DESCRIPTION Idioms are one of the trickiest parts of the English language. Native speakers use them without thinking about them too much, but for language learners they often cause mix-ups and confusion. English Idioms Interactive is an iOS app from Cambridge English Online featuring 45 colourful cartoons illustrating some of the funniest English idioms, plus quizzes and information to help improve your knowledge and command of English idioms. The full app costs €1.99 but there is a 'lite' version with three idioms at each of the three levels.
COMMENT This app is probably better suited to more advanced learners because even I (!) couldn't guess some of the idioms at Level One (I did get the one above though). Although the illustrations and quizzes are fun, what's really useful from a language learning viewpoint is the detailed information on each idiom. In fact, you don't even have to buy the app, because 30 of the 45 idioms are available for free on the Cambridge Online English website. And while you're at it, you should check out some of the other excellent resources they have for English learners.
QUESTION Can you identify the idiom illustrated above? See answer here.
BACKGROUND US conservatives have lined up to condemn the deal reached between major world powers and Iran. The agreement limits Iranian nuclear activity in return for the lifting of crippling international economic sanctions. The US Congress has 60 days in which to consider the deal, though President Barack Obama has said he will veto any attempt to block it. Israel's government has strongly criticised the agreement. Negotiations between Iran and six world powers - the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany - began in 2006. The so-called P5+1 want Iran to scale back its sensitive nuclear activities to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iran, which wants international sanctions lifted, has always insisted that its nuclear work is peaceful. Full story >>
THE CARTOON The cartoon by Adams from The Daily Telegraph uses a graphic representation of an English idiom to comment on the deal. If someone runs rings (a)round you, they are very much better, faster, or more successful at something than you are: Our girls' hockey team have run rings round all their opponents this year. The cartoon shows Iran's President Hassan Rouhani literally running rings around President Obama, but the rings form the nuclear symbol. The message seems to be that Rouhani has got the better of Obama and the best of the deal, which would explain why he seems so happy and Obama looks rather bewildered.
LANGUAGE NOTE According to The Phrase Finder, 'Running rings around' originated as an English hunting term. It was used by fox-hunters but more often by those indulging in hare-coursing, which is now banned in the UK. The circling runs made by the hare in its attempts to outrun the chasing greyhounds were called rings. The first person to refer in print to rings with that meaning was the Member of Parliament for Ipswich, William Churchill, in 1717.
This cartoon by Gary Barker from The Times relates to the ongoing Greek Debt Crisis. In the left-hand panel, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is shown holding a gun to the head of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This was the situation following last week's referendum in which over 60% of Greeks voted to reject EU austerity measures, and Tsipras (briefly) seemed to have the upper hand. However, in the right-hand panel, the situation is reversed, and it's Merkel who is holding the gun to Tsipras's head. In fact, Angela Merkel has called Tsipras's bluff, and is threatening a Grexit if he does not get the Greek parliament to agree to an even more draconian austerity package.
IDIOMS 1. If you hold or put a gun to someone's head, you force someone to do something by using threats. • How could I refuse when she was holding a gun to my head? 2. The saying 'a week is a long time in politics' is usually attributed to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s. It means that in politics, a lot of change can happen in a short space of time.
The cover of the latest issue of Private Eye ("the UK's best-selling news and current affairs magazine") features several English idioms relating to parts of the body.
1. If something costs and arm and a leg, it is very expensive. • I'd love to buy a Rolls-Royce, but they cost an arm and a leg. (See here for the origin of this expression). 2. If you lend someone a hand, you help them. • If everybody lends a hand, we'll finish the job more quickly. 3. If you cut someone off at the knees, you humiliate them or force them to do what you want. • If these measures deprive unions of resources, it will cut them off at the knees.
Of course, the joke is that the (Greek) statue is missing all the body parts referenced in the idioms.
The cover of the latest issue of Private Eye shows beleaguered/embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter showing his hands, which appear to be covered in oil. The speech bubble has him saying, 'My hands are clean!'
EXPLANATION The cover illustrates a common English idiom. If you say that someone's hands are clean or that someone has clean hands, you mean that they have done nothing wrong. • "I am not worried about the investigators checking me out," he said. "My hands are clean." The joke is that while Blatter protests his innocence in the speech bubble, his hands are dirty, telling a different story. In fact, he is currently under investigation following the corruption scandal that has rocked world football.
BACKGROUND Sepp Blatter has been returned to serve a fifth term as the head of FIFA. The 79-year-old defeated Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein in the presidential contest in Zurich Friday. His victory came despite a week marked by arrests and investigations tied to alleged corruption, which led to calls for the dismissal of the organization's longtime leader. Read more >>
THE CARTOON The cartoon by Dave Brown from The Independent shows a footballer taking a penalty. The ball, which is on the penalty spot, is emblazoned with the face of Sepp Blatter.
EXPLANATION The cartoon caption 'On the Spot' is a play on an English idiom. To put someone on the spot means to ask someone a question that is difficult or embarrassing to answer. • I’m going to put you on the spot and ask what you would have done in his position. The FIFA arrests have put Blatter on the spot, and in the cartoon he's on the penalty spot.
WARNING Learners of English should use swearwords very sparingly, and probably not at all. They risk sounding silly or giving offence unintentionally. However, it's always useful to be able to understand swearwords, which are a common part of everyday language.
NOTE BBC's America's Anglophenia ("British Culture with an American Accent") consists of a blog, a YouTube Channel (where you can find all the other videos), and a Facebook page. Although the basic aim is to explain British culture to Americans, these resources are great for learners of English at intermediate level or above.
Today (April 22nd) is Earth Day (see previous post), and this cartoon by Kal from The Economist provides a timely reminder, if one was needed, about the various threats to the global environment. In the cartoon shows what can best be described as a juggernaut destroying everything in its path, as an assortment of wild animals flee for their lives.
COMMENTS The various global threats are fairly clear, but there are one or two points worth commenting on. The comment made by the two birds features a play on the verb 'advance' and the adjective 'advanced'. The 'most advanced species' is, of course, humans. The remark is meant to be ironic, as is the 'Happy Earth Day' flag. The driver has his head in a bag of sand, which is a reference to the idiom 'to have/hide/stick/bury one's head in the sand'. This means to refuse to think about an unpleasant situation. • Teachers can't just hide their heads in the sand and not try to find out why students aren't doing better.
BACKGROUND With less than a month left to the May 7 election, Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and opposition Labour party are tied at 34 percent, according to a YouGov poll for The Sun newspaper published on Friday. Labour and Conservatives remain unchanged at 34 percent from a day earlier, according to the latest YouGov poll. The poll put UK Independence Party unchanged at 14 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 9 percent, up 2 points, and the Greens unchanged at 5 percent, the newspaper said. The two main parties have been neck-and-neck in the polls since the beginning of the year, with neither establishing a lead beyond the typical 3 percent margin of error in most surveys. Full story >>
THE CARTOON The cartoon by Brian Adcock from The Independent shows UK PM David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband neck and neck as they head for the finish line in the election race. Way behind them come the leaders of the other main parties: Nigel Farage (UKIP), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats). However, the prize which awaits the first one to cross the finish line is a hangman's noose marked 'Hung Parliament'.
IDIOM - NECK AND NECK This saying goes back to at least the early to mid-19th century where it was a common term used in horse races. Sometimes, during a race, horses and their riders will be evenly matched, running side by side with each other. When this happens, the horses are said to be neck and neck. Today, this phrase is used, not just in reference to horses that are evenly matched, but also to other types of competitions where things are close. • Mary and Ann were neck and neck in the spelling contest. Their scores were tied.
EXPLANATION The cartoonist is playing on the expression neck and neck and the fact that a condemned man has to put his neck in the noose before he is hanged. The noose represents a 'hung parliament', which is an election outcome in which no party gains an absolute majority of seats. When that happens, the party with the most seats will usually try to form a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties (which is what happened after the 2010 UK General Election). The cartoonist is highlighting the fact that the most likely result on May 7th is another hung parliament, which will make governing more difficult for whoever becomes Prime Minister (and it's bound to be either Cameron or Miliband).
BACKGROUND After years of often-breathless speculation about her future, Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in politics: She’s running for president. The former first lady and secretary of state officially entered the 2016 presidential race with a video announcement to supporters Sunday, saying she wants to be the champion of “everyday Americans.” Read more >>
THE CARTOON The cartoon by Bruce Plante, staff cartoonist for the Tulsa World, shows Hillary setting out on the campaign trail, suitcase in hand (NH stands for New Hampshire, by the way). Her husband Bill, who is wearing only a pair of boxer shorts with a heart motif, waves her off with the words, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do.", which leaves Hillary looking perplexed.
EXPLANATION "Don't do anything I wouldn't do" is a humorous expression sometimes said to a person who is going on a journey. Literally, it means that if the person saying this would find an action improper/immoral, then you should not do it either. Their advice is to behave yourself. However, the statement can be used with sexual connotations, and in the cartoon there's clearly a reference to husband Bill's sex scandals, top of which is the Monica Lewinsky affair.
NOTE The Cagle Post has a good collection of cartoons about Hillary's decision to run for president.
This video is part of a series called English In A Minute by VOA Learning English on YouTube. There are 23 videos at the moment, each explaining a common English idiom or saying. For example, do you know what is meant by the expression, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"? Click here to find out.
BACKGROUND The UK inflation rate fell to 0% in February, the lowest since records began, official figures show. Lower prices for food and computer goods helped to cut the rate from 0.3% in January, official figures show. February's figure is the lowest rate of Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation since estimates of the measure began in 1988. Read more >>
THE CARTOON The cartoon by Kipper Williams from The Guardian shows an old horse (note the glasses, lack of teeth, slippers, and walking frame) marked 'Inflation' telling a younger horse 'My galloping days are behind me'.
EXPLANATION When used of a horse, the verb 'gallop' means 'to run fast so that all four feet come off the ground together in each act of forward movement'. So when the horse says that his galloping days are behind him, he means that he's now too old to gallop. However, we also use the word 'galloping' to describe very high inflation that is out of control. • Latin America is no longer the continent of galloping inflation. The cartoonist is playing on the literal and figurative meanings of 'gallop'.
IDIOM If someone says that their (-ing) days are behind them, it means that they have given up an activity, for whatever reason. • My drinking days are behind me. • Now that his playing days are behind him, he wants to become a manager.
COMMENTARY This cartoon contains a lot of grammar points, wordplay, phrasal verbs, and idioms. To get further information, just hover your mouse over the words highlighted in pale blue.
TRANSCRIPT HAMLET: Being overweight is holding my career back. If I were thinner, I could go up for romantic lead parts. BRUTUS: Aye, Hamlet, happen you could. But if you lost weight, think of all those character roles you’d miss out on. HAMLET: Tubby or not tubby, that is the question. BRUTUS: Actually, I’m in a bit of a pickle myself. My agent’s put me up for a job on the so-called 'English Riviera'. HAMLET: But Brutus, old chap, if you take a job on the English Riviera, you’ll be miles away, and out of the theatrical loop. BRUTUS: Torbay or not Torbay, that is the question. FRENCH COW: Excuse me, mes amis, but I couldn’t help but hear your conversation. For I too am on the horns of a, how you say, dilemma. HAMLET: We say ‘dilemma’. FRENCH COW: Aye, that’s right, dilemma. I want to act, but my family in France are putting pressure on me to return home to Seine et Marne and become involved in the local soft cheese industry. HAMLET: Bummer. FRENCH COW: To Brie or not to Brie, that is the question. BUZZ THE BEE: Bzzzzzzzzz. Hello Hamlet. Excuse me but I too …
NOTE You can watch Laurence Olivier reciting Hamlet's 'to be, or not to be' soliloquy, here.