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Learn and Sing: Parsing English Idioms from Popular Songs


Lyudmila Balabay

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Songs are remembered much better than just memorized or read words. Their texts are full of useful idioms that can be used in conversation. So let's use the channel Learning English Language on the Yandex.Zen portal we will analyze the most interesting ones.

To pull the wool over (one's) eyes

"You say that you're at home, alone right now
But in the background there's a muffled laugh
as you spin that wool and pull it down»

This is an excerpt from the song Black Madonna by Cage The Elephant, and there is a double play on words. The phrase to pull the wool over (one's) eyes means “to lie, to mislead someone.” Literally, this phrase translates as “to entwine (someone’s) eyes with woolen threads.” The interlocutor of the lyrical hero of the song Cage The Elephant assures the latter over the phone that she is at home alone. The hero can hear muffled laughter, and the girl, abandoning her lie, “rolls up her knitting.”

Basketball Houses

This is the name of a famous song by Green Day. The phrase can be used to describe a person who has lost their mind. This is exactly what the group sings about.

Run in circles

The song of the popular rapper Post Malone is dedicated to the process of “running on a wheel.” It sings: “Run away, but we're running in circles. Run away, run away."

This idiom describes a vicious cycle of actions, the repetition of which cannot be avoided. The song Circles tells the story of a young couple trying to escape their routine and mend their broken relationship, but alas, to no avail.

Cut someone off

"But you didn't have to cut me off. Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing,” sang the duo Gotye and Kimbra in 2011.

The song is an attempt by two lyrical characters to explain themselves. The above phrase is a replica of one of them, it can be translated something like this: “But you didn’t have to cut me out of your life, pretend that nothing happened and we weren’t together.”

On the subject: Personal experience: how to speak English competently and confidently if you moved to the USA as an adult

To be out of sight

The rock band King Harvest uses this idiom in the lyrics of their hit Dancing In The Moonlight. Of course, the expression can also be used in a literal sense, in which case it describes something outside the speaker's field of vision.

The rockers, however, take a different meaning to the phrase - the song describes extraordinary, cool characters who spend the evening dancing in the moonlight.

Everybody here is out of sight
They don't bark and they don't bite

They keep things loose they keep it tight
Everybody's dancing in the moonlight.


In addition to color, this adjective can describe a state of melancholy—hence the name of the genre of blues music. An example of the use of an idiom is a line from the song Blue by the American group The Neighborhood:

I really thought you knew
Every time you come you leave me Blue.

Build someone up, let somebody down, mess around

Three set expressions are found in the lyrics of the song Build Me Up Buttercup by the British band The Foundations.

Why do you build me up (build me up) Buttercup, baby
just that let me down (let me down) and mess me around.

The phrase build someone up translates as “to encourage, to provoke,” and the expression let someone down means “to disappoint, to deprive of what you want.” The idiom mess around has many different meanings: among them “to use”, “to make fun of someone”.

To lost (one's) wits

The idiom to lost (one's) wits can be used to describe a person who has lost his mind. The indie pop group Foster The People uses this expression in the lyrics of their hit Pumped Up Kicks.

Then say your hair's on fire
You must have lost your wits, yeah.

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