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Nature Idioms

7 min read
17 December 2020
student in a tree

Have you ever been told that you’re barking up the wrong tree? What does it mean to be out of the woods? And what exactly is an olive branch? These are common nature idioms that are used quite often in everyday English conversation. If you’re just learning English, it may not be immediately clear what these phrases mean as they aren’t translated literally – their meanings are a bit more figurative and are determined by context.

So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a group of words that mean something different from their literal definitions. This week, we’re taking a closer look at some of the most common nature-themed idioms you might come across when first learning English. How many of these do you already know and how many are new to you? Let’s find out!


1. Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: This is used when you are describing someone who is making a mistake or a false assumption about something they are trying to achieve.

Example: "I didn't break it, you're barking up the wrong tree!"


2. Cat got your tongue

Meaning: If a cat has your tongue, you can't speak. To ask someone, "has a cat got your tongue?" means you are asking them why they have nothing to say. 

Example: "Why are you ignoring me, cat got your tongue?"


3. Last straw

Meaning: This idiom comes from an old English proverb that states, “It’s the last straw that breaks the camels back.” In the proverb, it is referring to the camel carrying too much weight, so it suffers and breaks down. As an idiom, it can refer to the last in a series of bad events that makes you feel like you cannot continue.

Example: "When she said i was lying to her, that was the last straw."


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4. Olive branch

Meaning: An olive branch is a symbol of peace. If you are “extending the olive branch,” then you are reconciling or ending a fight in order to be friendly.

Example: "I sent him a birthday card as an olive branch."


5. Out of the woods

Meaning: If you are “out of the woods” then you have gotten past the worst part of a bad situation. This is a very old expression, dating back to 1792, that refers to the literal situation of being lost in the woods and finding your way out.

Example: "You've got one more exam tomorrow, you're not out of the woods yet."


6. Paper tiger

Meaning: A paper tiger is anyone who pretends to be tougher or more dangerous than they really are. 

Example: "Gareth can appear scary but he's just a paper tiger."


7. Shrinking violet

Meaning: This refers to someone who is very shy and does not like a lot of attention. The act of shrinking means you are trying to make yourself small so as not to draw attention to yourself.

Example: "Joey is a shrinking violet when he tries to give a presentation at work." 


8. To Mountain out of a molehil 

Meaning: Moles are small digging creatures that make mounds of dirt in your garden. To "make a mountain out of a molehill" is to make a small problem or issue into a much bigger one by worrying about it and panicking. 

Example: "Stop worrying about it. You're making a mountain out of a molehill."


Amazing views of the mountains in Scotland near our Edinburgh school


9. To be a guinea pig

Meaning: Guinea pigs are small rodents that were often used for science experiments or to test make-up. To act as a guinea pig means to be the person trying out a new system or product for the first time. 

Example: "Rachel was the first customer to try the cafe's new recipe, she was the guinea pig." 


10. To back the wrong horse

Meaning: This refers to horse racing, where "to back" a horse means to bet that it will win the race. If you "back the wrong horse" you are betting on a horse that doesn't have a good chance to win. In life, this means teaming up with someone who has no skills, or just that you have made the wrong decision. 

Example: "I don't know why he chose that, he's backing the wrong horse." 


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