There are some phrases we hear often in English that just don’t mean what they say.  For example, my daughter comes into the kitchen. ‘There’s nothing on the telly. I’m bored to death.’ She obviously isn’t dead.

She is walking talking, making tea, eating a biscuit – she never gets bored of chocolate biscuits. Her  words though serve to emphasise just how very bored she is.  She could have said ‘Bored stiff’ – dead bodies stiffen after all.

She is recovering from a long illness and when she has finished a long day at work has little energy for more than just sitting or even lying on the settee and watching television. Over time it is to be hoped she will improve, at present she could best be described as  a couch potato, a phrase we hear all too often in these days of mass unemployment.   Potatoes are of course vegetables, and, without help , vegetables stay exactly where they are placed. They have no motivating power.

There are lots of other phrases which don’t say exactly what they mean, yet serve well to explain what is going on, the experience perhaps of the speaker.

Has anyone ever called you a chicken for instance? What did they mean? They certainly weren’t  suddenly aware that you had sprouted feathers and wings. Being a chicken refers not to how you look, but your behaviour. Think about how chickens behave when danger threatens. They make a fuss and then they scatter, getting as far away as possible from harm. A sensible act in many ways, but if you just aren’t facing up to something that needs to be dealt with, a necessary visit to the dentist maybe, then being a chicken isn’t such a good thing.  

On a similar topic it is cold in here this morning. The sun is hidden behind dark clouds and the heating is off. The calendar tells me it is the end of April, but the temperature just now  is more like that of February. I am wearing a short sleeved top and my arms look a little like a plucked chicken as it is covered with  small raised areas – in English these are called goose bumps. This is a bit odd as most of us are more likely to have seen chicken skin than that of a goose.  Perhaps geese were more common in earlier times. I’m sure there must be a language somewhere which decided this is actually chicken skin.

Another odd phrase is ‘Keep an eye on.’  Earlier today I was writing about critical care nursing.  An important part of that role is of course observing what is happening – keeping an eye on the patient, but if that is all that happens then the patient   is unlikely to get well. Keeping an eye on actually means look and react as necessary. If I am going down the garden and I say to my husband  ‘ Can you keep an eye on the cake please.’ then what I am actually saying is ‘Can you be responsible. Can you look after the cake in the oven, turning the oven off when it is ready and taking the cake out and putting it on a rack to cool. I’ll ice it later.’ Of course that is a lot of words, so ‘Can you keep an eye on the cake.’ is a kind of shorthand in this case.

You will come across lots of these slightly odd phrases. Some are easy to work out, others more difficult. If you come across them and don’t understand just write them down and then,  when you have the chance, search for them on the net, or even better, ask an English speaker what they mean. Once you do discover the meaning try and use the phrase. This will help to fix it in your mind, but be careful you use it in the correct context.  As you can imagine, these kinds of saying are open to misunderstanding.

Number of characters (without spaces): 2,831.00 Number of words: 671.00 Number of sentences: 43.00 Average number of characters per word : 4.22 Average number of syllables per word : 1.41 Average number of words per sentence: 15.60 Indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading Gunning Fog index: 8.69 Grade level needed to comprehend the text Coleman Liau index: 7.13 Flesch Kincaid Grade level: 7.15 ARI (Automated Readability Index): 6.24 SMOG: 8.85 Flesch Reading Ease : 71.60