Teaching EFL – Idioms Part 1

Idioms: a dog in the manger

Overheard on a tube train in London, a building labourer addressing a smart city gent: “Excuse me. Are you reading that paper you’re sitting on?” Interpreted literally, the question is ludicrous, unless the person sitting on the newspaper has an ability to read through their backside, but the intended meaning is clear (the questioner wants to borrow the newspaper and is politely enquiring whether the other person has finished with it). An unfortunate choice of words perhaps, but clear nonetheless. The monosyllabic answer, however, was quite unexpected but equally clear: “Yes”. In other words, “I don’t want to let you borrow my newspaper even though I am clearly not reading it at the moment”.

This is a classic case of a dog in the manger, someone who does not want or need something, but will not let other people have it. A manger is a long, low open container with hay in it for horses, cows and other animals to feed on. The expression is said to originate in the tale of a dog that habitually slept on the hay in a manger and growled at the other animals when they came to feed on the hay, although the dog, not being a vegetarian, did not want to eat the hay itself. Young children are probably the best examples of dogs in the manger, refusing to let other children play with their toys even though they are not playing with them themselves. The expression does not only apply to children, however, as the example in the tube train clearly shows.


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Idioms: anger

Most people get angry from time to time. Various things can get your back up (annoy you) or get on your nerves (irritate you). In more extreme cases things can drive you up the wall, drive you mad, drive you nuts or drive you round the bend (all four expressions mean make you furious), as in ‘That car alarm nearly drove me up the wall last night. Why didn’t he go out and switch it off?’

If you are feeling angry, your degree of anger might range from feeling a bit cheesed off (rather annoyed) to being hopping mad (absolutely furious), as in ‘I was hopping mad when I found out they had cheated me’. In the latter situation, you might demonstrate your anger and go spare, blow a fuse, blow a gasket or do your nut (all meaning get extremely angry).

A long-term problem that has been building up your anger might make you say ‘I’ve had it up to here‘, as in ‘I’ve had it up to here with this stupid printer’. If the person who has caused the situation is within earshot, you might give them a dressing down (speak to them angrily because they have done something wrong),give them a piece of your mind (let them know exactly what you think of them) or give them an ear bashing or give them an earful (criticize them angrily).

If you are extremely angry, it is probably a good idea to let off steam (express your feelings of anger). Otherwise, like the Icelandic volcano, you might blow your top (explode with anger).


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Idioms: best and worst

If you have the best of both worlds, you have the benefit of two very different types of advantage at the same time, e.g. ‘Enjoying the combination of five-star luxury with our friendly personal service, you’ll have the best of both worlds‘.

If, on the other hand, you say that something is the worst of both worlds or the worst of all worlds, you imply that it only contains disadvantages, as in ‘Politicians from all sides have attacked the decision to invade as being the worst of all worlds‘.

If you make the best of a bad job, you accept a bad or difficult situation without complaining and try to deal with it as well as you can, as in ‘Having missed his train, he decided to make the best of a bad job and enjoy a leisurely meal’.

The expression at the best of times is used for saying that something is bad or difficult even in normal circumstances but is even worse or more difficult in the present situation, as in ‘Persuading the bank to lend you money is a difficult task at the best of times‘.

If you are at your best, you are showing your most impressive or attractive qualities, as in ‘I’d only just got out of bed so I wasn’t at my best‘.

If you fear the worst, you believe that something very bad will probably happen, as in ‘When the third goal went in, United began to fear the worst‘.

The expression if the worst comes to the worst is used for saying what you will do if the worst thing that could happen does happen, as in ‘If the worst comes to the worst, we’ll just cancel the holiday and go home’.



Idioms: books

If you are in someone’s bad books, they are annoyed with you for some reason. It might be a good idea to try and get back in their good books so that they are pleased with your efforts or behaviour again.

If you can read someone like a book, you are able to understand very easily what they are thinking or feeling, usually because you know them very well. A closed book is someone or something that you do not know or understand anything about, as in ‘Indian classical music is still a closed book to most people’. It can also be used to refer to something that you accept has completely ended, as in ‘As far as she is concerned, her marriage to Edwin is a closed book‘. An open book, on the other hand is something or someone that is easy to find out about or understand, because nothing is kept secret, as in ‘Her life was an openbook‘.

To do things by the book is to do them correctly, following all the rules or systems for doing something in a strict way, as in ‘He always tried to do everything by the book‘. If you are brought to book, you are punished or forced to explain your behaviour publicly after doing something wrong, as in ‘If policemen have lied, then they must be brought to book‘. In that situation, it is quite likely that the relevant authorities will throw the book at them (punish them very severely). In my book (in my opinion), however, you should never judge a book by its cover (form an opinion about someone only from their appearance).



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