Teaching EFL – Idioms Part 15

Idioms: The Elements

There’s no smoke without fire means that if something bad is being said about someone, then there is probably a good reason for it. The person in question might decide to fight fire with fire, however, and criticize the people who are criticizing him or her. If you find yourself in the line of fire, you are liable to be criticized for something, and if something draws fire, it attracts severe criticism, as in ‘The proposed merger is drawing fire from all sides’. If someone holds fire, they wait before taking action, as in ‘The banks have decided to hold fire and not raise interest rates for the time being’.

If something is in the air, people all have a similar feeling, especially a feeling that something new or exciting is happening, as in ‘There was a feeling in the air that it was time for a change’ or ‘Spring is in the air‘. If your plans are up in the air, on the other hand, you have not yet decided what to do. If something disappears in a sudden or mysterious way, we can say that it has vanished into thin air and, similarly, something can appear out of thin air, as in ‘It just happened, out of thin air‘. If you are lucky enough to find yourself walking or floating on air, you are extremely happy for some reason.

In that situation, you simply have to hope that no-one pours cold water on your plans (does or says something to spoil them). If you are a strong and confident person, any criticism may simply be water off a duck’s back to you (you are completely unaffected by it) and any bad things that happened in the past will now just be water under the bridge (gone and forgotten).


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Idioms: The Senses

If something leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you continue to feel unhappy or disappointed about it for a considerable amount of time afterwards. You might take your revenge on the person responsible for it by giving them a taste of their own medicine (treating them in the same way they treated you) but you might find that sort of behaviour an acquired taste (something you must try or have many times before you start to enjoy it).

If you like the sound of something, you are pleased by something you have heard or read, as in ‘A holiday in Greece? I like the sound of that’. The expressions by the sound of it/things or from the sound of it/things are used to say that you are basing your ideas or opinions on what you have heard or read, as in ‘From the sound of things, they’ll probably have to move before next year’.

If you have your sights set on something, you intend to achieve it, as in ‘She clearly has her sights set on a top job’, but if you lose sight of something, you forget something important or forget how important it is, as in ‘We had lost sight of the value of true friendship’. In British English, something strange or unpleasant to look at can be described as a sight for sore eyes, however, the same expression in American English would be used to describe someone or something that you are very pleased to see. Out of sight, out of mind is used for saying that when you don’t see or hear about something, you don’t think about it.

A person described as a soft touch is someone who can be persuaded very easily to do something, for example, to give you money, while a person who has the magic touch has a talent for solving difficult problems or resolving tricky situations.

Idioms: Throw

‘After months of campaigning, his opponent has finally decided to throw in the towel‘. This idiom, which has its origins in boxing, means to give up doing something because you know you cannot win or succeed.

People who throw their weight around use their authority to tell other people what to do in a rude and unpleasant way.

If you throw the book at someone, you punish them very severely, as in ‘The local authorities have warned people in the area that they will throw the book at anyone caught vandalizing war memorials’.

To throw money at something means to try to improve it by spending a lot of money on it, as in ‘Providing better education is not simply a matter of throwing money at it’. Throwing good money after bad is continuing to spend money on a business or project that is going to fail. In that situation, you are probably throwing your money down the drain (wasting it by spending it on something useless).

Perhaps it’s time to throw yourself into a new activity, meaning to start giving all your energy or attention to it, as in ‘After his girlfriend left him, he threw himself into his work’.

Make sure you don’t throw caution to the wind, however, as this would mean you have stopped being careful and are doing things you know are risky.

Whatever you do, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you do so, you unintentionally get rid of all the positive and useful aspects of something while trying to get rid of its negative aspects.



Idioms: Tongue

If something is easy to pronounce, it can be said to trip off the tongue. If, on the other hand, something is difficult to pronounce, it is difficult to get your tongue round it, as in ‘I had trouble getting my tongue round some of their names’.

You may need to bite your tongue to stop yourself from saying something you would like to say because you will upset someone or make them angry.

Alcohol can loosen someone’s tongue if the person drinking it discloses some information that they would not have spoken about had they not had a drink, as in ‘Three-quarters of a bottle of wine had loosened her tongue so she told us all about her arguments with Pete’.

If tongues wag, people gossip about another person, usually saying unkind things about them, as in ‘Leaving his car parked outside her house was bound to set tongues wagging‘.

If you say or write something with your tongue in your cheek, you intend it to be humorous and do not mean it seriously, as in ‘He had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he described the rioters as enterprising’.

A slip of the tongue is used to describe a situation where you say something that you do not mean to say, an in ‘He apologized for calling his opponent an idiot, explaining that it was just a slip of the tongue‘.

If a word, a name or a fact is on the tip of your tongue, you know it but you cannot remember it at the time of speaking. Similarly, if you are tongue-tied, you are unable to speak because you are nervous or embarrassed.


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