Under one’s breath

Under one’s breath is an idiom that originated in the United States. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, 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 like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. 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; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common saying under one’s breath, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To say something under one’s breath means to speak softly or in a barely audible whisper so that others cannot clearly hear what one has said. People often mutter under their breaths when cursing or complaining or saying something that they don’t quite want someone else to hear. The expression under one’s breath came into use in the 1830s, presumably to mean something that is said more softly than the sound of breathing.


Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said Ingles will make humorous comments under his breath here and there, but it’s normally not anything that gets under the skin. (Deseret News)

Under his breath he muttered a curse–a minor curse, not one of the big ones–and walked back to his office, his morning ruined. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“I was with the Queen, but my husband was with him and said he kept making remarks about the proceedings under his breath as they went on,” Mrs. Lodge told the News-Press on Friday. (Santa Barbara News-Press)

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