Teaching EFL – Idioms Part 3

Idioms: foot.

The word literally is often misused both in speech and writing. If we say that something happened literally, then we mean that it actually did happen and that our statement is not exaggerated in any way. So, if there were literally thousands of people at the meeting, the statement means just that and not simply that there were a lot of people there. An often quoted example of the misuse of literally is ‘Every time he opens his mouth he literally puts his foot in it‘. Well, no he doesn’t – unless he happens to be a contortionist that is. The use of literally here removes the idiomatic meaning from the idiom to put one’s foot in it (to accidentally say something that is embarrassing or that upsets or annoys someone). It is difficult to imagine a situation in which you were so busy that you were literally rushed off your feet (very busy) and likewise literally having one foot in the grave (being very ill and likely to die soon) would present quite a graphic image. If you have cold feet about something (feel nervous about something you have planned or agreed to do), your nervousness would probably manifest itself in other ways than in the temperature of your feet, and if your children are under your feet (in the way and annoying you), they are unlikely to be literally under your feet. But if you put your feet up (sit down and relax), this might conceivably be with your feet raised off the ground. Similarly, if you are back on your feet (well again) after an illness, this could mean that you are once again able to stand up. Most of the time, however, it is advisable to avoid the use of literally, especially with idioms. Otherwise, you might repeat the error of the English football manager who famously said of a player ‘He literally has two left feet’.


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Idioms: Hand

This week sees the emergency economic summit meeting of the G20 countries in London. Numerous organizations and groups have said they will be protesting on the streets of London and it is very likely that the police will have their hands full (be extremely busy with a difficult job). Several thousand police will be on duty at the event and reinforcements will be on hand (available to help if needed) should the need arise. The police are confident that they have the situation in hand (under control) and say that they are working hand in glove (cooperating very closely) with the local authorities to make sure the event passes off peacefully.

Many of the protesters are angry that governments have been spending money hand over fist (spending a lot of money) on bailing out the banks and other financial institutions. Some politicians, on the other hand, insist that the whole situation is out of their hands (beyond their control), is caused by global factors they cannot influence and that their hands are tied by legislation (they cannot take the action they want to take because laws or rules prevent them from doing so). They argue that anyone protesting in London on a weekday has too much time on their hands (more time available than they need) and they are hoping that things don’t get out of hand (become uncontrollable). The growing numbers of unemployed are hoping that the summit produces results because economic growth and job creation go hand in hand (happen or exist together).


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Idioms: Heaven

A US government spokesperson recently remarked that President Obama would ‘move heaven and earth to avoid sending American troops to another foreign country’, meaning that he would do everything possible to prevent this happening.

A marriage or relationship made in heaven is very happy and successful, as in ‘The merger of the two companies wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven‘.

If you enjoyed something very much, you can say I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, as in ‘A two-week all expenses paid holiday in Mauritius! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven‘.

If the heavens open, it starts raining very heavily, as in ‘We were just walking home from the pub when the heavens opened and we got absolutely soaked to the skin’.

The expression heaven help us (or them, him, etc.) can be used in two ways. It can be used for saying that you hope something will not happen, as in ‘There’s no fire escape in the building. Heaven help us if there’s a fire’. It can also be used for saying that if something bad happens, the result will be very bad for the person or persons mentioned, as in ‘They are armed and dangerous. Heaven help anyone who tries to stop them’.

The expression heaven only knows is used for saying that you do not know something or you cannot imagine it, as in ‘They’ve not only stolen the car, they’ve taken our credit cards and money too. Heaven only knows how we’re going to get home’.

Finally, if something stinks to high heaven, it smells very, very bad.




Idioms: In sickness and in health

How are you feeling today? Perhaps you’re feeling a bit under the weather (not feeling well) or maybe you’re not quite yourself today (not in your normal mental or physical state). You might be coming down with something (about to get a less serious illness like a cold or flu), especially if there’s something going round(an illness like flu or a stomach upset that a lot of people are catching and giving to each other). In any event, you’re going to have to call in sick (phone someone at your workplace to tell them you are too ill to come to work).

If you are genuinely ill (or have a hangover), you might feel a bit rough (not very well), or, in more serious cases, you might feel like death warmed up (feel absolutely awful). If a hangover was the cause of your troubles, the hair of the dog (an alcoholic drink taken in the morning) could be one solution. It might make matters worse but it could be just what the doctor ordered (exactly what you need or want).

Whatever has happened, you will simply have to take your medicine (accept the situation without complaining). Within a short period you will probably be on the road to recovery (starting to feel better) and in no time at all you might be feeling as right as rain (healthy again after an illness) and feel as fit as a fiddle (in very good shape).


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