Tongue-tied is an idiom that may be older than 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. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kicked the bucket, blow off steam, piece of cake, hit the sack, 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 phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom tongue-tied, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To be tongue-tied means to be unable to speak properly because one is shy or because one has become flustered or embarrassed. Someone who is tongue-tied may stutter or be unable to think of the proper words to say. The idiom tongue-tied has been around since the 1520s and is closely linked to the common name for a physical condition, tongue-tie. The formal name for the condition known as tongue-tie is ankyloglossia. Someone who suffers from ankyloglossia has an unusually thick lingual frenulum, which is the membrane that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth. Ankyloglossia is a congenital condition that can affect one’s speech, ability to eat, and oral hygiene. In mild cases, treatment may not be necessary. The person may find ways to compensate or the lingual frenulum may relax as the child grows. However, it may be necessary to perform surgery. The medical condition tongue-tie was first recognized in the 1500s, and the idiomatic use of the expression tongue-tied to mean someone who can not speak properly due to temporary circumstances came into popular use shortly after. Note that tongue-tied is a compound word and is properly rendered with a hyphen.


“When I feel like they don’t like what I have to say, or don’t respect me — whether real or imagined — I become tongue-tied and unable to present and discuss my work to my expectation,” Yang said. (The Seattle Times)

The common phrases “without rhyme or reason”, “vanished into thin air”, “played fast and loose”, “tongue-tied”, “short shrift”, “cold comfort”, “good riddance”, “high time”, “foul play”, “the long and short of it”, “it’s neither here nor there”, and a host of others, all sprang from the plays of Shakespeare which, for the most part, were written in 10-syllable lines of verse. (The Australian)

It was the only contact with a celebrity I’ve ever had that left me nervous and tongue-tied, so that when, at the end of the meal, I ventured to compliment her on her latest collection, “The Progress of Love,” I barely managed to get the words out. (The Toronto Star)

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