I was drawn to both of idioms,‘hit a raw nerve’ and ‘tip sb. the wink” being quoted as British skewed English idioms in the following scenes describing verbal exchanges between Captain Richard Armstrong, one of two heroes in Jeffery Archer’s “Fourth Estate” with (1) an officer of Russian Intelligence organization, and (2) his superior, British Army Colonel.

BTW, Armstrong is a Jewish Czech who was naturalized as British by serving in the British Army.

(1) The man smiled. “By producing the will you seem so determined to get your hand on.” “The will? Said Armstrong nervously. “Ah, I see I have finally touched what the British describe as a raw nerve.’” – P232

(2) “That’s damned patriotic of you, old chap,” said the colonel. “Shall we just leave it that I won’t hurry the process along until you tip me the wink?” Armstrong’s English was as fluent as that of most of officers in The British Army, but (Colonel) Oakshott was still able to add the occasional new expression to his vocablary.-P239

I can find both ‘hit a raw nerve’ and ‘tip sb. the wink” as idioms in a dictionary at hand, which doesn’t specify them as ‘British English’

I was also able to find both ‘hit a raw nerve’ and ‘tip sb. the wink” on Google NGram, which shows the former came into currency around 1910, and the latter was in currency in early 1840s, notwithstanding the usage has been on sharp decrease.

Are both of ‘Hit a raw nerve’ and ‘Tip sb. the wink” Brit-like idioms as Jeffery Archer annotated, or just being used by anyone in English speaking countries?

  • 2
    I've never heard or read "tip somebody the wink" used in American English, but "hit a raw nerve" sounds familiar & very American to me, so I'd say that this is just plain old idiomatic English, not specific to any particular dialect.
    – user21497
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 5:35
  • 1
    Ngram for "a raw nerve" shows very little difference. Tip me/us the wink doesn't occur very often in either GB or US books, with US being half the GB figure. That's more likely to be unfamiliar.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 5:45
  • 1
    I have never hear someone actually use "top somebody the wink" in either American or British English. I do not think "hit a raw nerve" is British or American specifically - I have heard many Americans and British use this phrase.
    – Sam
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 8:24
  • 1
    Both are certainly expressions used in British English, but I would say that tip sb. the wink is probably a little outdated now.
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 24, 2013 at 12:01
  • In the first quotation that Armstrong isn't singling out the British as using language differently from the Americans or Australians or other English speakers, it's just pointing to an idiom in the English language. (Consider if Armstrong wanted to refer to speakers of English: there is no simple word for that, but living in Britain, British is the nearest thing.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 8:26

1 Answer 1


Hit a nerve or struck a nerve are common in AmE too, as your research shows.

We don't tip people winks in the States though. We do tip someone off when we give them privileged information. Moreover, we may use a surreptitious wink to communicate something private or privileged. In that sense, He tipped me off with a wink sounds natural. (Actually, dictionary.com labels "tip-off" as a synonym for "wink", so you might expect someone, through context, to pick out the meaning of tip sb the wink.)

Another difference is that "to tip sb off" is often used with a prepositional phrase--with a wink--functioning as an indirect object. This gives the sound of a process: When you wink, I will know something is up. In "tip sb the wink", wink is the direct object and makes the expression "tip sb the wink" sound more like a unified action, like a single gesture. Like, "Give me the okay".

As this usage goes, Americans haven't assembled the pieces quite as succinctly as the Brits.


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