Saturday, July 31, 2010

Literal vs. Figurative, Pt. II

For the idiom just posted below, some English natives might write, "Melissa is literally a ray of sunshine for everyone at the office."

This would be completely incorrect. Literally, Melissa is a human being, not a ray of light. Figuratively, she might be a ray of sunshine, but certainly not literally.

Using "She's a real ray of sunshine" is using a much lighter touch.

In both cases, the culprit is the common use of exaggeration in English. Those who say "a real ray of sunshine" try to use the word "real" as a strengthener; that is, a word to add emphasis to the sentence, like the bold I am using for this text (if you are seeing the text here on the blog, anyway). Rather than, for example, shouting the idiom out, people use certain words for emphasis.

Long ago, someone could say "a virtual ray of sunshine" and that would be strong enough. In popular American culture, people have become so accustomed to exaggeration that they will literally say, "She's literally a ray of sunshine." Nonetheless, this is wrong.

It is never correct to use a word as strong as literally for something that is not correct and true in reality, rather than in a figurative expression. More importantly, you cannot possibly sound well educated and articulate if you abuse the word "literally" for things that are not literal.

If only all native speakers followed this advice.

A Ray Of Sunshine

Figuratively, sunshine is strongly related to happiness. Therefore, a ray of sunshine is someone or something that brings happiness to others. Ex.: "Melissa always comes to work with a smile of her face. She's a real ray of sunshine to everyone at the office."

Friday, July 30, 2010

Teflon and Velcro

Both Teflon and Velcro are trademarks for artificial substances. Teflon is a coating used because it is low friction. Velcro is used because it sticks very well to other Velcro; it is used for simple shoes. A Velcro strap attaches to another Velcro strap without the need for a buckle. As a side effect, other substances tend to stick to Velcro in unwanted ways; this is particularly problematic for cotton (a common part of socks).

When used idiomatically, for example, applying to American presidents, "a Teflon president" is a president to whom no scandal will stick. "A Velcro president" is a president to whom all scandals seem to stick, even those that ought not negatively affect him personally.

Originally, "Teflon" was used as an idiomatic adjective with wide usage (such as with John Gotti, "The Teflon Don," a noted American Mafia leader who for many years escaped punishment, being found innocent in several criminal trials). Since Velcro sticks to anything, journalists have adopted "Velcro" as the opposite of Teflon, and idiomatically use the word to spice up news stories.


Under A Cloud

Full version: "Under a cloud of suspicion." Someone under a cloud is someone who is suspected of wrongdoing without clear evidence of guilt. Ex.: "As rumors of a plea deal emerge, Representative Charles Rangel remains under a cloud of suspicion of ethics violations despite denying all wrongdoing." (This is a real case happening right now.) Despite denials, allegations that have not been proven in a trial (a trial which may never occur of a plea deal happens) have clouded Rep. Rangel's reputation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stealing Someone's Thunder

To "steal someone's thunder" is an expression for taking the credit and praise for something someone else did. That is, someone else does the work, but you take the credit. Ex.: "Brian worked for a whole week on that project, but Dave acted like it was all his doing. You shouldn't go stealing someone else's thunder like that." Dave took credit for Brian's hard work.

In the movie "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief," a character steals the thunderbolt of the ancient Greek god, Zeus. While fiction, this would be stealing someone's thunder figuratively and literally.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hitting the Sack

As detailed in "hitting the hay," sacks filled with hay were once used as mattresses in the United States. Thus, the expression "hitting the hay" came into wide use as a metaphor for going to bed and going to sleep. Ex.: "I'll hit the sack after I finish watching Jay Leno." (Jay Leno's comedy show is a late night television program, so anyone watching it is automatically up late to begin with.)

Hitting the Hay

Hitting the hay is an expression for going to sleep. Even when a far greater percentage of English-speaking society lived on a farm, humans did not actually sleep on hay itself; hay is made of straw, and straw prickles. Many domesticated animals, however, can sleep on hay just fine. More importantly, hay stuffed in sacks was often used as mattresses in the United States at the start of the 20th century (circa 1900). Thus, hitting the hay became an idiom for laying down on one's bed and going to sleep. Ex.: "I'm going to hit the hay right after making this last blog post..." This means, I will go to sleep after making this last blog post.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Introducing Environment Idioms!

I'm going to move on to idioms about the weather, geography, and in general, the environment. Food idioms, both those used on this blog and many that have not, will be gathered in an upcoming eBook that I will call Food for Thought - Expressing Ourselves Through Food . Most of the preparation work is complete. It is not fully ready yet, and I have not decided on a price, but it will not be a free eBook - I will be selling it for a small, fair price. I have to put food on the table, too :) - Jeremiah Bourque

And yes, putting food on the table is itself an expression. It means earning enough money to fulfill normal, everyday life needs.

Digging Deep

Figuratively speaking, "digging" is searching, even if it has nothing to do with physical soil. "Digging deep" means to spend a great deal of effort searching for something. Ex.: "I had to dig deep to find the answer to question #5 on the exam. It was a tough one!" The speaker had to explore his or her own mind deeply to find the answer. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Literally, something is cheesy when it has a great deal of cheese - a tasty, but fattening food - on top of it. Figuratively, something is cheesy when it has a great deal of emotional exploitation and little substance. Ex.: "Teen romance movies are so cheesy. The plot's thin and the acting's second rate. Why do people watch them?!" This is the polar opposite of meaty.


Something is literally meaty when it is rich in high-protein meat. Figuratively, something is meaty when it is full of substance, that is, rich material that makes the mind think. Ex.: "That documentary on the samurai was pretty meaty. There were lots of facts about ancient Japan in it." Thus, there was a great deal of detail and information.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

English Idioms in Formal and Informal Speech

In response to a question, I would like to take a moment and explain the relationship of this last batch of food idioms to English speech and discourse.

Idioms are, by their very nature, informal, for the simple reason that they cannot be read literally. You will never find idioms used in throne speeches by the Queen of England, or in government regulations.

You will find idioms everywhere else.

There are degrees of formality. Idioms may not be used to the same degree in high level business meetings as they are in workplace gossip about the local post office, but they will be used, because for English natives, they make comprehension easier, not harder. Often something can be expressed with an idiom far quicker and better than with a long sentence.

For the last three idioms we covered, the big cheese, a bad egg, and a bad apple, these expressions might seem slightly dated to the Facebook generation, but they are nonetheless very, very common in mainstream American English, the sort heard and spoken around the world. They are used in classic works of American literature. They are used without regard for the fact a non-native speaker might not understand them; all graduates of secondary education in America are expected to know such basic expressions. They are not slang; they are used across a wide range of speech, from the highly informal to the quite formal. They are just not used in perfectly formal contexts, such as those I mentioned earlier.

The reason I have not been assigning formality ratings or commonness of use ratings to my Idioms posts, with some sort of five-star system, is for two reasons.

One, I have made a point of posting only common English idioms, those commonly encountered precisely because they are used in a wide variety of circumstances. This may not have been obvious. Unfortunately, since that is the approach I have taken, it is a waste of everyone's time for me to explicitly say an idiom is common. Right now, they all are, because food idioms are so common in general.

Two, there is no systematic data on how common a particular idiom is. Furthermore, any such data would only be good within a particular region of the English-speaking world. An idiom commonly used in Alabama may be as rare as hen's teeth on Rhode Island. Even if I knew, frequency would vary by region and dialect to the point of being useless in a rating system.

So, I'm just doing the best I can with this. Thank you for your understanding, and do not be afraid of asking more questions. I appreciate them and am happy to reply.

A Bad Apple

A "bad apple" is someone who might not be in trouble with the law (as is the case for "a bad egg"), but is a person who has a bad attitude (often about work), who is a negative influence in a team, and who is generally not pleasant to work with or be around. Ex.: "That guy we just hired? I think he's a bad apple. He snaps at co-workers; he's becoming a real distraction." The new employee is creating negativity around him.

A Bad Egg

Figuratively, a bad egg is someone who is often involved in trouble, such as petty crime, vandalism, and so forth. Ex.: "I don't want you hanging around with that boy! He's a bad egg. He'll get you arrested someday!" Here, "that boy" is well known as a delinquent and is involved with shady things (though not necessarily on a serious level... yet).

The Big Cheese

In an organization, the big cheese is the person in charge of a particular branch. Big cheeses, as a group, are synonymous with Very Important Persons (V.I.P.s). Ex.: "No, I don't want to speak to his assistant. I want to talk to the big cheese as soon as possible." Here, "the big cheese" is the only person with the actual authority to make things happen.

Filling the Void

In food idioms, "the void" is the emptiness of the stomach, both literal and the "feeling" of hunger. Food that "fills the void" satisfies raw hunger - but does nothing else. It is not necessarily tasty, but at the very least, does not taste awful enough to be outright rejected. Ex.: "So how was the meal you had at that restaurant?" "It filled the void." "...That's not much of a compliment!" <- For an expensive restaurant meal to only "fill the void" would be taken as an understated insult towards the restaurant.

One's Bread and Butter

Idiomatically speaking, a person's, or an organization's, bread and butter is the core or heart of that person or group's activities. Ex.: "Microsoft's Windows operating system is its bread and butter. Even so, Microsoft has expanded into the video game console market, where it competes with Sony and Nintendo." Here, Windows is Microsoft's main business activity, while video games might be considered "gravy," figuratively speaking.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Piece of Cake

A task that is "like eating a piece of cake" is a task that is easy. Cake, while fattening, is easy to digest. Therefore, doing a task like eating cake, is a task that is easy. Thus, the idiom, "a piece of cake," was born. Ex.: "Driving a car? That's a piece of cake! Flying a plane? Now that's challenging." Something that is a figurative piece of cake, is easy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Being "Out To Lunch"

A person whose mind is "out to lunch" is a person whose critical faculties and logical thinking centers are on vacation, not functioning, and so on. That is, the person who is "out to lunch" is irrational, absent-minded, unfocused, or (to use a non-scientific term), crazy. Ex.: "Bill's totally out to lunch today. I heard his girlfriend dumped him... he'd better snap out of it, or the boss is going to be on his back about it." Bill cannot focus or concentrate and is doing poorly in his job.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Making One's Mouth Water

If the smell or sight of food is making my mouth water, it is making me hungry. My mouth is generating saliva in anticipation of eating food. Used figuratively, this is an idiom for anticipation in general. Ex.: "My mouth's watering at the thought of buying the new Google Android phone. I can't wait!" This expresses eager excitement. Does a cell phone make your mouth water?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In A Nutshell

A nutshell is a small package provided by Mother Nature, containing a seed. The expression "in a nutshell" is for something that can be explained, represented, or summarized, in a small package. Ex.: "Vegetarianism In A Nutshell" is a website devoted to explaining vegetarianism in a short, concise, and efficient manner

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Egg on your Face

To unknowingly have a piece of egg on your face is a dinnertime embarrassment. To figuratively have "egg on your face" is to be embarrassed by something unrelated to food. Ex.: "Apple has egg on its face after its claims the iPhone 4's call signal problems are 'software based' now that Consumer Reports has established, through testing by its engineers, that the problem is indeed a hardware based design flaw." (I have personally written about this issue for - Jeremiah)

A Hot Potato

A hot potato is far too hot for the bare human hand to hold. A topic or issue that is a figurative "hot potato" is too hot to handle; everyone wants to push the issue aside and avoid responsibility. It is a controversial or sensitive topic. Ex.: "Carnival Drops Antigua Like A Hot Potato." This means, Carnival (the cruise line) dropped Antigua from its ports of call list without any warning or debate, as if Antigua was physically too hot to hold onto. (This headline was on 30 Sept., 2009)

Hitting the Sauce

To "hit the sauce," figuratively, is to drink alcoholic beverages, usually in a regular manner. Ex.: "Old Tom's hitting the sauce again. He just won't give his liquor up, even if it kills him." Sounds like liquor really might kill old Tom, but he is unable or unwilling to quit his alcohol drinking habit.

Introducing: Fun with Food

I have decided I need to focus on fun things in the English language. Specifically, I will be focusing on food idioms (and also, as opportunities permit, food proverbs and other related sayings). Eventually, I will release eBooks on this subject that will include content posted on this blog and mirrored on English Idioms on Facebook.

Gravy Train

A gravy train is a job that is paying you more money than the work is actually worth. Therefore, you are not just receiving your meal; you are receiving gravy on top of it, as a metaphor for additional, surplus pay. Ex.: "That secretary's on the gravy train. She's being paid way more than she's worth because she's having an affair with the boss!" Figuratively, you ride the gravy train as far as it will take you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Making a Killing

Figuratively, "making a killing" is to make a great deal of money - so much that one would think you killed someone for it. It is used as a boast in American culture, in a positive way. Ex.: "How Buffett Made A Killing On Chocolate" (an article headline) This refers to Warren Buffett, famous billionaire investor.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Making a Name For Yourself

To "make a name for yourself" is to gain fame and renown. It is to become well known; to obtain a name that is not just a name, but a name widely known to the public. Ex.: "Country singers go to Nashville in the hope of making a name for themselves."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Getting an Earful

To "get an earful" is to get an earful of words. That is, to have one's ears filled with words; these words are likely loud and angry. Ex.: "I got an earful from m boss for losing that client. I tried my best, and it wasn't my fault, but the company lost the client and the boss blamed me." Getting an earful usually means being sharply criticized.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's All Greek To Me

This means, the subject ("it") might as well be in an ancient language no one can be expected to know, like ancient Greek. Thus, the subject is unintelligible, and might as well be gibberish, nonsense; words without meaning. It is a polite way of claiming ignorance about a subject. Ex.: "Computer programming? It's all Greek to me. I don't understand any of it."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tugging on Superman's Cape

Similar to "riding someone's coattails," to be "tugging on Superman's cape" is to be along for the ride, benefiting from the work of others for one's own separate, unearned benefit. Ex.: Spammers trying to take advantage of the wonderful followers of the Facebook page, English Idioms. These people are attempting to "tug on Superman's cape" and profit purely by taking advantage of others. Shame on them.

Riding Someone's Coattails

"Riding coattails" means using the fame or popularity of another person to increase one's own fame or popularity. Someone else does all the work, while you receive credit just by being seen with the hard working person. Can also be used in a business context. Ex.: "AMD (shares) riding Intel's coattails, but will it last?" This indicates, AMD shares are rising simply by being in the same sector (computer chips) as Intel when Intel's profits are up (but not AMD's, specifically).

Make Do With Less

In these difficult economic times, many individuals and families are "making do with less." To make do with less is to stay afloat rather than figuratively sink under the surface of the water (and drown). Ex.: "Ever since Martha was laid off, her family had to make do with less and cut back on spending on luxury items." This means spending less money on things that are not absolutely necessary.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Caught On Tape

When someone is "caught on tape," the person has been recorded (either by a cassette, which has literal "tape," or more likely, some kind of digital data recorder) doing something bad, embarrassing, or scandalous (or all three). The word "caught" implies "caught in the act" of something improper. Ex.: "Mel Gibson's latest rant was caught on tape..."

Armed to the Teeth

This means, to be heavily armed; to be carrying multiple weapons. The phrase originates from pirates in the 1600's. In those days, pistols were single-shot, so a pirate had to carry many to be considered "armed to the teeth." Ex.: "The gunman was armed to the teeth! He had a rifle, three pistols and two knives." (This is just an example.)