slang, idiomatic expressions and euphemisms

  A 'Knees-up'

Luisa Fernanda Saavedra from Colombia writes:

Could you please explain to me what the difference is between slang, idiomatic expressions and euphemisms? Thank you.


Roger Woodham replies:


Slang consists of very informal expressions or words which normally feature in speech rather than writing and are used by people who know each other well or who have the same jobs, backgrounds or interests. They often relate to sex, drink, drugs, relationships, social groups, etc. They are often fairly strong in emotive terms and may sometimes be found offensive to people outside the group. Have a look at some of the slang expressions on our Talk Lingo pages. Here are some more expressions:

  • It may be big bucks to you, but it's chickenfeed to me.
  • So, who came to this knees-up, then?
  • My ex was absolutely bonkers.
  • We'll have to get some booze in for tonight.

Big bucks denotes a large amount of money (bucks are dollars), chickenfeed is small change. Knees-up = party, my ex = former boyfriend or girlfriend. Absolutely bonkers is very crazy or unpredictable. Booze is alcohol, just as a boozer is a pub or someone who drinks a lot of alcohol.

If you are exposed to slang expressions in your learning of English, it is important for you to understand their meaning and the emotive force behind them. It may be less appropriate for you to use them if you are not part of that group. In fact, it may sound strange and inappropriate if you do so. Also slang changes very quickly.


idiomatic expressions

Idiomatic expressions are combinations or collocations of words which cannot be translated word for word. Thus:

  • I could eat a horse.

is an idiomatic way of saying:

  • I'm very hungry.

Idiomatic expressions are extremely common and are found in all kinds of English, both formal and particularly informal. But do not make a special effort to learn them. There are too many. You will learn the most common naturally through the learning material that you are using. And it is much better to be accurate when using non-idiomatic English than inappropriate when using an idiom. For example, it is better to say:

  • It's raining very hard out there.


  • It's raining cats and dogs out there.

which has gone out of fashion. As a learner, it may be difficult for you to know what idioms are in fashion and which are not.


idiomatic expressions with 'out'

Good dictionaries will usually list idiomatic usage of words after the literal meanings are given. Thus after the literal definitions of out, you may find the following idiomatic usages listed and illustrated:

  • I was so tired I went out like a light.
  • I've never seen such behaviour: he was completely out of order.

These two are in current use. (As a rule of thumb, if you come across idiomatic expressions more than once in your study of contemporary English, they are probably current.) To go out like a light is to fall asleep or unconscious instantly. The allusion is to falling asleep immediately like switiching off a light. If someone is out of order, they have acted in bad taste or their behaviour is unacceptable. Note that the primary meaning of out of order relates to machines that are not working or are not in good order:

  • Go and put this out-of-order notice on the photocopier. It's not working again.
  • He was totally out-of-order. I can't believe he was so rude to her.




A euphemism is a polite word or expression that people use when they are talking about something which they or other people may find unpleasant, upsetting or embarrassing. When we use euphemisms we are protecting ourselves from the reality of what is said. There are many euphemisms that refer to sex, bodily functions, war, death, etc. Euphemisms are often good examples of idiomatic language use:

  • He passed away (i.e. died) after a long illness (i.e. cancer).
  • I decided to come out (i.e. admit to being homosexual). I didn't want to be outed (i.e. allow others to let it be known that I am homosexual).
  • It's no good. I can't hold it in. I shall have to spend a penny (i.e. urinate).
  • We keep the adult (i.e pornographic) magazines on the top shelf and the adult videos under the counter.
  • You know that we're in the middle of a rightsizing exercise (i.e. compulsory redundancy programme). We have no alternative but to let you go (i.e. sack you).
  • Many of the outlying villages suffered collateral damage (i.e. civilian deaths).

Spend a penny derives from the days when there were door locks on the outside of cubicles in public lavatories which could only be opened by inserting one old penny into the lock. This was not just the pre-euro era. It was the pre-decimal era. The expression is still in frequent use today.

Collateral damage is unintended damage and civilian casualities and deaths caused by the dropping of bombs in the course of a military operation. The term is of US origin and was first used to describe deaths in the Vietnam War, then in the Gulf War, then in the action (euphemism!) in Serbia at the end of the 1990s and most recently in Afghanistan.

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