This post may contain affiliate links. When you click through to sign up or make a purchase, then we receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Idioms are a turn of phrase that have cemented themselves into different cultures and societies.

They can be confusing, as they have a completely different meaning to the actual words – they are NOT literal. A classic example would be “it’s raining cats and dogs”.


For many of us, we have simply picked these up over the course of our lifetimes, often not even questioning the origin of the nonsensical words we speak.


What’s the problem with idioms?

Well. I can assure you, if you have a child with Asperger’s, you should try and refrain from using idioms as they can be quite frustrating to interpret. You need to say things in literal terms. If it’s raining heavily, say it’s raining heavily.


With that being said, however, the day will come where you’ll have to explain these phrases. Whether you’ve allowed one of these overlooked, nonsense sayings to roll off your tongue, or someone else that’s been with your child did. At some point, the question will come up.


“Why do people say it’s raining cats and dogs when there’s only water coming from the sky?”


And if you’re anything like me, you’ll come to realise you have absolutely no idea! This will, in turn, most regrettably, lead to more frustration.

So, to help avoid the struggle of interpreting these sayings, I have compiled some of the most common idioms used – for the categories of feelings, instructions and time – followed by a brief explanation of what they mean and how they (supposedly) originated.


Read more >> How Understanding Autism is like using a Roundabout


Idioms used to express feelings

To begin with, let’s look at some of the idiomatic phrases that some people may use when expressing how they feel. These are a common one, and therefore more likely to be used and in need of an explanation.


Under the weather

Meaning: Feeling ill or unwell.

Origin: Term originated from sailors, as when they felt unwell and couldn’t perform duties on deck, they would be sent below deck – hence “under the weather”.


Chilled out

Meaning: A calm and relaxed emotional state.

Origin: Apparently, the word “chill” and the phrase “chill out” came into widespread use around the 1980s. It is thought to be a new version of the word “cool”, which became popular in the 1930s.


Head over heels

Meaning: To be deeply and completely in love with someone.

Origin: Dating back to the 1300s, this saying was originally “heels over head” – and meant just that. It wasn’t until the 1700s when the reverse saying began to be used to describe being in a state of happiness and excitement, and in the 1800s, when its meaning was used for a description of being totally and utterly in love with someone.


Bent out of shape

Idioms bent out of shape

Meaning: To be very angry or upset.

Origin: Earlier uses of the word “bent” referred to a state of intoxication. However, the meaning changed, and sometime around the mid-nineteenth century, it began to be used to describe the mood and reaction of a person to a given situation.


Read more >> The Sensory Soap Awards


Tickled pink

Meaning: Being very happy or amused.

Origin: Dating back to the 17th century, the word “tickle” was used to describe being amused or gratified. Its use later changed to the common phrase used nowadays, with the meaning of being in a state of joy and elation. The first recorded use with its present-day meaning was around 1910, where it was used in print. This indicates that it would have been a popular turn of phrase for some time.


Down in the dumps

Meaning: Feeling very sad and miserable.

Origin: The term “the dumps” was used in medieval times to describe a state of depression and melancholy. The use of the word “dumps” was first recorded in print in 1529, indicating a state of depression, and in 1785 it was used in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.


Sick as a dog

Meaning: Simply, to be very sick (ill).

Origin: Well, this will offend the dog lovers out there, but the phrase is said to have originated from the 1700s when it was normal to liken bad things to dogs! However, this was not done due to their disliking of the animals themselves. Rather, as dogs were just one of several animals that would help spread diseases like the plague, they became unfavourable!


Driving me up the wall

Idioms Driving me up the wall

Meaning: To make someone very angry, irritated or annoyed.

Origin: Very early uses of this phrase were from the 1500s, and it described attempting to escape an unwanted or irritating situation. It was used in such a way as to explain trying to escape something but coming up against a wall. Its modern-day use of describing being driven crazy by something or someone has been recorded since the 1900s.



Idioms used as a form of instruction

This is a particularly bad way to use nonliteral language to a person with ASD, especially Asperger’s. Where used as a passing comment that does not require their involvement, best-case scenario, you’ve simply confused them. However, if you are giving direct instruction and expecting them to act off your words, use the words that make sense! (Please)


Hold your tongue

Meaning: To be quiet or silent. To not speak.

Origin: Records of the phrase being used date back to the 1300s. It was first recorded in a text by Chaucer from around 1387. It has been used in different forms but means to restrain from speaking (hold).


Hold your horses

Meaning: To wait, slow down, or stop.

Origin: It is used to ask someone to slow down or stop and sometimes to think before doing something. Dating back to the 1800s, the phrase is believed to have been used in literal terms to stop or slow horse transport. However, it was first recorded in print in 1842 used as its current meaning to getting a person to stop.


Rise and shine

Meaning: Wake up and get out of bed.

Origin: The earliest example of the phrase was slightly different than the one we use today and was given in 1611 in the bible: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.” Since then, there have been further uses in literature, with the common phrase we use today first recorded in print form in 1824. However, it first began being used as a wake-up call in the army, as it was used to rouse soldiers from their beds.


Put your thinking cap on

Thinking cap

(This would totally be my thinking cap of choice!)

Meaning: To solve a problem. To reflect on or consider something.

Origin: The phrase was first recorded in use back in the 1600s. However, the cap was of a different variety. Instead of a thinking cap, texts from this time refer to a ‘considering cap’. The use of language seemed to change from earlier versions in texts where a ‘considering cap’ was referred to as a literal cap. This later changed, and the first reference to a figurative ‘thinking cap’ was recorded in print in 1857.


Sit tight

Meaning: Stay put or stay where you are and wait.

Origin: Its use dates back to the eighteenth century and is thought to have originated from a natural predator-prey observation. Used in this way, it simply implies to be still whilst it’s not a good time to move or take action. Other people have dated the saying back early still and claim that the term originated from the game poker, refereeing to a player who is not actively better or throwing the game, but “sitting tight”.


Get the ball rolling

Meaning: To get started or to begin something.

Origin: The term is likely to have originated from sport. The likely culprit is thought to be from a game played in the UK since the 1850’s known as croquet.

croquet not croquette

Example of idiom used in dialogue:

Teacher: “Have you completed task two yet, Sam?”

Sam: “No, Miss”

Teacher: “Well, you better get the ball rolling then.”



Idioms used to express time

For some bizarre reason, there are loads of these. Maybe this originates from a history of literary-minded people trying to invent new ways to explain ‘being late’!


In the nick of time

Meaning: Only just on time or just done in time.

Origin: According to World Wide Words, a nick was a “narrow and precise marker” that has been around since the 1580s. The term began to be used to express something being done “precisely in time”.


Once in a blue moon

Meaning: Something that occurs very rarely.

Origin: The phrase originated in the 16th century from an earlier saying “when the moon is blue”, which meant never. At the time, moons were not blue, and therefore it was used as a way to say, “it’s not going to happen”. Interestingly, the moon did actually ‘appear’ blue on several occasions, all relating to natural disasters that resulted in a large number of dust particles being in the atmosphere. These events included:

  • 1883 – the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa
  • 1927 – delayed Indian monsoons resulting in a long dry season
  • 1951 – forest fires of western Canada

So, since these events, it became evident that the moon does sometimes appear blue. Therefore, the phrase “once in a blue moon” came about sometime in the 1900s to imply something will happen, but rarely.


Time to hit the road

Idioms hit the road

Meaning: Time to leave.

Origin: Another idiom from when horses were the primary mode of transportation. It is thought to be in reference to horses’ hooves hitting the road. A similar saying would be “hit the trail”, which was recorded in print in 1873 by W. F. Butler in his book ‘Wild North Land ‘.


On the spur of the moment

Meaning: A sudden decision or action without forward planning.

Origin: The saying initially came from the term ‘spur’ being used for a spike attached to horse riders’ boots used to hurry the horse up. From this, the original phrase “on the spur” developed, which meant to do something with great haste. Later, sometime in the 1800s, this turned into today’s meaning of doing something impulsively.


Against the clock

Meaning: To do something in a hurry or as fast as possible.

Origin: The phrase was first noted in the 1800s, where it was found used in a printed newspaper article. However, its popularity as the phrase we know today has been far more recent. It’s been found to be used in articles since the early 1900s, denoting a rush to complete a task. For example, in 1917, an article in The New York Herald wrote, “All newspaper work is a struggle against the clock”. The is confusion about how this use of the term originated, but many seem to agree it was around this time when timed sports were popular that the phrase court on and gained its meaning.


In the blink of an eye

Meaning: Something that happens very quickly.

Origin: The saying has evolved from the phrase “in the twinkling of an eye”, used since the 1300s. From the context of the earlier texts, this older phrase appears to have had the same meaning. It has been found in the bible and the works of William Shakespeare. However, the first written record of the phrase we use today dates back to 1874, where it was used in a text by W. Chambers.


Final thoughts on idioms

And lastly, what is the explanation of the age-old meteorological pet forecast?


It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Idioms Its raining cats and dogs

Meaning: Raining heavily.

Origin: Several explanations of this saying are suggested. However, the most common appears to be that dead cats and dogs were left out in the streets during the 16th century, and during times of heavy rain, their carcases would be washed along with the downpour. This would give the (somewhat unsettling) impression that the cats and dogs came down with the heavy rain.


Now go forth with your new understanding of ridiculous idioms – and please try to refrain from using these in conversations. But if an Aspie catches you out, hopefully now you can explain your use of language with a fact-based historical incidence.


Thanks for reading!


For inspiring art & helpful resources, check out my Autism Inked Etsy Store.