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Archive Language Point 79

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Idioms: Life and living

Helen, Alice and Tim in the living room

Idioms - background

Idioms use language metaphorically rather than literally. If you 'let your hair down', it means you relax and enjoy yourself, not that you untie your hair and let it fall.

Idioms are also fixed groups of words so you can't change the wording of an idiom. For example, you can say 'He calls a spade a spade' to mean that he's very clear and direct, but you can't say 'He calls a hammer a hammer.'

How life is going:

To be stuck in a rut: to live or work in a situation that never changes, so you feel bored. A rut is a deep narrow track left in soft ground by a wheel, so you are stuck in something which only goes in one direction and which you cannot escape.

"Working for this supermarket is not good for me. I'm just stuck in a rut, stacking the same shelves with the same products every day. I wish I could do something different."

To turn over a new leaf: to make a fresh start; to change your life in a positive way, perhaps to stop a bad habit or to make a positive change to your character. 'New leaf' refers to a blank page in a book, so you turn over a new leaf to start again.

"Since his arrest for vandalism, little Johnny has turned over a new leaf. I even saw him picking up litter the other day."

To be on an even keel: for things to be steady and stable, without any sudden changes. The 'keel' refers to the bottom of a ship. So, if it is even, the ship is stable.

"After all my problems last year with the divorce and losing my job, I'm on a much more even keel now. I've got a new job and I've found a nice place to rent."

How you are living life:

To let your hair down: to relax and enjoy yourself, when normally you don't relax much. A woman may tie her hair up on her head: if she lets it down she releases it and it hangs free. In the same way, if you relax, you release yourself and behave more freely.

"I haven't been out to a party for ages - I've been too busy with my new job. So, tonight I'm going to let my hair down and enjoy myself!"

To burn the candle at both ends: to exhaust yourself by overworking or doing too much of one (or more than one) activity. If you burn a candle at both ends, it is soon finished.

"You can't keep burning the candle at both ends . You can't do that job and also work on the computer every night. You need to relax properly."

To burn the midnight oil: to stay awake late at night, especially to study or work. Before electricity, lamps were fuelled by oil, so if you stayed up late you were burning oil at midnight.

"There's only one week until the exams, and I haven't done any revision yet. I'm going to have to burn the midnight oil if I want to pass the exams."

To paint the town red: to have a lively, enjoyable night out, often to celebrate something.

"I'm going to paint the town red tonight. I passed all my exams with A grades! So, I think we'll go to my favourite restaurant, then a couple of bars and then let's go clubbing!"

How you talk about life:

To call a spade a spade: to describe something as it exactly is; to avoid euphemisms, even if doing this might upset or offend people.

"If I don't like a meal I always tell the cook. I don't say that the flavour could have been a little stronger. I tell them it was tasteless. I call a spade a spade and I don't care what people think."

To beat around the bush: to avoid or delay talking about something embarrassing or unpleasant.

"I know it's difficult but don't beat around the bush. Tell them directly and firmly that they are being sacked because their work is not good enough. It'll be worse if you take a long time to tell them, and if the message isn't clear."

To cut to the chase: to immediately start dealing with the important part of something. This idiom comes from the movies. If you cut to the chase, you go to the exciting part of the film, when the good guys are chasing the bad guys. You ignore the boring conversational scenes.

"Ok, I'm going to cut to the chase. This restaurant is losing money for one reason only. And that reason is the cooking - it's awful."

To not pull any punches: to show your disapproval or criticism clearly, without trying to hide anything or weaken the strength of the criticism. If a boxer pulls a punch, he/she doesn't hit with his/her full possible force.

"Well, the new restaurant manager didn't pull any punches. He just told us the food was disgusting and we have to improve."


moping / moping around
staying at home being miserable and inactive because you are unhappy

television (informal)

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