins English Dictionary, hath was in common and quite popular usage from 1708 to around 1888, where use of the word began to markedly fall off.

However, before one goes about hath-ing your haves, it bares mentioning that, to the Irish, hath has a secondary use and meaning as a mirthful exclamation. Thus, in some Irish literature (most of it archaic) hath! does not have the English meaning of have/has but rather, means instead, “ha!” or “huh!”


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