Mixing Idioms: How to Avoid Them and Use Idioms Correctly
Have you ever used an idiom incorrectly, like the words or the context wasn’t right?
You’re not the only person this has happened to – even native English speakers use the wrong idiom from time to time!
Idioms in English can be hard to decipher, especially without proper context.
What can be even more confusing is when people accidentally mix two idioms together.
This can be pretty embarrassing in normal conversation, but in a work setting, you run the risk of offending someone while you’re trying to make a business deal!
Today, I’ll teach you how to use idioms correctly and avoid embarrassing mistakes, so let’s nip incorrect idiom use in the bud.
If you KNOW a lot of English, but struggle to SPEAK...Learn More about Fluent for Life
What Is a Malaphor?
Sometimes our brains move faster than our mouths do. When we speak, our words get jumbled up.
A malaphor, or mixed idiom, is the result of that mistake. It occurs when two idioms are mixed together and create a new phrase or saying.
Most of the time, malaphors don’t make sense – but that’s okay. They’re not supposed to.
Remember – everyone, even native English speakers, mix up idioms sometimes!
It’s a normal part of learning English, and nothing to feel embarrassed about should it happen.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some examples of mixed idioms, and what you should say instead.
Malaphor Examples: 6 Mixed Idioms and What to Say Instead
Idioms are so frequently used in everyday conversations, they’re bound to be mixed up eventually!
The secret to using them correctly and in context is to build up your speaking confidence, and the first step in that process is to know which idioms sometimes get mixed up.
Let’s take a look at 6 common mixed idioms and what you can say instead.
1. Burning the Midnight Oil From Both Ends
“I’m so stressed that I’m burning the midnight oil from both ends.”
This is a mixup of the two idioms, “burning the midnight oil” and “burning the candle at both ends.”
Long ago before electricity was commonplace, candles and lamp oil were the only way to light a room once the sun went down.
Because of this, people usually stopped working once they didn’t have enough daylight to see by. But if you were particularly hard-working, you carried on into the night, burning lamp oil to help you see.
So, “burning the midnight oil” means that someone is working very hard, often late into the night.
The second idiom in this malaphor mashup is “burning the candle at both ends.”
If you think about a candle with flames at both ends, it will melt A LOT faster than if it were only lit at one end. It means that someone is putting in an extreme amount of effort to accomplish something quickly (before the candle goes out).
You may hear this malaphor when someone tries to explain that they have overextended themselves – they’re doing more than they should.
Someone that is overworked could easily make the mistake of mixing these two idioms – they’re probably tired!
2. Heavy Is the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg
“George just got promoted to management, I hope he’s ready for it. Heavy is the goose that lays the golden egg.”
This malaphor is a mix between “heavy is the head that wears the crown” and “the goose that laid the golden eggs.”
The first idiom, “heavy is the head that wears the crown”, is an old English phrase that suggests that it isn’t easy being a leader, such as a king or CEO.
Imagine a CEO speaking with her business partner, and she tells him “I can’t believe how much work it is to be the CEO. The weight of all these responsibilities keeps me up at night. I’m barely sleeping!”
He replies, “I know what you mean, I’m only a manager but I feel like I’m drowning in work. But, you know what they say, “heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
The CEO is trying to convey to the manager that she is burdened by the workload and that the responsibilities of being a leader weigh on her. Similarly, the king’s head is made physically heavier by the weight of the crown, but it’s the responsibility of being a leader that actually weighs on him.
The second idiom is “the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Imagine finding a goose sitting on an egg made of GOLD! It would certainly be worth much more than an ordinary egg.
The phrase describes something very valuable or profitable. Someone might use this idiom when they speak about a profitable product in their business, for example.
A business may use this phrase if they are speaking about their in-demand software product. If the product is very popular and the business is making a lot of money from it, they may refer to it as “the goose that lays the golden egg.”
The idiom reminds us that valuable things require protection.
If you KNOW a lot of English, but struggle to SPEAK...Learn More about Fluent for Life
3. Walking a Thin Line
“That decision seems a little risky! He’s walking a thin line.”
This malaphor is a combination of “walking on thin ice” and “walking a fine line.”
Imagine walking on a frozen river when the warm spring weather arrives.
That ice starts to melt and becomes very thin and fragile – NOT the place you want to be! It could crack at any moment and you’d fall right into the freezing water.
The phrase describes a situation in which someone is making a risky decision or doing something dangerous that could have bad consequences.
When someone says you’re “walking a fine line”, it means that you’re very close between two different ideas or attitudes at the same time.
Someone might say “he walks a fine line between arrogance and confidence” indicating that he is treading carefully between the two attitudes.
Depending on the situation, this mixed idiom may be fairly easy to understand for listeners.
4. I Can Read Him Like the Back of My Book
“He couldn’t hide anything from me. I can read him like the back of my book!”
This malaphor mixes up two very common idioms: “know him like the back of my hand” and “read him like a book.”
When we say we know someone like the back of our hand, we mean that we know someone so well that they could be a part of our own body.
Not literally, of course!
But we see the back of our hands many times a day, and we know every little detail about them. Just like we know the person we are referring to.
When we say that we can read someone like a book, we mean that we understand their vibe. We can see and read their attitudes on their faces and in their body language. We might even know what they’re thinking without them saying it out loud!
This mixup is a fun one because despite it being a mashup of two idioms, it still sort of makes sense. We do read books, after all!
5. Kick It Into Overtime
“We really need to get this project done. Let’s kick it into overtime!”
This malaphor is a mixup of “kick it into overdrive” and “working overtime.”
When we talk literally about overdrive, we mean the highest gear of a vehicle’s manual transmission. It has to be engaged by the driver. But of course, with idioms, we aren’t speaking literally!
If you’ve got a project with a deadline that is coming up fast, you may need the team to move a little faster – hustle, team! You may even ask them to kick it into overdrive! The team needs to work harder and fast to get everything done.
Similarly, “working overtime” has the same sentiment. Working overtime is a way to get work done faster outside of regular working hours. It means going above and beyond the regular requirements of your job to accomplish a goal for your team.
6. Madder Than a Wet Hornet
“I can’t believe they said that! I’m madder than a wet hornet!”
This malaphor combines “mad as a hornet” and “madder than a wet hen.”
If you’ve ever met a hornet, you know how angry they can be. A nice walk through a park can quickly be ruined if you come face to face with a mean insect like that!
“Mad as a hornet” is meant to describe a situation in which you (or someone else) are extremely angry, just like a hornet that has been bothered.
The second part of this malaphor is “madder than a wet hen.”
Chickens, particularly hens, do not like being wet. Especially not on their own terms. They have water-resistant feathers and while a light sprinkle of rain most likely won’t bother them, they make a LOT of angry noise when they get drenched.
When combined, “madder than a wet hornet” sounds pretty funny. Hornets don’t really care much about being wet, whereas hens would rather stay as dry as possible.
Despite the mix-up, there is a good chance that listeners will understand the sentiment behind this mixed idiom.
The Best Way to Perfect Your Use of Idioms
Using idioms can brighten up a conversation and help you get your point across – if you use them correctly and in the right context.
Knowing these mixed idioms can help you avoid saying them in the future, and the best way to memorize them is by learning the story or feeling behind each idiom – the context that gives them meaning.
And now that we’ve covered six common mixed idioms, you’ve got 12 new idioms at your fingertips to help get your point across.
If you’d like to learn more idioms, and take your English to the point of fluency then check out my Fluent For Life course.
It will introduce you to English idioms in real conversations between native speakers, and also help you reach English fluency, FAST.