Want to improve your English quickly?
Then you should let Katy Perry and Beyoncé be your new English teachers.
That sounds crazy, right?
I promise, it makes perfect sense—these famous musicians, along with many other people who sing your favorite songs, are the best English teachers out there.
Why? One of the best ways to improve your English is to learn new words. Lots and lots of new words.
You have probably learned many words in different categories. For example, you may know a variety of words and phrases related to greetings, goodbyes, proverbs, food, essential idioms, the past, slang words and even spring and summer.
You may have also learned that the best way to learn English is to have fun. This where Katy Perry and Beyoncé can help you. Listening to their music is fun. You will have as much fun as you do while you are learning English phrases by reading comics on the Internet or going out and flirting with people in English!
Their pop music is perfect for learning a very special type of vocabulary lesson: English sayings.
What Are English Sayings? Why Should I Learn About Them?
Of course, there are different types of vocabulary.
The most basic unit is a word.
If we combine a few words, we can get a phrase.
If that phrase includes a verb and a preposition, then it is called a phrasal verb (like “stand up” or “sit down”).
If it is a longer phrase, it can either be an idiom or a saying.
Idioms and sayings can be similar, but an idiom is usually a specific combination of words that means something that may not be immediately clear. For example, if you say you are “under the weather,” it might seem like you are talking about the weather. But it actually means that you are sick. That is an example of an idiom.
A saying might be an idiom. All idioms are also sayings.
A saying might also be a common expression. That means that this something that people often say to express a particular thought, feeling or situation.
A saying can also be a proverb, which is a phrase or sentence that has a lesson or that can teach us something. An example of a proverb is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” If someone says this, it means that if you are traveling to different places (not just Rome!) you should try to adapt to the culture, instead of expecting the culture to adapt to you.
Finally, all sayings can be either literal or figurative. Usually, they are figurative, which means that they do not mean what they seem to mean.
What are figurative sayings?
If they are literal, it means that the words mean exactly what they say.
On the other hand, a figurative phrase uses a comparison or metaphor to express something. Many of the expressions we will talk about today use figurative language.
For example, if I say John is “as quiet as a mouse,” it is a figurative expression. I mean that John is very quiet, and I am using the idea of a quiet, little mouse to illustrate that.
Sayings are used commonly by English speakers. Using sayings will make you sound more like a native English speaker. Understanding sayings will help you know what people are saying and what they really mean.
How can I learn more English sayings?
There are many ways, of course, but one of my favorite ways to learn new vocabulary is through good English songs.
And that is what we will do today!
I want you to listen to four great pop songs from the last couple years and find some great new sayings to learn.
Pop Music English: 29 Common English Sayings Found in 4 Hit Songs
You may have heard these songs before, but you might not have thought much about the lyrics or what they mean.
For each song, I will give you sayings that come from the lyrics, and we will examine what the words and phrases mean.
Song #1: “Roar” by Katy Perry
This is a very popular song from 2013 by Katy Perry. And, by the way, Katy is pronounced the same as “Katie,” but not “catty.”
In the lyrics of this song, Katy Perry sings about how she used to be a shy, timid person, but then she became stronger and more confident. She says that she is going to roar, since that is the sound that big, strong cats like lions and tigers make.
Above you can see her act out this story in the video for the song, which is pretty funny.
Now let’s look at some other really common and useful phrases in the song.
1. Bite my tongue
This is a good example of an idiom that is figurative (not literal). Katy does not mean she was actually biting her tongue with her teeth. That would hurt!
Instead, if you say you are biting your tongue, it means that you are being quiet or silent, even though you really want to say something. You may bite your tongue to be polite or to avoid problems or confrontations.
Shelly asked me if I thought she looked good in her dress. I thought the dress looked really ugly, but I decided to bite my tongue because I did not want to make her feel bad.
2. Hold my breath
How long can you hold your breath? Holding your breath is when you stop breathing intentionally (on purpose)? Most people can hold their breath for one minute or so, but probably not much longer. How about you?
If you say the idiom hold your breath, then it means that you are waiting for something to happen. You are not acting.
Often, we use this phrase in a negative way. If we think that something will not actually happen, we say, “don’t hold your breath” or “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Anna: I heard rumors that Axl Rose and Slash will get Guns N’ Roses back together and go on tour next year! Do you think it will actually happen?
Ron: I suppose it could, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I’ve heard those kinds of rumors before, but they never actually do it.
3. Rock the boat
Imagine that you are on a small boat with four other people in the middle of the ocean. Now imagine that one of those people stands up and tries to move the boat to scare everyone and get them wet. All of the other people on the boat would probably get angry and yell at him.
If you say that someone is rocking the boat, it can mean that he or she is causing trouble or intentionally being difficult or provocative. If you say “I don’t want to rock the boat,” it means that you want to avoid problems.
I don’t like some of the ideas our new boss has, but since I’m going to change jobs in three weeks, I think I’ll just stay quiet. There’s no reason to rock the boat now if it will just cause problems for everyone else after I leave.
4. Make a mess
A mess is something that is dirty, unorganized, or chaotic. You can also describe a person, place, or thing as messy if it is not clean.
If you make a mess, it means that you make a place or situation dirty or unorganized.
The baby made a big mess when she ate her spaghetti with her hands. But it was cute!
When my last girlfriend ended our relationship, she really made a mess. Now we can never be friends.
5. The breaking point
Imagine that you put a coin on the top of your head. I know, it is a strange thing to imagine, but trust me, it will make sense in a second.
So, you have one coin on your head. It does not weigh a lot, right? It is pretty easy to hold it on your head.
Now imagine putting a second coin on your head. It might be slightly more difficult to hold both coins on your head. Then keep imagining additional coins being added to the top of your head.
How many coins do you think you can hold on your head at once? 10? 20? 100? 1,000? 10,000? Whatever that number is, you can also refer to that number as the breaking point.
If you reach the breaking point, it means that you cannot tolerate something anymore. This can be used for people, objects and situations.
Julia was stressed because she had a bad day at work, then there was a lot of traffic on the drive home. When she got home, she and her husband had an argument. But the breaking point was when she cut her finger while opening a can of tuna. She got really upset and started crying.
6. Stand for nothing/something
Here is a useful saying in English. If you stand for something, this means that you value it or that you defend it.
There is also a proverb that uses this saying. “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” This uses the phrasal verb “fall for,” which means that you become the victim of a trick. The idea of this proverb is that if you do not have any values, people will trick you or take advantage of you.
Katy is using this phrase in a similar way in the song. She is saying that because she was not strong in the past, people manipulated her and she was a victim.
“I want to design a new logo for our company. The old logo is confusing and it doesn’t really stand for anything. I want people to know what our company stands for: high quality products and fast service.”
7. You held me down
Here Katy uses held down, the past tense of hold down. This phrasal verb can be literal or it can be figurative. If I use it in a literal way, it means that I am physically stopping something from going upwards. For example, you might hold down your hat when there is a lot of wind, so that the wind does not blow your hat away!
But in this case, she is using the phrase figuratively. When Katy says someone was holding her down, she means that they were preventing her from doing what she wanted to do. Another similar saying is to hold someone back.
Katy’s ex-boyfriend was holding her down. Maybe he didn’t want her to go out or maybe he was controlling.
8. I got up
This is the second half of the expression in #7. The person, perhaps her ex-boyfriend or someone she was in a relationship with, was holding her down. Remember?
But then she got up, which means that she was able to rise or to move forward and continue with her life.
The phrase get up is also used to talk about when you stop sleeping (“I get up at 8 am every morning”) or to say that you move from a sitting position to a standing position (“I should stop watching TV. I’ll get up and go do some work”).
Our flight leaves the airport tomorrow at 7 am, so we need to get up really early to arrive to the airport on time.
His girlfriend was holding him down, so he decided to get up and move forward with his life.
9. Brush off
In this song, Katy says that she is “brushing off the dust.” Dust is small particles of dirt that accumulate when something gets dirty (messy). It can also mean that the dust came from a conflict.
The phrase “brush off” means that you use your hand or an actual brush to clean something. This is the literal meaning. The figurative meaning is to stop thinking or feeling bad about something.
In this song, brushing off the dust means that she is moving on from a conflict.
Imagine her fighting with someone, rolling around on the ground. She is going to get dirty, right? She was having a problem with her boyfriend, she got dusty from it, but now she is “already brushing off the dust” which means that she is recovered and cleaning herself so that she can continue with her life.
Brushing off can also mean to ignore something. You can even brush off a person by ignoring them.
She didn’t return my phone calls or text messages…she totally brushed me off.
I saw a big spider on my shirt, so I just brushed it off. Some people say that you should always kill spiders, but I just brush those people off. I don’t want to kill any animals if I can avoid it.
10. I’ve had enough
The word “enough” is a synonym for “sufficient” or “adequate.”
If you say “I’ve had enough,” then it means that you do not want more of something. If it is something negative, it can also mean you have reached the breaking point (see #5), and that you will not tolerate something any longer.
The children were screaming and fighting all afternoon. Finally, the parents said, “we’ve had enough,” and they sent the children to their rooms as a punishment.
11. I’ve got the eye of the tiger
If you say that someone has the eye of the tiger, it means that that person is very intense, concentrated or intimidating. It is also the title of an awesome song from the 1980s by Survivor.
It is not a very common expression, but it is a fun and visual one—and all English speakers know what it means.
Every time Timmy goes on the dance floor, he gets the eye of the tiger. I’ve never seen someone dance so passionately and crazily!
12. float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
When Katy says this, she is actually repeating a famous quote by Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend.
Ali said this figurative metaphor to indicate that he was incredibly graceful and fast (like a butterfly floating), but that his punches were also very strong and dangerous (like a bee stinging).
Many boxers really admire Muhammad Ali, and they often say that they float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, just like their hero did.
13. I earned my stripes
This expression originally comes from the military, actually. If you work hard and complete something difficult in the military, you may get a promotion. And with some promotions, you often receive an extra stripe to put on your uniform.
In most expressions, if a person earns their stripes, it means that they work hard to do something and that they finish it.
Katy is also giving it an additional fun meaning, since tigers also have stripes. Tigers are powerful, tigers roar and there are tigers in the jungle in her music video. So, she may mean that she has survived difficult experiences and now she feels stronger (like someone in the army, or like a tiger) because of them.
I didn’t know if Amy would be a good manager, but she’s definitely earned her stripes. The beginning was difficult for her, but now everyone respects and likes her.
14. Zero to hero
If you say someone is a zero, it is rude way to say that you think that person is a loser. And a hero is someone that many people admire, like Muhammad Ali in #12.
So, if you go from zero to hero, it means that you make a complete transformation of some part of your life.
My students thought I was a normal, boring teacher. When they discovered that I’d been to a Metallica concert, for some reason I went from a zero to a hero for many of them.
Song 2: “Shut Up And Dance” by Walk The Moon
This song is very different from our first example.
Katy Perry’s song tells a very specific story about how she changed, but this song has a different feeling. Basically, in the lyrics, the singer talks about how he meets a girl at a discotheque or club, and then they dance together and talk some.
That does not sound very incredible, but it does have a lot of good vocabulary and an interesting video (as seen above). So let’s look at a few good phrases!
15. Don’t you dare
If you dare someone to do something, then you challenge him or her to do something difficult, strange or uncomfortable. Very often, younger kids dare each other to do things that are scary or intimidating.
If someone dares to do something, then they do it even though they know there will be consequences (usually these are negative consequences).
The phrase “don’t you” before the verb is a way to give a negative command. It is more common to simply say “don’t” (without the word “you”). However, “don’t you dare!” is a common phrase that means “if you do this, there will be bad consequences!”
So, in the song, when the woman says “don’t you dare look back,” she is telling the singer that he should not look back. If he does look back, there will be bad consequences for him!
“Don’t you dare throw that water balloon at grandma! If you do, you will be in big, big trouble!”
16. Keep your eyes on me
To keep your eyes on something or someone means that you should focus your attention on that particular thing or person. It is basically a synonym for “watch closely.”
“I’m going to show you how to shoot a basketball, so please keep your eyes on my hands. Notice what I’m doing with my fingers, since that’s very important.”
17. Hold back
You may remember that we mentioned this in #7 above. I said that “hold me back” was a similar phrase to “hold me down.”
There is a small difference, though, since in this song he does not say “me” or a name. “She holds me back” is different from “she holds back.”
If you are holding back, this means that you are not doing something as well or as completely as you potentially could.
So when the girl in the disco says “don’t hold back,” she is telling the singer to dance as well as he possibly can, without holding back!
When Muhammad Ali was boxing, he didn’t hold back. He always hit the other boxer as hard as he could.
18. Shut up
Honestly, you have probably heard this expression before. But if not, it means “stop talking!” It can be very rude, depending on the context, so be careful if you use this with other people.
In the song, though, the girl tells the singer to shut up and dance with her. The singer seems to think that this is cute and OK, though, because he is really in love with her. She is being playful and funny, not rude. She wants him to stop talking and just have fun dancing!
Our neighbor’s dog is terrible sometimes. It barks all night and never shuts up!
Kryptonite is an invented word from the “Superman” comics. It is a fictional element that makes Superman weaker (not as strong) when he comes into contact with it.
If you say that something is “your kryptonite,” then you mean that this thing causes problems for you. It is often used as a joke or ironically.
In this song, the singer talks about “chemical, physical kryptonite.” This probably means that the chemical and physical attraction he and the woman feel for each other is their kyptonite. They like each other so much that it is making them feel weak!
Whenever I have ice cream in my freezer, it’s like my kryptonite. I can’t resist it, and I eat it incredibly fast.
20. We were bound to get together
To literally be bound to something means that you are tied to it, and that you cannot escape it.
If you say that you are bound to do something, then you mean that it is inevitable, or that it is almost impossible to avoid doing that thing. You usually use the phrase with a verb.
So the singer is saying that even if they did not necessarily want to get together, they had no choice. They were bound to get together, in other words.
Don’t worry about your exam! You have been doing all the homework assignments, and you studied extra hard this entire semester. You’re bound to get a good grade!
Song 3: “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran
This is a love song that is very popular with some of my students here in Costa Rica.
In the lyrics of the song, Ed sings about how a couple will still be in love when they are very old. Like the other songs on this list, it has got an interesting video, but this one is not really related to the lyrics of the song.
21. Sweep you off (of) your feet
The word sweep is a verb that is similar to “brush” (see #9). It means that you make a motion with your hands or a tool to clear a space. You can sweep floors with a broom.
If you literally sweep a person off their feet, it means that you pick that person up in your arms.
If you do this figuratively, it means that you do something very impressive and romantic, and that person is falling in love with you (see the next phrase).
You may hear this phrase with and without the preposition “of.” Both versions are acceptable.
Roger completely swept Betty off of her feet during their wedding. He got her favorite band, Iron Maiden, to play “I Will Always Love You” for their first dance. It was amazingly romantic.
22. Fall in love
This is another phrase that you might have heard before. If you fall in love with someone, it means that you start to love him or her. Love is a process sometimes!
Then, after you have fallen in love with each other, you can say that you are in love.
Helga fell in love with Pedro when she discovered that he could sing, dance, build furniture and even cook the most delicious soup she had ever eaten. He was the perfect man for her.
23. Thinking out loud
The title of this song is a common phrase in English. It means that you are talking about possible ideas, but you are not necessarily focused or making sense.
A similar word you may have heard is to brainstorm, which means to think of as many ideas as possible, even if they are not realistic.
I’m just thinking out loud here, but maybe we can solve our problem if we increase the cost of the product by a dollar a unit? It might not work, but I’d like to hear other suggestions also.
Evergreen usually refers to a type of tree that is green all year long. These trees have needles instead of leaves, so they do not lose their leaves when the weather gets cold. Think of a Christmas tree, for example.
In this case, evergreen is a figurative expression that means “always true,” or in the case of relationships, “always alive.”
My grandparents’ love was evergreen. They were married for over 50 years and they seemed to always be happy and in love.
Song 4: “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” by Beyoncé
I saved this song for last because it has the fastest lyrics, so it might be the most difficult to understand.
You need fast lyrics to match the fast dancing in the video!
It also possibly has the most complex grammar. She is singing about a relationship that ended in the past, using grammar to talk about past regrets. But we will see more about that in a moment.
25. Broke up
Broke up is the past tense of the phrasal verb break up, which means to destroy something, put something into small pieces or to end a relationship.
If you break up with someone, then you end the relationship. If that person breaks up with you, then he or she ends it. If both people in the relationship decide it is better to stop being together, then you can say that they broke up (the decision was mutual).
Vincent has been really sad ever since his girlfriend broke up with him. We should invite him to go to the beach with us, since he needs a distraction.
26. To trip
First of all, notice that this is a verb. If it is a noun, a trip is what you do when you travel. You take a trip. You go on a trip.
But that is not what Beyoncé means here. In this case, she’s using trip as a slang verb that means that someone is doing something really strange, stupid or bad. It is informal English.
Just as an additional note, trip as a verb can also mean to do drugs, so be careful about how you use this word!
Mary must be tripping if she thinks that I’m going to sing karaoke in front of the whole school. She knows that I am a terrible singer and I don’t like people watching me.
27. Acting up
If someone or something is acting up, it is behaving in a way that is different than the way it normally behaves or functions. Usually it is not a positive idea, but in the song it seems to be neutral or even positive.
My car has been acting up lately and it’s making some strange sounds. I should probably take it to the mechanic.
28. I can care less
This is an interesting phrase.
If you say you can care less or that you could care less, it means that something is not important at all to you. Sometimes you will also hear people say the opposite phrase—I can’t care less or I couldn’t care less—and it actually means the same thing. It is an example of English being strange sometimes.
I could care less if you’re hungry. It’s not lunch time, and you need to finish this project immediately, or we’re both going to get fired.
29. Pay attention
There is a good chance that you have heard this phrase also, but I wanted to mention it because my students often have problems with it. They sometimes say “put attention,” but that is not correct. You should use the verb “pay” instead, even though it may seem strange.
I hope you paid attention to all of these new words and phrases, since they can help you improve your English!
That is all I have for now. I hope that you have the eye of the tiger and that you pay attention to these new phrases.
Maybe I should not hold my breath, since I know there are many idioms out there. You have possibly even had enough to make you reach your breaking point.
If you don’t hold back and you study really hard, you’re bound to earn your English stripes by learning new vocabulary.
Maybe you will even fall in love with phrases and idioms!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books, and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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