10 Idioms and Phrases Everyone Gets Wrong

Wednesday, October 253 min read

If you hear Taylor Swift singing about “all the lonely Starbucks lovers” on “Blank Space,” that’s a mondegreen, which is a misheard lyric that gets repeated so often, it becomes almost as ubiquitous as the correct version (“got a long list of ex-lovers,” in Taylor’s case). The same thing happens with common idioms and phrases. If mistaken words are used enough, people start to repeat and transmit them in different forms. Here are some of the most common idioms that folks mishear and misunderstand.

Did a 360

Double-check your math on this one. There are 360 degrees in a circle, so performing a 360-degree revolution will land you back exactly at the beginning. Perhaps you meant that, but if you’re implying that you made a great change, the correct version is “did a 180.” In that case, you left your starting point to move as far away as possible. In other words, you completely shifted yourself, either metaphorically or physically.

Escape Goat

The word you’re looking for here is most likely “scapegoat.” This translation of a biblical phrase refers to a person or thing that can be blamed for the mistakes of others. An “escape goat” might be found if livestock gets loose on a farm, but it’s not a common idiom.

First-Come, First-Serve

The proper way to write this phrase is “first-come, first-served.” One little letter might not seem like a big deal, but “served” indicates that whoever arrives first will be waited on first. The “serve” variation implies the first guest to come will serve all the other guests, which would likely be an unwelcome surprise.

For All Intensive Purposes

The correct idiom — “for all intents and purposes” — comes from 16th-century English law as the longer phrase “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.” Essentially, it means “practically” or “in effect.” This is an example of an eggcorn, or a phrase people mishear and alter over time.

Hunger Pains

The original phrase is “hunger pangs,” although “pains” could technically be correct as well. The former is an older term that refers to the feeling of cramping that comes with an empty stomach. Since the word “pangs” is a bit outdated, it’s sometimes mispronounced as “pains,” though they essentially refer to the same idea.

I Could Care Less

This one stirs up a bit of debate. When the words are parsed out individually, the accurate version to imply that you care a minimal amount is “I couldn’t care less.” However, the American colloquialism of “I could care less” is so widely used that even dictionaries have accepted it.

Nip It in the Butt

While the thought of getting bit on the butt is pretty funny, the correct phrase is “nip it in the bud.” This idiom comes from the world of gardening. If you trim a plant while it’s in the budding stage, it won’t grow properly. That’s precisely what you might want to do with a dangerous idea or rumor — nip it right in the bud.

On Tender Hooks

While you might feel a little tender while nervous or tense, the correct version of this expression is “on tenterhooks.” These hooks were used to stretch fabrics, and that stretching concept was extended to feelings of anxiety or worry. “Tender hook” is just a mispronunciation of the real term.

Pass Mustard

“Pardon us. Do you have any Grey Poupon?” Forget that popular commercial — while you might ask someone to “pass the mustard” at the dinner table, the correct wording for the idiom meaning “to gain approval or acceptance” is “pass muster.” It comes from the military term “muster,” which describes a formal inspection.

You’ve Got Another Thing Coming

As with “could care less,” this alternative phrase has almost replaced the original, which is “you’ve got another think coming.” In other words, you’re wrong and must rethink what you’re saying or doing. The “think” version of the phrase is older and more likely to be used by British English speakers.

Featured image credit: stephanie phillips/ iStock

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