3 Common phrases you might have been getting wrong

Photograph of a young girl with brown hair covering her mouth with her hand and an expression of shock

Idioms and turns of phrase can be a great way to enliven your writing, and give it a less formal style. But be sure that you’re using the correct version, and not accidentally repeating these frequently misheard phrases!

Have you used any of these commonly mistaken phrases?

‘Damp Squid’

This phrase is used to describe something that was is a little underwhelming, a bit of an anti-climax. So how on earth do you get this meaning from ‘damp squid’? The truth is that this is a corruption of ‘damp squib’. A squib (unless you’re in Harry Potter) is a small firework, which hisses before exploding. Hence a ‘damp squib’ is something that builds up your expectations before letting you down. Like a movie with a brilliant marketing campaign which turns out to be a dud. When you think about it this is an easy one to work out – there’s nothing noteworthy about a squid being damp!

‘On tenderhooks’

This confusion is fairly simple to explain, as the correct word, ‘tenterhooks’ has long passed out of everyday vocabulary. A tenter is a frame used in cloth-making to stretch out wool. The wool was held in place with – you guessed it – tenterhooks. So to be kept ‘on tenterhooks’ is to be held in a state of tension. The phrase is usually associated with nervous anxiety, but can also have positive uses. For example, we were ‘on tenterhooks’ waiting to learn the name of Harry and Meghan’s child. The phrase itself now dwarfs its origins in common usage, so it is quite easy to understand why a more current word, ‘tender’ is often swapped for the archaic ‘tenter’.

‘First come, first serve’

Speaking of common usage, this mangled phrase has become so ingrained that you’d be forgiven for thinking it is the correct form. I’ve even used this one myself a few times! But again, you just need to logically think through the meaning of the phrase to see where you might be going wrong. ‘First come, first serve’ implies that the first person to arrive does all the work. But its proper meaning is that the first person to arrive will be the first offered service. So really, the phrase has to be ‘first come, first served’. This is often used in a marketing context yo show that there is no priority system, you just have to be the first in the line to be guaranteed a place. So if you want to impress the grammar police when you’re next advertising an event, go with the longer ‘served’ and show them that you really know what you’re talking about!


Looking to embrace a less formal and more friendly style of writing for your business or latest project? Get in touch with me to see how I might be able to help tailor your approach!

Published by Helen

Feminist lifestyle and art history blogger making the leap from the dreaming spires of Oxford to marvelous Melbourne. Find me on twitter @helen_mccombie, and Instagram at nel_mccombie

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