Skip to main contentAccess keys helpA-Z index
BBC Learning English - celebrating 10 years online. Enjoy these pages from our archives.
Note: Most links on these pages don't work, the pages are just for fun.
Learning English
10 Year Special
April 3rd
WitN Archive
Index 1998
A to Z
Summer School
News English
Witn Archive
Top of the Pops
Music Directory
Index (110k)
Index (100k)
BBC World ServiceEnglish Learning Home Page


Science & medicine
Fun and games
A final test!

Life as a vet
Colourful English
Fox hunting
Record breaking

A to Z

"Colourful phrases in English"
Learning English Home
For Teachers
On Your Radio
Watch Your Language


If you have a Netscape 2 or IE 3 and above, you can look at the vocabulary as you read!

Nigel Rees spoke to us about colourful phrases in the English language - catch phrases, slogans, idioms and clichés. He's written over 30 books on the subject and he's regularly heard on the World Service as the presenter of the quiz show series "Quote, Unquote". Nigel explained the differences between the different types of phrases to be found in his book...

"There are slogans. Now these are phrases which are used to sell things or perhaps to promote political ideas. A political slogan would be 'BAN THE BOMB', meaning ban nuclear weapons. And you'll find that a lot of slogans have this alliteration - they begin with the same letter. BAN THE BOMB. Catch phrases are just any phrase which takes off. You get them particularly from show business, from films, from radio programmes, from television programmes. One that one might think of recently from the American film "Wayne's World" was that business when you make a statement and you immediately turn that statement round - you contradict it by saying 'not' at the end. So you could say "I'm a very good looking person, not!" You've just immediately reversed the thing by saying 'not' and that 'caught on' and that's why they're called 'catch phrases' because they catch on."
"Clichés. Clichés are these popular phrases which are 'worn' phrases. They are popular, but they are too popular because people always used these worn phrases. One in British English is 'at the end of the day' or 'in the final analysis'. These are really garbage phrases used to fill out a sentence, often when you're thinking of what you're going to say next. Often, you use these long, woolly phrases like, 'we'll see what happens at the end of the day' or 'only time will tell'. These are clichés often used by broadcasters and by journalists or politicians and they are not to be encouraged!"

If you're learning a language, these colourful phrases are often quite difficult to use. Nigel gave us an example of an American friend who had managed to use a very popular English phrase 'to spend a penny' incorrectly...
"He had used one of these American phrases, which is 'you've got to spend a buck to make a buck' or 'you've got to spend a dollar to make a dollar'. Now that is a business sort of phrase. It means that if you're going to be successful in business, you've actually got to spend a bit of money before you get any sort of return. Now this American said that he had been at a meeting of a group of British businessmen and he had thought, well, I'd better change this phrase so that the British people I'll be with will know what I'm talking about. So he said, "you've got to spend a penny in order to make a penny". And at this, all the British people fell about with laughter because in that, there's another British phrase which is, 'to spend a penny'. And to spend a penny means to go to the lavatory. It's one of the numerous phrases that there are; people will never say 'I am going to the lavatory' or 'I am going to the toilet'. They will always use one of these colourful phrases, so he had got it slightly wrong by not appreciating what this phrase was."

Nigel told us the story of how he traced one of his favourite phrases - 'tender loving care', also used in its abbreviated form 't.l.c.'. The first place he looked was the big Oxford English Dictionary...
"The first example they have of it is in about 1970-something or other and they define it like this: "especially solicitous care such as is given by nurses'. And what 'tender loving care' means is not medicine, but just human warmth and interest and affection. And with this, people may well be cured of whatever it is that is wrong with them. And I thought, well, it's older than that. So, I went to the BBC Gramophone library, which must be the largest collection of records in the world, and I looked in the catalogue and I came across all these songs called 'Tender Loving Care' or 'TLC' etc. and the earliest one of those was 1960 so immediately, we pushed it back. Then the next thing that happened, I was reading Ian Flemming's James Bond novel, "Goldfinger" and lo!, the last chapter is called 'TLC Treatment' and in it, James Bond explains to Pussy Galore - the wonderfully named character, Pussy Galore - precisely what it means. So that was 1959 when that book came out again, going back a bit further. And finally, I happened to be looking at the Shakespeare play, the second part of King Henry VI and in that play, there's a crowd outside the palace and they say "an answer from the king or we will all break in" and King Henry VI says in Shakespeare's play, "Go Salisbury and tell them all from me, I thank them for their tender loving care". And that was about 1590 so that's a long time ago. And what I say there is, I'm not saying that we are quoting Shakespeare when we use the phrase 'tender loving care', but perhaps we find those 3 words in that order, particularly, or as useful as Shakespeare found them. We found the same magic in those 3 words!"

Nigel explained to us what it means when someone 'coins a phrase' - they invent a new phrase...
"Well there is this magic moment which you're never actually going to be able to trace when a phrase is coined. There is another phrase which I would love to know when it started which is a saying: 'life's a bitch and then you die'. I'd love to know where that came from. It's now used in Australia quite a lot. They've made a pun out of it, 'life's a beach and then you fry' or something like that. It's a surfing slogan and I would love to know where that came from. Suddenly, it entered the language and then people started using it."


Promote: To help or encourage someone or something to succeed.

Alliteration: The use in speech or writing or several words close together which all begin with the same letter or sound.

Contradict: To put forward a statement which opposes an opinion; to say that what has just been said is untrue or incorrect.

Analysis: The process of considering something in order to understand it or explain what it consists of.

'Garbage phrases': Rubbish phrases.

'Woolly phrases': Unclear, vague, confused phrases.

Appreciating: To understand and know what is involved in a situation or problem; if you appreciate what someone has done for you, you are grateful to them.

Abbreviated: To make a word or a phrase shorter by leaving out some of the letters or by using only the first letters of each word.

Invent: If you invent something, you are the first person to think of something or make it.

Surfing: To ride over the sea waves as they break on the shore usually on a surf board; a narrow piece of wood or plastic.

BBC World Service, Bush House, Strand, London WC2B 4PH, UK
Tel: +44 (0)171 240 3456