Under the table

Under the table is an idiom that has been in use for decades. 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 the table, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Under the table is an idiomatic phrase that is an adjective that describes something that is done in secret, something that is not entirely legal, something that is sneaky or shady. The expression under the table evokes the image of contraband being passed to someone underneath a table, where no one can see the transaction. The expression under the table to mean something sneaky or illegal came into use in the mid-twentieth century. The adjectival phrase is hyphenated when used before a noun, as in under-the-table.


“The thing about a blacklist is that it is usually an under-the-table gentleman’s agreement,” says Thomas Doherty, author of Show Trial: Hollywood, Huac, and the Birth of the Blacklist. (The Guardian)

Others were paid under the table or didn’t make enough money the year before seeking benefits to qualify for compensation. (Sioux Falls Argus Leader)

Now that the the 21-year-old West Philly resident has lost all but one of his jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s doubly painful: Because he was getting paid under the table, he’s not eligible for unemployment benefits. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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