Spin a yarn

Spin a yarn is an idiom that may not be as old as you think. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as kick the bucket, hit the sack, under the weather, barking up the wrong tree, bite the dust, when pigs fly, let sleeping dogs lie, Achilles heel, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression spin a yarn, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

To spin a yarn means to tell a story, usually a long, imaginative, colorful and unlikely story. A yarn is a long story told primarily as a form of entertainment, not as a method of communicating important information. The expression to spin a yarn has only been in use since the early 1800s, though the phrase spin a thread meaning to tell a long, entertaining story was a popular expression used in the 1300s. Most believe that the phrase spin a yarn was originally a nautical idiom. Seaman often had to spend time repairing rope onboard ship. This is a time-consuming task involving twisting fibers together, which is alleged to have been referred to as “spinning yarn”. While repairing rope, sailors would often tell each other stories to while away the time. Over time, these stories came to be known as yarns, and telling the story came to be known as spinning a yarn. Related phrases are spins a yarn, spun a yarn, spinning a yarn. Remember, spinning a yarn always refers to telling a fictitious tale, often one that is difficult to believe.


“She likes to spin a yarn, but it helps her feel grounded and deal with those experiences.” (The Daily Iowan)

Islanders of all ages are invited to bring a prepared five-minute story, spin a yarn in the “One-Minute Story-thon” or join in interactive group storytelling improv games. (The VAshon-Maury Island Beachcomber)

Many companies will spin a yarn even before showing you the price: This watch was beloved by the one and only James Bond, this was the first timepiece designed for the wrist, this one implements the technology of the original digital pocket watch. (GQ Magazine)

A senior Labour source told BI: “Number 10 is clearly trying to spin a yarn about non-existent Labour rebels to try and change the dynamics around the vote in her own party.” (The Business Insider)

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