I know what you’re thinking: A spring chicken? What is he talking about!?
As an English native, I’ve been learning idioms since I was knee-high to a grasshopper!
A knee-high grasshopper, what!?
But for non-English speakers, idioms can be a big challenge.
They’re also a very common part of speech.
Because of this, it’s time to enter the wonderful world of English idioms again.
This time, we’re focusing on one of the most useful and helpful groups of idioms to learn: age idioms.
But why are age idioms so important in the English language? Let’s take a look below.
And, as for the previously mentioned idioms about chickens and grasshoppers, you’ll have to keep reading to discover their meaning!
Why Learn Age Idioms?
Age idioms, like all idioms, help stress particular points, make you sound more like a native and can boost your comprehension skills. That’s why they’re so important to study!
They’re a fun subject that can also assist you in using more descriptive language.
By grouping the idioms together, we’re also able to study them in more detail. We even help our memories to recall (remember) these idioms.
Why study age idioms in particular?
Firstly, they’re some of the most commonly used idioms in English!
This is because age is all around us and affects every single person. Everybody experiences age.
Secondly, and perhaps equally as important, is the cultural role that English age idioms play.
In English culture, it’s not common to talk about your actual age. For many English speakers, being specific about your age, especially if you’re in an older age range, is something that’s not commonly done. This might be what we call a cultural difference.
If you’re interested in learning about other cultural differences, check out this video from BBC Learning English:
Instead, you’ll find that an idiom is used to describe a more general age. For example, instead of saying “I’m old” or “I’m aging,” somebody might say “I’m getting on a bit.”
Or, you might hear someone say that they’re over the hill, meaning they’re past their best years or the best times of their life. If they want to be more specific, they might say “I’m in my late 50’s” (or any age range), meaning they’re probably in the 55-59 age category.
Please note: You can also use “I’m in my early + age range” to describe age. For example, “I’m in my early 20’s” means that the person is very young.
In all of these example idioms, you’ll notice that there’s no specific age mentioned.
Another great example of this is when somebody wants to describe an individual that appears older than they are. In this case, they may say something like “She’s on the wrong side of 50!” Again, you’ll note that a more general description is used in place of giving a specific age or number.
This comes from the long history of English etiquette. It’s a way to be sensitive and careful with your choice of words and the way that you speak.
Because of these unspoken rules, there are a few additional notes to be aware of when it comes to using age idioms. Let’s check them out below.
How to Use Age Idioms
As we’ve discussed above, age can be a sensitive topic in English. This means that not everybody likes to discuss it openly. It might be considered a taboo. A taboo topic is one that’s not often talked about in social settings. In other words, talking about age is generally avoided.
It’s also important to understand that language is always growing and evolving. Some words and phrases that were used in the past might not be socially acceptable in our current society.
Sometimes, what’s appropriate changes from culture to culture. For example, in Greek culture, calling someone an old man is a mark of respect. However, in the United Kingdom, calling an older individual an old man (especially someone who you don’t know) might get you in a bit of trouble. In the same way, idioms carry certain meanings and cultural understandings, and we have to be careful about what we say.
Some people might consider using some age idioms a form of ageism. Ageism is when you treat a person unfairly because of their age. It’s a form of discrimination, or treating somebody differently because they belong to a particular group. You can learn more about ageism in this video by HuffPost:
For example, I may use an idiom such as “you’re getting on a bit” (you’re physically aging quickly) to describe an older friend, and we would both consider it a humorous joke. However, if said to a stranger on the street, it could be considered an insult or personal attack.
It’s all about understanding the meaning behind the idiom and using your best judgment to decide when to use the idiom. It’s equally important to consider your relationship with the individual with whom you’re speaking.
In addition to this, because of the nature of age itself, some idioms reflect morbid and dark topics, such as death and illness. Perhaps this contributes to part of the reason why age is not commonly discussed in many English-speaking countries and why it’s a taboo.
Now that you know how to use these idioms responsibly, let’s dive into some of the most common English age idioms!
Please note that many of these idioms contain the actual word “age.” However, the word “age” isn’t required to be part of an age idiom.
We’re focusing on commonly used idioms because they’re very important for boosting your vocabulary and conversational skills. There are thousands of idioms, but we want to learn the ones that are used in everyday speech!
If you want to learn even more useful idioms, you can check out a resource like FluentU.
With FluentU, you’ll be able to learn idioms in authentic contexts with native speakers. For example, the video below provides a great overview of some of the most common English idioms.
If you sign up for a free FluentU trial, you can watch the above video on FluentU with interactive subtitles that let you click on any word to look it up and see it used in additional videos.
You can also take a short quiz on the video and add words to vocabulary lists and flashcard sets to keep studying!
And now it’s time for our 10 age idioms.
1. Coming of Age
If someone has come of age, then they’ve reached adulthood or a certain level of maturity. This differs across cultures, and there are many ceremonies associated with this across the globe. This idiom doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific age. Rather, it means the age that you’re considered to be responsible for yourself.
This idiom is also commonly used to refer to particular styles of films and books that follow the journey of a young child to adulthood. These are known as “coming-of-age stories.”
A: Hey, have you seen “Stand By Me?”
B: No, I haven’t.
A: It’s a classic coming-of-age movie. Let’s watch it this weekend.
2. I Wasn’t Born Yesterday
This is a great idiom, as you may be able to understand the meaning already. When somebody says they weren’t born yesterday, they’re saying that they’re not easily fooled or deceived. It means that, because of their experience and age, they know better or don’t believe you.
A: Did you hear the bank is handing out free money?!
B: Don’t be so silly. I wasn’t born yesterday!
3. Age Is Just a Number
This idiom is lots of fun and is quite positive and uplifting (makes you feel good). It makes you think about how you perceive (see) life. When somebody says that age is just a number, they’re stating that our age shouldn’t define us as a person. In other words, no matter how old we are, we can do anything.
For example, Yuichiro Miuro climbed Mt. Everest when he was 80 years old. This shows that age is just a number.
4. Age Before Beauty
This humorous and common idiom is used mostly in social situations where the two people are familiar with each other. Essentially, it’s a way to jokingly suggest that the elder person should go before the younger person.
Perhaps you’re sitting down for a nice meal with your family. You could say:
Help yourself, first, Uncle. You know what they say: age before beauty!
5. Act Your Age
Act your age is an idiom that’s often used as a command or a suggestion (it’s often said with anger or frustration). It’s used to tell somebody to stop acting in an immature or childish way. The idiom is often used in reference to behavior. While not always, you may commonly hear it used towards a child who’s behaving poorly.
It can also be used to describe a situation in which somebody isn’t acting in a way that’s expected of their age group.
A: I’m a bit worried about my son, Thomas.
A: He’s always talking about mortgages and taxes. He’s only 12! Sometimes, I wish he’d just act his age and play soccer with his friends.
6. One Foot in the Grave
Remember how we were talking about some dark and possibly morbid idioms? Well, this is one of those. To have one foot in the grave is to be very old and considered close to death.
A grave is a hole that’s dug in the ground where you’re laid to rest after you’ve passed away. In this way, you can see the symbolism of the expression.
A: I saw Bill last night.
B: How is he?
A: He looks very old. I think he’s got one foot in the grave.
7. Ripe Old Age
This idiom is very similar to the previous one and refers to a person who has aged a lot. If someone lived to a ripe old age, they lived to old age with generally good health. “Ripe” refers to fruit and vegetables. When they’re ripe, they’re ready to be eaten and are at their best.
You’ll commonly hear this idiom used to talk about somebody who has passed away. In the video below, you’ll hear Christopher Walken use the idiom in an ironic way. He uses it as a joke!
This video is available on FluentU with interactive subtitles.
To use the idiom in the standard way (not as a joke) you might say something simple:
My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 89.
8. You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
This unique and flexible idiom refers to behavior. It’s included in our list of age idioms because it also relates to time. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks refers to a situation in which it’s challenging to teach somebody something new. This is especially true if they’ve been doing something a certain way for a long time.
A: I’m trying to teach my dad how to use Instagram.
B: How’s it going?
A: It’s very difficult. You know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
9. A Spring Chicken
You might remember this idiom from the beginning of this post. Simply, a spring chicken is an idiom for a young person. It’s usually used by older people to refer to a younger individual.
Funnily enough, you’ll just as commonly hear it in a negative form. It’s common for an older individual to reference their age by using this idiom. For example, saying “I’m no spring chicken!” could be considered self-deprecating humor (when you put yourself down or insult yourself for emphasis).
10. Knee-High to a Grasshopper
Similar to the last idiom, knee-high to a grasshopper is also used in the introduction of this post and also refers to a young person.
If someone is knee-high to a grasshopper, then they’re very young or small. Commonly, this idiom is used to refer to a small child.
You’ll find that this idiom is also used to talk about somebody in the past. For example, you might hear somebody say:
I remember you when you were knee-high to a grasshopper.
They could also say:
I’ve known you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper.
It’s a fun and very common way to refer to somebody’s young age or stature or reference a relationship with them when they were young.
Sometimes funny, sometimes morbid and sometimes even a bit insulting, age idioms are very important to learn. Best of all, it doesn’t take ages (a very long time) to learn age idioms. With dedication, commitment and study, you’ll get there in no time at all!