This week: Idioms and Imagery
by Victor Greeson
One things that makes any new language difficult are the sayings,
proverbs and idioms that make up a big part of day-to-day speech.
The meaning of these things are obvious to the speakers because
they have heard them since childhood, and know the stories and
jokes they refer to or come from. If you think about your own language,
you will find many examples of things you say every day that would
make no sense to someone who only knew the meanings of each word
in the sayings and typical phrases you use. There are, of course,
thousands and thousands of idioms in English, and this week's
Talk the Talk can only show you a few, but
that's how it goes.
Speaking of which,
That's how it goes is one of a large number
of expressions that mean that life is difficult - you won't always get what
you want, or won't get it easily, and that you had better get used to it. Others
include: Who said life was fair?, That's the was the cookie crumbles,
Tough!, Them's the breaks, and Life's a bitch, and then you die.
Tables are part of daily life, so they show up in a lot
of sayings and expressions. To turn the tables is to change a
situation that was not in one's favor into one that is in one's favor.
This may come from card or board games, where turning the table around would
do just that - turn the winner into the loser, and vice-versa. (Speaking of
which, vice-versa means "the same thing, with the order reversed",
or "the same thing in the opposite direction". So, here, the loser becomes the
Business done under the table is sneaky or illegal, and
most of all hidden. Imagine someone passing a wad of money to someone under the
table so no-one can see what's going on. If someone pays an employee to do a job
in cash so that there is no record (or paper trail) indicating
that the employee worked for them (to avoid taxes or other legal requirements),
then the employee is being paid under the table. This may
help you remember that legitimate, legal activitity is above-board.
If you go to a meeting, what you bring to the table is your
contribution - what you've prepared ahead of time, or what you can add to the
meeting. When you begin talking, you may be placing an issue on the
table. Oddly, if people at the meeting decide not to talk about something
any further, the will table the issue.
If you earn money to support your family, you are putting food on the
table, and also bringing home the bacon. This would
make you a bread-winner. You might get to file your taxes
as the head of the household. Enough about tables for now!
In most of the world, most people lived on farms for most of history. The
U.S. is no exception. And so, barnyard animals figure in many idioms.
The horse usually signifies strength, speed, and spirited nature,
wild horses even moreso. If wild horses couldn't drag me
away, then I'm determined to stay. On the other hand, horsing
around is playing, or wasting time playfully - something like
messing around, or goofing off. Horse-feathers!
is an archaic expression meaning "That's nonsense!", (usually replaced these
days by more vulgar expressions). Why? Because horses don't have feathers!
Information or advice that comes from the
horse's mouth is from the original source, or from an experienced person
who knows what she is talking about. A one-horse town is a small town.
A dark horse is a candidate or contender that no-one expects to win
that suddenly does win, or looks like it might. But don't beat a dead
horse - it means that you have continued to do something long after you
should have stopped. If you get on your high horse about something,
you are being over-moralistic, (or holier-than-thou), acting like you
are the only one who knows right from wrong. A "Western" film or novel
(one about the Old West days of cowboys and Indians) may be called a horse
opera. And If wishes were horses, beggars would ride is an
old and true saying. And remember - Don't look a gift horse in the
mouth. This means that you should appreciate a gift, no matter what, and
not analyze it too much. Horses' ages and quality were checked by looking at their
Pigs have a very bad reputation for being gross hedonists,
disgusting, disagreeable, grumpy, unclean, ugly, and so on. This may be unfair
to pigs, but it's very much part of the language. If you're
eating like a pig, you're eating a lot, quickly, and not caring
much what it is you're eating. Pigs live in a pig sty, and if
people say you do, too, it means your home is messy, if not filthy. Pigs also
like to wallow in mud, so if you're happy as a pig in mud, you're
quite happy. Pigs eat unappealing food called slop.
If someone calls some food pig slop, it's not a compliment!
If a person is a pig, or piggish, they are either
sloppy, ugly, stubborn, or cruel - or a police officer. For unknown reasons,
pig is the standard insult for police. I smell bacon
is a comment sometimes made when a police officer (or possibly a security guard)
has been seen. Other references may be made to bacon or
pork. Police officers hate this very much,
and they will resent such talk. They usually won't mind the
casual, but not insulting cop. Be careful out there!
Do you still have unanswered questions about this topic -- or
about anything else? Is there something that you would like
to see an article about? Do you have advice, ideas, or experiences
you would like to share with other international students?
Let us know -- send us a message at: CityHall@istudentcity.com