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I am looking for an idiom to use for a person (player, employee etc.) that proves more talented than expected. In my native language, I often hear in sports being something that literally translates to "season revelation", but I have sometimes used it (informally) for junior colleagues.

A "season revelation" is:

  • typically (very) young
  • talented at what it does, but few know about this until "revealed"
  • a one-time event in one's life (cannot be "revealed" more than once)

"Rising star" comes into my mind, but I am not sure if it grasps the same meaning.

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12 Answers 12

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You could also say they're breakout employees/players.

Breakout (adj): Used to describe someone or something that suddenly becomes very well known or successful in a particular type of activity, or an achievement that helps them do this.

Examples:

  • She was the breakout star of this year's Women's World Cup.

  • This was the breakout book by one of the most original writers of his generation.

[Cambridge English dictionary]

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    +1 Given the one-time nature of the 'breakout', I think this is the best answer. For a UK-centric answer, 'dark horse' is also very good. – EleventhDoctor Sep 3 '20 at 8:33
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    In the UK it is common also to hear of footballer's having a breakthrough season – Martin Smith Sep 4 '20 at 7:26
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There is an idiom which may or may not serve your purposes. It is dark horse.

A dark horse could be a politician, an athlete, a musician, or any person who has a bent toward excellence in whatever field or discipline you could name. What makes a dark horse a dark horse is an unexpected win or a surprise performance. Perhaps the odds are against this person winning, though I think people do not give much, if any, thought regarding a dark horse, let alone consider their odds of winning. That's why everyone is surprised when the dark horse pulls it off!

From the Free Dictionary:

  1. one who achieves unexpected support and success as a political candidate, typically during a party's convention.
  2. a little-known, unexpectedly successful entrant, as in a horserace
  3. a competitor that is relatively unknown or that wins unexpectedly.

A couple of sentences:

  1. Tina, who had never competed before in a race over a quarter mile, proved to be a dark horse in the mile when her coach suggested she substitute for a sick team member.
  2. Never having competed before in a piano competition, Andre turned out to be a dark horse and placed second, above more seasoned players.
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    As this answer implies, dark horse is typically used in the context of competitive activities. – Brian Sep 4 '20 at 15:01
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    Dark horse in America is normally a less likely person to win, but still possible. – GC_ Sep 4 '20 at 17:48
  • I would also add that "dark horse" (in all usages I've heard) tends to suggest an element of prior coyness about, or concealment of, the relevant skill - but in an approving and respectful tone, perhaps attributing the concealment to a newcomer's prior uncertainty as to their own relative skill. Usually, there must be seasoned competitors in the setting who would be considered mildly embarrassed about being outdone. It does not well suit, for example, a new employee who simply turns out to be more skilled at their normal job than would be expected by reference to their age or experience. – Steve Oct 7 '20 at 17:02
  • @Steve: Agreed! Don – rhetorician Oct 7 '20 at 18:55
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It seems like there are two aspects to this.

For a young star who comes from nowhere, in U.S. sports talk people use "phenom", short for phenomenon (which is also used). Sometimes combined with "rookie" (a new or first-year player), "rookie phenomenon."

For exceeding expectations (or past history) there are "underrated" (which is badly overused in U.S. sports talk), or "punching above his/her weight" (a sports phrase more often used for countries in foreign relations, e.g., Iceland is punching above its weight to be such an influential leader at this UN meeting), or something more literal like unexpected success.

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    My kid suggests "breakout star" for the first aspect, which is another good possibility. – David S Sep 3 '20 at 1:40
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A prodigy, a high-flyer, a discovery, a revelation, a wunderkind are all terms that come to mind, depending on the audience to whom you are talking. Of these I prefer the anglicised German, wunderkind, a child wonder.

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    prodigy and wunderkind are usually reserved for children. – Barmar Sep 3 '20 at 17:29
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    I think "wunderkind" doesn't fit. Someone is still a wunderkind long after they've become established as one. All they have to be is younger/less experienced than normal. At this point the wunderkind has lost the element of "unexpected performance" which I think the OP is concentrating on. – SebTHU Sep 4 '20 at 16:15
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Cinderella or Cinderella Story

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinderella_(sports)

This is:

  • Idiomatic
  • Used for someone more successful than expected (which may certainly be due to underestimated talent).
  • Primarily used in sports
  • Often young
  • Usually a one-time event, because after they are "revealed" they are unlikely to be underestimated again
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We use "sleeper" in some parts of academia. If you run a math competition, you expect superstars from magnet schools in big cities. But once in a while you get a kid on a ranch in Wyoming who just blows the test away. The concept is that there was hidden talent and we've woken it up.

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As mentioned in another answer, the word revelation itself satisfies the latter two criteria.

If we have to include the criterion "typically (very) young", the closest I can think of is a rough diamond or a diamond in the rough. Even here, young perhaps can only be implied from unpolished (which is what really a rough diamond literally is).

TFD(idioms):

a rough diamond [mainly BRITISH] or a diamond in the rough [AMERICAN]

2. If you call someone or something a rough diamond, you mean that they have talent or good qualities which are hidden or not well developed and could be developed more.
Note: A rough diamond is a diamond that has not yet been cut and polished.

When I heard this lady sing, I ran to the theater, and I said, `Chick, I found myself a diamond in the rough.'

Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012

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One possibility not yet mentioned is "ugly duckling":

ugly duckling

n.a person or thing, initially ugly or unpromising, that changes into something beautiful or admirable

It has a somewhat superficial connotation, and might be more typically usually used about appearance than performance, but could work in your example situations.

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How about the idiom have a hidden talent? From The Free Dictionary:

have a hidden talent: To have a particular skill or ability that few people know one possesses.

Having a hidden talent conveys that one is talented at what it does, but few know about this until it is "revealed", and it cannot be "revealed" more than once.

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One possible term is Young Turk. It has a restricted field of meaning as it generally signifies a progressive, revolutionary or rebellious member of an organisation or political party, especially one agitating for radical reform. It's not a term that one might use of say a football star, but maybe someone who wanted to shake up the management of football at a high level.

The term came into popular usage after the Young Turk Revolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 which restored the constitution of 1876 and ushered in a multi-party electoral system.

It entered as an idiom in American English in the 1920s when it was used to describe a particular class of US senators who challenged the then establishment.

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Whiz kid is the first one that comes to my (older) mind. Dictionary.com defines it as:

a youthful and exceptionally intelligent, successful, or influential person in a given field

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I find frequently (specially in my area of work: software development), that such person is called a rockstar.

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    I don't think this quite fits. Rockstar is used for employees who are highly talented. Rockstar says nothing about whether this talent was greater than expected. – Brian Sep 4 '20 at 14:54

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