10 Idioms In English Using Nationalities and Countries


Blog_NationalitiesIt’s time for another list of idioms. This time I thought I’d introduce you to some very common idioms we use connected to nationalities and countries. I want to thank Claudine, a fellow teacher for giving me this idea.

As I was compiling this list, I wondered about the origins of these idioms. Like a lot of languages, the origins of idioms are strongly associated to the cultural and historical ties countries and nationalities have with each other. I’m not going to cover the origins of these idioms in this post, but I’d be very interested in having your thoughts of where you think they might have come from.


1. It’s all Greek to me – we use this expression when we cannot understand something we read or hear

Blog_It's all Greek to Me

“I recently read this book on Metaphysics. Did you understand it, because it was all Greek to me”.


2. Go Dutch – we go Dutch when we go to a restaurant and share the bill.

“Rachel does not like her male companion to offer her dinner. She always prefers to go Dutch”.


3.  Chinese Whispers (UK) – this expression is often used as a metaphor for mistakes and inaccurate information which comes from rumours of gossip.

Blog_Chinese Whispers

“All this talk about the Prime Minister resigning is just Chinese Whispers. There’s no truth in the rumour”


4. Talk for England – when someone can talk for hours and hours

“I’m so sorry I’m late. I couldn’t get away from Linda. She can talk for England!”


Blog_Dutch Courage


5. Dutch Courage – when you need a little alcohol to give you the courage or confidence to do something.

“I think I’ll have a quick drink for Dutch Courage before I ask that girl to dance with me”.




Blog_Pardon My French


6. Pardon My French (UK) – we use this expression before or after we have said something rude, for example, a swear word.


” If you’ll pardon my French, but I think you’re a %^&*!”





7. A Mexican Standoff – this expression is often used in a business situation when two sides cannot agree.

” There appears to be a Mexican Standoff as neither party can agree on the terms of the merger”.


8. Indian Summer (UK) – a period in late autumn when the weather is unusually warm

“Much as I love this Indian Summer,  I wish we had this warm weather in the summer rather than in October”. 


Blog_Slow boat to china


9. Slow Boat to China – we use this expression to describe something that is very slow and takes a long time. It comes from an American song.


“Waiting for the architects to produce their plans was like taking the slow boat to China”.


10. Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians – this is often used to describe a company where there are too many managers and not enough people doing the actual work

Blog_Too many Chiefs and Not enough Indians

“The trouble with that company is that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians”.


Do you know any other idioms using nationalities and countries? Please share them.

And if you liked this post and think it might be useful to others, please share it. If you’d like to receive my posts via email, why not subscribe to my blog?

Ciao for now


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

63 thoughts on “10 Idioms In English Using Nationalities and Countries”

  1. Hi Shanthi, thanks for your new post, it’s very funny and easy learn new idioms.
    Have a good day.

    Ciao dall’Italia

    1. Ciao Alis,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m very glad you find the idioms useful.
      Spero che abbia passato una buona giornata.


  2. French letters (condoms), French kissing (with tongues), Spanish fly (aphrodisiac) – seems I’ve hit on a theme!

    1. Hi Vesna,

      I understand that you might think that these idioms could be un-PC, but I believe that as teachers we should make our students aware of them especially as they are still very much used. Their original meaning might have not had such noble intentions, but over time they have become part of spoken and written English. Chinese Whispers, Pardon My French, It’s all Greek/It’s Double Dutch are all used by native speakers and non-native speakers alike without a hint of rudeness or desire to cause offence.

      Thanks for sharing the link.


      1. I think Vesna has a point, although not all of them are offensive. I think it’s also generational and geographic. I am reasonably certain that as a Millennial from the U.S., I’d garner quite approbation for using the phrase “Chinese whispers,” although I have heard it on UK TV programs (although all the people who say it seem to be at least in their late 30s). In the US “too many chiefs” isn’t said very much (probably my generation would consider it a bit racist), and I don’t think most people under 25 know what an “Indian summer” is.

        Any phrase relating to a country that wasn’t oppressed in the last 300 years or so isn’t going to cause consternation. But still I think they are dated and falling out of use, particularly with the younger people. I’m the only person I know in my age group (27) who says “Pardon my French” and I say it on a hipster-esque lark (“on a lark” – another out of date phrase – I just like too many old books, movies and TV shows), and I learned “going Dutch” from a 1970s TV show. People still understand it, but I think younger than me it’s fading quickly, at least in the U.S., and when I had many British colleagues these phrases were still not common.

        1. **Exception on the country mentioned would be “slow boat to China” – no trace of the historic racism against Chinese people in that because it’s just about distance. Still, you don’t hear young people saying it. As far as I know, hipsters are not reviving old phrases, just old sweaters.

    2. I agree with Vesna, better to watch what you say than to offend someone. Many of these are out of date, and today’s young people would have no clue as to their points of reference.

      1. I am a 65 year old American living in Italy, and I have not heard of several of these, and the United States is an English speaking country…albeit American English. So not all English speaking countries know these idioms. Not sure if the Canadians would know many of them either :=)

        1. Hi there,
          I really welcome everyone’s comments regarding this post. When I prepared it I didn’t for a moment think that learners, especially younger people (I still consider myself young!) would necessarily use them in their daily lives. However, just like we could argue that Shakespeare’s language could be considered out of date (?!!!) and yet we still study his plays, even in ELT, some of these idioms are most definitely used in British English. “Chinese Whispers and Chinese Walls” are commonly used in the business world here in the UK. “Let’s go Dutch” is still used as is you can “Talk for England”. If you don’t hear them on the streets, you will certainly come across them in modern, written British English (eg The Economist) and British Literature.

          One could argue that in a multicultural classroom one shouldn’t introduce such idioms for fear of causing offence, but I would suggest that as teachers we could introduce these idioms in the same way as we introduce other idioms. After all, let’s not forget that idioms are expressions whose meaning does not have any relation to the words. I’d rather focus on the meaning than the actual words when talking about these idioms of nationalities and countries.

  3. Hi Shanti, on the contrary, I’m honoured to be mentioned, thank you.
    How about “it’s all double Dutch to me”? (Same as “it’s all Greek to me”).
    Why does the Dutch nationality feature more than others, do you know?
    By the way you’ve done a great job of it.
    Have you looked the the homophone input by a fellow “linkediner”?

    1. HI Claudine,

      Well you gave me the original idea. I have no idea why we have so many expressions connected to the Dutch. I shall have to research this.

      Thank you for the compliment. I did see that link and am very interested. I might just scoop it!

      1. The Dutch and the English were at loggerheads for many years in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were competitors in global trade and their fleets often met in naval battles. This animosity resulted in calling each other names. The Dutch were seen as spendthrifty even stingy people, hence “go Dutch”, “a Dutch uncle”, “Dutch auction”, “Dutch treat”, Dutch courage” and maybe even “Dutch wife” ;-).
        The Dutch language with gluttaral ‘g’ was unlearnable for the British, therefore: “double Dutch”.
        And the Dutch possibly retailliated with the expression “Engelse ziekte” (lit:’English disease’) which means ‘rickets’ (Greek: rachitis) – a disease causing misshapen bone structure due to a lack of vitamin D.

        1. Dear Hans,
          Thank you so much for sharing this information with us. I hadn’t appreciated the rivalry between the Dutch and English but that makes total sense. The English were very successful at antagonising their Europeans neighbours! I’m glad to know that the Dutch got their own back!!!

  4. I knew the expression “it’s double Dutch to me” with the same meaning of “it’s all Greek to me”

    1. Yes, that works. The French have the same expression but they call it “English Leave”! This refers to the centuries old rivalry between the English and French.

      1. Thank you very much for this very interesting list of idioms, Shanthi.

        The French equivalent of “French leave” (I had never heard of it before) is “filer à l’anglaise” which means to leave quickly and discreetly, without saying goodbye.

        1. My pleasure, Charlotte.
          I know about the French equivalent of “French Leave”. Just another example of English and French historical rivalry :-)
          Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog.

  5. Hi Shanthi! Thank you so much for your wonderful posts. I find them extremely useful for me myself and my students. Thanks a ton for sharing!

    1. Dear Tania,

      I am so pleased you like my posts and that you find them useful for your lessons. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  6. “Chinese whispers” is not very well known in the United States. We say something like “it’s like playing The Telephone Game.”

    1. Thanks for this, Will. This looks like a very interesting list and thanks so much for the mention. I didn’t know about “Double Dutch” being also a way of skipping rope.

  7. Hi, Shanti!
    Thanks for your post.
    One more idiom: play Russian roulette with something – put something in great danger by behaving carelessly. Taking cocaine is playing Russian roulette.

  8. My, my, when it comes to mentioning other nationalities everybody is so alert and at times ready for battle… Also some of your readers seem to forget that you teach ‘English’ English, which may be alien to young Americans (by the way, Oscar Wllde was so right when he said ‘I am not young enough to know everything’)! Great.
    Why are the Dutch mentioned so often? Probably because it is the closest foreign country, and they could not possibly keep hammering the French, could they??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *