4 min read

Idiomatic English: The Power of Proper Names

Very popular and widespread English proper names have become part and parcel of idiomatic language. Nadezhda Vartanyan, Senior Language Trainer at EPAM, shares her list of the most exciting idioms containing names.

English idioms with proper names

Idioms are a fascinating and important aspect of any language. It is very important to use idioms for meetings and business negotiations. They make communication more colorful and vivid, adding an element of fun and creativity. So, let’s look at some idioms containing proper names, accompanied by meanings and examples.

1. Not to know Jack

  • Meaning: Not to know anything.
  • Example: Steve claims to have a lot of coding experience, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know jack about Java.
  • Interesting fact: The name “Jack” came from a Middle English word, “jakke,” used to refer to any male, especially a peasant or a working-class person. The word was later used to talk about useless objects and, eventually, as a term for “very little”.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

2. Jack of all trades (master of none)

  • Meaning: A person who is skilled at a variety of different things (but normally not to the same level as a person who is specialized in one of these things).
  • Example: He’s a jack of all trades — he’ll repair your car and then come in and re-assemble your computer.
  • Interesting fact: The shortened version "a jack of all trades" is often a compliment for a person who is good at fixing things and has broad knowledge. The longer version, however, appeared a bit later and is normally used in a derogatory way: to describe a person whose knowledge covers a number of areas but is superficial in all of them.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

Jack of all trades

3. All work and no play (makes Jack a dull boy)

  • Meaning: Without time off from work, a person becomes both bored and boring.
  • Example: Doing overtime five days a week might help you meet the deadlines but remember — all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  • Interesting fact: The line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was used in the movie “The Shining” where it was typed repeatedly on paper by Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson).
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

4. Keeping up with the Joneses

  • Meaning: To always want to own the same expensive objects and do the same things as your friends or neighbors, because you are worried that you seem less important socially than they are.
  • Example: My sister is always trying to keep up with the Joneses — whenever her friends get a new gadget, she dashes off to buy exactly the same thing!
  • Interesting fact: The phrase originates with the comic strip “Keeping Up with the Joneses”, created by Arthur R. "Pop" Momand in 1913. The strip shows the social climbing McGinis family, who struggle to "keep up" with their neighbors — the Joneses. The Joneses were unseen characters throughout the strip's run, often spoken of but never shown. In popular culture, the American reality television series “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” takes its name from this phrase, replacing "Joneses" with "Kardashians".
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

5. Doubting Thomas

  • Meaning: A skeptic; a person who refuses to believe without clear proof.
  • Example: My dad is a real doubting Thomas — he simply won’t believe I’ve got a job until he sees the job offer with his own eyes.
  • Interesting fact: The phrase is a reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the other apostles until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

6. Hobson's choice

  • Meaning: A situation in which it seems that you can choose between different things or actions, but there is really only one thing that you can take or do.
  • Example: It's a case of Hobson's choice because if he doesn't agree to their terms, he’ll lose his job.
  • Interesting fact: It is widely believed that “Hobson's choice” derives from the English Tudor businessman Thomas Hobson. He hired out horses and gave his customers no choice as to which horse they could take. Hobson's choice is one between something or nothing. It shouldn’t be confused with a choice between two equivalent options, which is a Morton's fork, or with a choice between two undesirable options, which is a dilemma.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

7. (And) Bob's your uncle

  • Meaning: Is used after explaining a simple set of instructions, meaning that it's very easy to do.
  • Example: Open your homework assignment, read it carefully, do it, send it to your Language Instructor and Bob's your uncle!
  • Interesting fact: This phrase is commonly used in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Its meaning is similar to that of the French expression "et voilà!" or the American "easy as pie" or "piece of cake".
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

8. Even-steven

  • Meaning: Exactly equal; with nothing in debt or owed on either side.
  • Example: Just buy me a cappuccino and we're even-steven.
  • Interesting fact: Used since the mid-1800’s, the name Steven probably does not refer to any person who actually existed but instead, is used as a simple rhyming intensive with “even”.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

9. (Every/Any) Tom, Dick, or Harry

  • Meaning: Any person, anyone.
  • Example: You'd better contact support to fix this — you don't want any Tom, Dick, or Harry messing around with your laptop.
  • Interesting fact: The phrase is a rhetorical device known as a tricolon. Other examples of this gradation include "tall, dark, and handsome" "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” etc.
  • Listen to some authentic examples here.

10. John Doe 

  • Meaning: "John Doe” is a male name that is used for a man whose real name is kept secret or is not known.  
  • Example: In fact, he's not John Doe anymore, we have an ID. 
  • Interesting fact: “Jane Doe” is the female same of the same kind. They even have kids — a girl "Janie Doe" and a boy "Johnny Doe". You might also come across different variations, such as “Richard Roe”, “Jane Roe” etc.  
  • Listen to some authentic examples here. 

11. Bonus: (To be) a Karen

  • Meaning: Used to refer to a middle-aged white person (normally, a female) who is very demanding, angry and entitled.
  • Example: To have a meal in a fast-food café and ask to speak to the manager because they serve coffee in plastic cups? That’s such a Karen thing to do!

Be careful: “Karen” is a very popular slang word. However, it is also largely controversial. Some people love using the word, whereas others consider it offensive. Indeed, if somebody is called a “Karen”, it can (and most typically, will) be an insult — especially if your name is Karen. So, we shouldn’t use this phrase as we certainly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Conclusion

It’s good to be aware of different types of English words and phrases, ranging from formal language to slang. They evolve, develop, and disappear all the time, composing a living organism. However, the language (especially idiomatic) is also a powerful tool which requires careful handling. So, every time you choose what to say and how to say it, make sure you are using the language wisely.

Discover your English level