Idioms - American English

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section 3An idiom is an expression that cannot be understood literally. Even when aperson knows the meaning of all the words and understands the grammar,the overall meaning of the idiom may be unclear. When students gain anunderstanding of American idioms, and the facility to use them, they are truly apart of the American English speech community. This may be one reason why somany students are interested in learning idioms.Some idioms are so widely used that they are clichés—so commonplace in thespoken language that they are best avoided in writing for fear of suggesting anunoriginal mind! Clichés and proverbs, another form of idiomatic usage, donot vary in form, e.g., “Curiosity killed the cat” not “the dog” and “Too manycooks spoil the broth” not “the meal.” Other idioms may allow for some form ofvariation, such as “to look (or feel) like death warmed over;” or in the form oftaking on modifiers, e.g., “It was (beautiful) music to my ears.”teaching techniques. The first two activities in this section can be done inpairs or as a whole class “mingling” activity. If the mingling format is used, theteacher will give each student a piece of paper with a portion of the idiom writtenupon it. The student’s task is to locate the classmate who has the portion of thesentence which completes the idiom.The “Fun Time” and “Idiomatic Antonyms” activities should be done in pairswith students identifying the correct idiom and providing a situation and asentence in which it can be used.idiomsThe final activities in this section include (1) idioms that are semantically linked,as expressions relating to sports or food, and (2) idioms derived from specializedvocabulary items that have found their way into current, general AmericanEnglish usage.

110Teachers can reproduce the information from these pages for class discussion andthen extend the activity in the following ways:1. Make a list of situations some of which would allow for the use of adesignated idiom and others do not. Ask the students to determinewhether the idiom applies to the situation or not,Example: Which of the following statements illustrate theidiom “(to) be on target”—to achieve a desired goal;to be correct about something.A student who answers every question on a test correctly.answer: She/he is on target.A basketball player who makes 15% of his shots. answer:She/he is not on target.2. Ask the students to work in pairs to identify situations and writesentences in which a particular idiom will apply.3. Ask the students to personalize an idiom by giving examples of how theidiom applies to their lives.4. Ask the students to consider whether there are expressions in their nativelanguage similar to the idiom in American English. If there are, ask themto describe the situations in which the expressions are used. Have themcompare this with the usage of the American idiom.

111Bird wordsI. Match each word or phrase in the first column with the word or phrase in the second columnthat produces common saying or idiom.1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11.12.13.14.15.a bird in the handbirds of a featherbirdstoolbird’s eyeto kill two birdssillywhich came firsthe eatswhat’s sauce for the goosewise oldbury one’s head in the sandcranedove ofthe early birda.b.c.d.e.f.g.h.i.j.k.l.m.n.o.goosepeacethe chicken or the eggis worth two in the bushowlone’s neckcatches the wormpigeonwith one stonebrainlike an ostrichlike a birdis sauce for the ganderviewflock togetherII. Match each word in the first column with its correct definition in the second column.1. birdiea. foolish, or inept person2. chickenb. objectionable or worthless3. turkeyc. lower the head or body to avoid collisionwith an object4. cuckoo5. duck6. parrot7. for the birdsd. repeat by rotee. a golf score of one stroke less than parf. timid; cowardlyg. silly, a little crazy

112Animal wordsI. Match each word or phrase in the first column with the word or phrase in the second columnthat produces a proverb or idiom.a.b.c.d.e.f.g.h.i.j.k.l.m.n.o.the dogsout of the bagbut you can’t make him drinklienever bitesnew tricksof a different colorhorseshogdogto skin a catin the mouththe mice will playcats and dogsthe catII. Match each word in the first column with its correct definition in the second column.a.b.c.d.e.f.g.to reveal secret informationfull of spite, malicioustimid, fearfulnonsenseto confuse or baffleto take selfishlysomething difficult

113Fun timeEach picture below illustrates a common English phrase, idiom, or proverb.

114Idiomatic antonymsI. Add the right words to complete the pairs, and the initial letters reading downward will spell anappropriate word.*The idiom is commonly in reverse order from what appears here.II. Complete the following idioms by adding a word that is opposite in meaning to the other word inthe phrase.

115Talking sportsA number of idioms heard in everyday conversationbegan as phrases used in sports. The definitions givenbelow show the meanings of these idioms in commonparlance.BASEBALLhave two strikes against one: to be in a position wheresuccess is unlikely (in baseball, one is “out” after threestrikes)She couldn’t win. She had two strikes against her beforeshe started.keep your eye on the ball: to remain alert to theevents occurring around one (informal)If you want to succeed in this business, you have to keepyour eye on the ball.pinch-hit (for someone): to substitute for someone(in baseball, it refers to a substitute batter) I won’t beable to conduct the meeting. Would you be willing topinch-hit for me?go to bat for someone: to support or help someone; tostand up for or defend someone (informal) He was beingtreated unfairly until his friends went to bat for him.throw someone a curve: to confuse someone by doingsomething unexpected (in baseball, to pitch a curve tosomeone)I had prepared a speech on the subject I thought theywanted, but they threw me a curve; they asked for adifferent topic.out in left field: offbeat; unusual and eccentric (informal) He has some pretty strange ideas. That one’s really outin left field.get to first base: to make a major advance with someone or something (informal)I’d like to close this business deal, but I can’t seem to get tofirst base with it.touch base (or someone): to talk to someone; toconfer with someone (slang) I’ll touch base with Johnon this question and let you know what he thinks.make a splash: to receive widespread notice orpublicity for a remarkable or successful actionHe made quite a splash when he entered the business world.go off the deep end: to become deeply involved (withsomeone or something) before one is ready; to followone’s emotions into a situation (informal) (refers togoing into a swimming pool at the deep end—ratherthan the shallow end—and finding oneself in deepwater. Applies especially to falling in love.)I hope he’ll think carefully about making that decisioninstead of just going off the deep end.BOXINGpull one’s punches: to hold back in one’s criticism(usually in the negative) (slang) (in boxing, to strikewith light blows to enable the other boxer to win)I didn’t pull any punches. I told him just what I thoughtof him.beat someone to the punch: to do something beforesomeone else does it.I was going to write an article on that subject, but someone beat me to the punch.hit someone below the belt: to do something unfairor unsporting to someone (informal) (in boxing, ablow below the belt line is not permitted) We shouldn’tspread that gossip about him; that would be hittingbelow the belt.blow-by-blow account/description: a detaileddescription (of an event)She gave us a blow-by-blow account of their argument.BILLIARDSbehind the eight ball: in a highly disadvantageous orbaffling position (informal)I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this situation;I’m really behind the eight ball.TENNISSWIMMINGswim against the tide/current: to do the oppositeof everyone else; to go against the trend She probablywon’t go along with the rest of us on this; she usuallyswims against the current.the ball’s in your court: it’s your turn (or responsibility) to take actionI’ve done my part of this project. Now the ball’s in yourcourt.Most of these definitions are from NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary,ed. Richard A. Spears. Lincolnwood, III.: National Textbook Co., 1987.

116Ups and downs of EnglishMany phrasal (two-word) verbs end in up or down. In addition to their more literal meaning numberof these have idiomatic meanings that are not readily apparent from the individual meanings of thetwo elements.TURN UP/TURN DOWNturn up: (1) to appear. Three days after he left Portland,John turned up in San Francisco.(2) to increase the volume of something, such as alight, heat, a radio, etc. Please turn up the radio alittle, so that we can hear it better.turn down: (1) to refuse or deny someone. I appliedfor a job there, but they turned me down.(2) to lower the volume or amount of something,such as hear, water, air pressure, a radio, etc. Pleaseturn down the heat, it’s much too warm in here.BREAK UP/BREAK DOWNbreak up: (1) to disintegrate; come apart. Ths meetingbroke up when the shocking news was received.(2) to end a romance. Alice broke up with her boyfriendlast week.(3) to be convulsed with laughter. The comedian was sofunny we just broke up when we saw his act.breakdown: (1) to fall apart; stop operating. Wecouldn’t continue our trip because our car broke down.(2) to lose control of one’s emotions; to have a nervouscollapse. When Tim heard the terrible news, he brokedown and wept.(3) to tear down; to destroy. They got an axe and brokedown the door.CRACK UP/CRACK DOWNcrack up: (1) to go crazy (slang). After suffering somany setbacks, Arthur finally cracked up.(2) to make someone laugh. Johnny told a couple ofjokes that really cracked me up.crack down; (1) to be strict with someone orsomething. The teacher is cracking down on students whocame in late.(2) to enforce a rule or law more strenuously. They’rebeginning to crack down on drivers who exceed the speedlimit.WIND UP/WIND DOWNwind up: (1) to tighten the spring of something suchas a clock or mechanical toy. If you wind that clock upall the way, it will run for eight days.(2) to conclude or bring to an end. We hope to be ableto wind up the meeting by about three o’clock.(3) to end in a particular place or state or by having todo something. After exploring all the other possibilities,he wound up in Los Angeles.wind down: (1) to decrease or diminish. Things arevery busy now, but I think they’ll wind down soon.(2) to come gradually to an end. The party began towind down at about 10 o’clock.LIVE IT UP/LIVE IT DOWNlive it up: to have an exciting time; to do what onepleases, regardless of the cost; to please oneself. When Igo on my vacation, I’m really going to live it up.live it down: to overcome the shame or embarrassmentof something. I was so embarrassed about whathappened at the party; I’ll never be able to live it down.RUN UP/RUN DOWNrun up: to add a bill; to add many charges to one’saccount. Ellen ran up such a big bill at that store lastmonth that she doesn’t have enough money to pay for it.run down: to run out of power or energy. When yourwatch runs down, you have to wind it or put a newbattery in it.DRESS UP/DRESS DOWNdress up: to wear fancy or formal clothes.The children got all dressed up for the party.dress down: (1) to reprimand or scold. My boss reallydressed me down ( or, gave me a dressing down) for notgetting that order in on time.(2) to dress informally or casually. We were told to dressdown for the party; it was not going to be a formal affair.TEAR UP/TEAR DOWNtear up: (1) to rip something into pieces. Jean angrilytore up Tom’s letter off and threw the pieces into thefireplace.(2) to cause someone much grief (slang). The news ofAlvin’s death really tore her up; she just cried and cried.tear down: (1) to criticize or degrade someone. Ournew boss is always tearing somebody down; the morale inthe office is at an all-time low.(2) to dismantle or destroy something. They’re goingto tear down that old building to make way for the newhighway that’s being planned.BACKUP/BACKDOWNbackup: (1) to cause someone or something to movebackwards or back. If you’ll back up (your car) a little,we’ll be able to park in front of you.(2) to support someone or something. I think that’sa good idea; I’ll back you up when you present it at themeeting.back down: (1) to yield to a person or thing. Georgebacked down from supporting the plan when he saw thateveryone else was against it.(2) to fail to carry through on a threat. Richard hadboasted that he would fight anyone who opposed him, buthe backed down when he realized he couldn’t win.

117American English: A happy marriageAccording to an age-old tradition, a bride should wear at her wedding ceremony “something old,something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” We have borrowed this tradition to examineidiomatic usage in American English.SOMETHING OLD . . .The following “old” words are Latin abbreviations ofLatin words used in English (and some other languages).Except where otherwise indicated, the meaning given is theliteral translation of the Latin word or phrase.A.D. (anno Domini) in the year of our LordA.M. (ante meridiem) before midday; morningca. (circa) about, approximatelycf. (confer) comparee.g. (exempli gratia) for the sake of exampleet al. (et alii) and others (people)etc. (et cetera) and other things; and the restibid. (ibidem) in the same place (used in writing toindicate further reference to the book, chapter, etc. citedjust before)i.e. (id est) that islb. (libra) poundN.B. (nota bene) note wellop. cit. (opere citato) in the work citedP.M. (post meridiem) after midday; afternoonP.S. (postscriptum) written after (something written afterthe signature line of a letter, or added to a book or article)[sic] (thus, so) [thus] (used to show that a quoted passage,often containing some error, is precisely reproduced)SOMETHING NEW . . .The following are new words, new combinations, ornew usages.ace: to earn the grade “A” on an examinationBecause he studies hard, John aced the exam.number crunching: the performance of long, complex,often repetitive, mathematical calculationsAfter some intense number crunching he was able to solve themathematical problem.nonstarter: someone or something that is not productiveor effectiveThat project turned out to be a nonstarter.laid-back: having a relaxed style or characterThe summer-school students had a much more laid-backattitude than the full-time students.gut course: a course or class (as in college) that is easilypassedBill took several gut courses because he didn’t have enoughtime to study.anchorman: a broadcaster who introduces reports by otherbroadcasters and usually reads the news (also anchorperson,anchorwoman, or anchor)There’s a new anchorman on the ABC News program.SOMETHING BORROWED. . .The following words have been taken into Englishfrom native Alaskan and Australian languages.igloo (Esk.): an Eskimo house usually made of sod,wood, or stone when permanent, or of blocks of snow inthe shape of a dome when built for temporary purposeskayak (Esk.): an Eskimo canoe made of a frame coveredwith skins except for a small opening in the center, andpropelled by a double-bladed paddle.parka (Aleut from Russia): a hooded fur pullover garmentfor arctic wear (now, any hooded jacket to protect fromcold and wind)mukluk (Esk.): a sealskin or reindeer-skin boot worn byEskimosboomerang (native Australian): a bent or angular throwingclub designed so that it soars or curves in flight so as toreturn near the throwerkangaroo (Australian): any of various herbivorous leapingmarsupial mammals of Australia, New Guinea, andadjacent islandskoala (Australian): an Australian arboreal marsupial abouttwo feet long that has large hairy ears, gray fur, and sharpclawswallaby (native Australian): any of various small ormedium-sized, usually brightly colored, kangaroosSOMETHING BLUE . . .The following are a few of the many English idiomsthat contain the word “blue.”feeling blue: feeling low in spirits, melancholythe blues: a song, often of lamentation, characterizedby 12-bar phrases, 3-line stanzas in which the words ofthe second line repeat those of the first, and continualoccurrence of blue or sad notes in melody and harmonyuntil one is blue in the face: to do (or deal with)something or someone for an exasperatingly long time,usually to no availblack and blue: darkly discolored from blood effused bybruisingblue law: a statute regulating work, commerce, andamusements on Sundaysblue jeans: pants made of blue denimblueprint: a photographic print in white on a bluebackground used especially for copying maps, mechanicaldrawings, and architects’ plansonce in a blue moon: very rarely

118More than 30 years ago Bergen and Cornelia Evans,in their book A Dictionary of Contemporary AmericanUsage (Random House 1957), said of the word O.K.:“Originating in the United States, O.K. hasspread to almost every country on earth. There issomething about the phrase as a term of assent oragreement that gives it universal appeal. It is probablytoday the most widely used single term in humanspeech . used a billion times a day in informalspeech and business notes and letters.”Whence comes this word that has become, evenmuch more during the past 30 years, a universal termfor assent or approval?Its origins are not certain. The most widelyaccepted explanation is that it was the name of apartisan political organization, the “O.K. Club,”formed in 1840 to support the candidacy of MartinVan Buren, the eighth president of the United States,in his try for a second term in office. The letters O.K.stood for Old Kinderhook, the small town in NewYork State where Van Buren was born.Another possible origin of O.K. may be found inthe initial letters of a humorous spelling (in vogue inthe late 1830s) of the phrase “all correct”—that is, ollkorrect. It is, in fact, quite possible that its widespreaduse in popular speech arose as a result of thecombination of these two early uses, both fosteringthe signification of “good” or “favorable.”Some linguists have thought that O.K. is fromthe Choctaw Indian word okeh, meaning “it is so.”It has even been explained as the initials of ObadiahKelly, a mythical railroad clerk who put his initials onall the packages he accepted as shipment.Whatever its origin, the use of O.K. as an informalexpression for something good persisted and spread,first in the United States and then abroad. Thisrapid spread may be at least partly attributable to theinvention of the telegraph in 1844 and the comparativeease of tapping out the Morse Code equivalent of O.K.in place of the considerably longer all right.The most usual spelling is the one we have usedabove: O.K. Other spellings are OK and okay (earlierokeh was also sometimes used). When employedas a borrowed term in other languages it is oftenspelled in one of the above ways; however, it is alsosometimes incorporated into the spelling or writingsystems of the foreign language. Thus we find,among many others, oké in Dutch and Indonesian,Like many other English words, O.K. can be usedas various parts of speech without change of form,always with the meaning of approval or endorsement,or that something is satisfactory, acceptable, orcorrect. It is used most often as an interjection:A. You’ll do this now, won’t you? B. O.K. As anadjective: He was hurt pretty badly when he fell, but he’sO.K. now or That’s an O.K. idea; let’s do it. As a noun:We’ll have to get the boss’ s O.K. on this. As a verb: I’llO.K. your proposal if you make the changes I suggested.As an adverb: The radio is working O.K. now.A Few More Initial-Letter WordsA-OK very definitely OKASAP as soon as possibleB and B bed and breakfast (an establishment [as an innor guesthouse] offering lodging and breakfast)BLTa bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwichCDcompact disc (a small plastic optical disc,usually containing a recorded

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