Out of the ordinary: ways of saying that something is unusual (2)

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

four seated men seen from the chest downwards - three are sitting formally and wearing plain black suits, and one is sitting casually with crossed legs and wearing a bright red suit
Peter Cade / Stone / Gettymages

by Kate Woodford

My last blog post looked at adjectives used to describe things that are unusual or in some way different. In today’s post, I focus on idioms and phrases in this area.

Something that is unusual and unexpected may be described as out of the ordinary. (This is often used in negative phrases to say the opposite):

I glanced around the room but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. / Medical tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, something that is so different and strange, you cannot accurately describe it might be said to defy description:

I wish I could convey to you how he dances but really, it defies description. / The whole experience defies description.

Some idioms in this area often describe people. For example, if you say someone is one of a kind or a one-off, you mean they are very unusual and very unlike other people. Meanwhile, if you describe someone as one in a million, you mean they are unusual because they have such good qualities.

I’d never met anyone like her – she was one of a kind.

He was extraordinary – a real one-off.

He never stops helping other people – he really is one in a million!

If someone sticks or stands out like a sore thumb, everyone notices them because they are so different from the people around them. This is an informal phrase:

In her formal, old-fashioned attire, she stuck out like a sore thumb at the wedding.

Someone who is different in a way that is very welcome in a particular place or situation may be described as a breath of fresh air:

With her relaxed, informal style she’s like a breath of fresh air here.

An object such as a piece of furniture or clothing that is so unusual it causes people to talk about it is sometimes called a conversation piece:

A quirky piece of artwork serves as a useful conversation piece at parties.

Meanwhile, you can express how unusual (and often good) an experience is by saying It’s not every day that something happens:

After all, it’s not every day that the President visits your school. / It’s not every day you go to the palace to collect an award.

Finally, someone who rips or tears up the rulebook does something in a way that is very different from the way it is usually done or was previously done:

As a company, they tore up the rulebook, creating a product that didn’t resemble any on offer at the time.

That concludes my two-part post on ways of describing unusual things and people. I would love to know what the equivalent of ‘breath of fresh air’ is in your language. If you have a moment, do tell me in the comments!

24 thoughts on “Out of the ordinary: ways of saying that something is unusual (2)

  1. Eduardo Sandez

    A breath of fresh air is Spanish is not only used to describe people that are new, it’s actually used when you refer to a new place, new adventures.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Eduardo! That’s interesting – thanks for sharing. I’ve just looked at a few corpus lines for this idiom and can see that it’s also used for situations, etc in English, but less often than for people. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  2. Yeri Ekomunajat

    ‘breath of fresh air’ has an idiomatic equivalent in my language, Indonesian i.e ‘angin segar’. Angin : wind, segar : fresh. So, it is something like a breeze which make us comfortable.

  3. Stef

    In Italian, there’s a literal equivalent of “a breath of fresh air”. It’s “una boccata di aria fresca”. Thank you for your priceless posts.

  4. Maria da Esperança Alves

    In Portuguese, we use “out of the ordinary” (= fora do comum), “one in a million” (= um em cem) and “a breath of fresh air” (= uma lufada de ar fresco) with the same meaning and context as in English.
    Thanks a million for your so useful clarifying posts!

  5. Kizito

    “Breath of fresh air” is attributed to a relieving situation or a moment of peace. Though in some context it could be credited to someone or a place.

  6. In Nigeria, our English version uses a breath of fresh air in a literally sense. The phrase is commonly used to signal positivity, such as hope, peace, comfort, convenience, etc. For example: For a breath of fresh air, vote Goodluck Jonathan as president.

  7. Đỗ Đức Anh

    Hi, thank you for one of the most amazing articles I’ve read so far! I have a question: we also have the word ‘peculiar,’ ‘odd’ and ‘eccentric.’ Are they the same? Thanks in advance!

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