Idiom Sunday #1: Body Parts

I love idioms. They may just be my favourite thing about language. I love them so much that I created Idiom Sunday, where every Sunday I write about five of my favourite idioms. These may be extremely useful in your IELTS Speaking exam, but only if you use them at the appropriate time. To help you to understand when that appropriate time is, Idiom Sunday is in the form of a quiz. Can you get all the answers right?

1. Have heart in the right place

His heart’s in the right place. Not so sure about his other organs.

What does it mean to ‘have one’s heart in the right place’?

A) To have good intentions, even if there are bad results (e.g. “Tom’s gifts are always tacky, but his heart’s in the right place.”)

B) To be incredibly healthy (e.g. “You ran a marathon last week? Well clearly your heart’s in the right place!”)

C) To fall in love frequently (e.g. “Dan, I’ve lost count of the number of girls you’ve ‘loved’. I can see your heart’s in the right place.”)

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Answer: A) To have good intentions, even if there are bad results.

We talk about people having their hearts in the right place if they want to do the best thing for other people, even if that ‘best thing’ isn’t quite so nice, or if the person has a lot of flaws. For example, imagine if I offered you a free lesson (which I do, by the way!), and then spent the whole lesson talking about myself. I would have done a nice thing for you, giving you a free ‘lesson’, but it wouldn’t have been very useful. We could say that my heart was in the right place. Maybe you can think of something similar?

“Mike is a nice guy, and his heart’s in the right place, but he always talks about the most boring things!”

Useful in the Speaking exam for talking about: Family (“My brother can really annoy me at times, but his heart’s in the right place”), Politics (“The Prime Minister’s heart is clearly in the right place with this houses-for-the-homeless scheme, but I just don’t think it’s going to work”), Relationships (“My girlfriend always buys me the most embarrassing gifts, but her heart’s in the right place”).

2. Itchy feet

When would you describe someone as having “itchy feet”?

A) When they have a strong  or irresistible desire to leave a place or travel somewhere(e.g.  “Looking through the brochures at the travel agency gives me itchy feet.”)

B) When they have a pain in their foot or feet (e.g. “John can’t play football tonight, he’s complaining about his itchy feet.”)

C) When they have a strong impulse to dance (e.g. “I can’t wait for the party tonight, I’ve got such itchy feet!”)

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Answer: A) When they have a strong or irresistible desire to leave a place or travel somewhere.

Yes, itchy feet has nothing to do with physical itches. The itch is more of a mental one, and the only way to scratch it is to get up and go somewhere. But when we think of moving around, we associate our movement with our feet. If we literally had itchy feet, we’d be moving our feet around a lot, so it sort of makes sense. Maybe you have an urge to travel at the moment. How could you describe this urge using ‘itchy feet’?

“Hearing the train whistle at night gives me itchy feet. It just makes me want to hop on a random train and go somewhere!”

As with most idioms, try to only use this one once in your Speaking exam. It’s a great idiom, one of my favourites (the idea of someone hopping around with literal itchy feet makes me laugh!), but you don’t want to overuse it.

Useful in the Speaking exam for talking about: Travel (“I take quite a lot of holidays. I can’t help it, I just get such itchy feet if I’m at home for too long!”), Work (“I don’t think I could work in an office job. I’d get itchy feet after just a few months and would have to move on”), Places (“My favourite place in the world is probably Ko Tao in Thailand. Just thinking about it gives me itchy feet!”)

3. Pay through the nose

Some people just don’t like wallets.

What do you think “pay through the nose” means?

A) To sniff out (find) money (e.g. “He’s got so much cash because he has a gift for paying through the nose.”)

B) To pay too much money something (e.g. “If you bring a car to the city centre, you have to pay through the nose for parking it.”)

C)  To pay for plastic surgery (e.g. “She’s over fifty years old, but she looks about thirty because she pays through the nose twice a year.”)

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Answer: B) To pay too much money for something.

We often talk about ‘paying through the nose’ when we feel like what we are paying for is too expensive. This is similar to describing an expensive purchase as a ‘rip-off’, except that ‘rip-off’ is a noun and ‘pay through the nose’ is a verb idiom. Think about restaurants, and how expensive their wine prices are, despite the fact you can get the same bottle down the shops for less than half the price. How could we use ‘pay through the nose’ to describe our experiences with wine-buying in restaurants?

“If you want a decent wine in a restaurant, you have to pay through the nose for it.”

This basically means that if you’re in a restaurant, you have to pay more money than you feel is fair if you want to drink good wine. We could also say “Don’t order wine in a restaurant. It’s a rip-off, you can get the same bottle down the shops for half the price.” However, rip-off is much more common than ‘pay through the nose’. If you use ‘pay through the nose’ in the exam, use it once and once only.

Useful in the Speaking exam for talking about: Education (“students have to pay through the nose for university now”), Free Time (“I used to go to the cinema a lot, but not now. People have to pay through the nose to sit through a movie these days”), Environment (“energy-saving measures are important, but it’s also important that the taxpayer doesn’t end up paying through the nose for them”).

4. Fly in the face of

Why would we use the idiom ‘Fly in the face of someone or something’?

A) To describe something shocking or unexpected (e.g. “‘That car came round the corner far too fast, it just flew in the face of those two boys crossing the street.”)

B) To have an argument where one person doesn’t listen to the other (e.g. “I was trying to explain to James why I don’t like the Harry Potter series, but he was just flying in the face of everything I said.”)

C) To challenge someone or something; to go against someone or something (e.g. “This idea flies in the face of everything we know about global warming.”)

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Answer: C) To challenge someone or something; to go against someone or something.

This idiom is a little trickier, but it’s a really useful one to know for the exam, especially if you’re taking the Academic module, because in academia there are often disagreements and debates. It is often seen in academic journals, and if you use it correctly it shows that you are at an advanced level of English. This also means you could use it in your Writing exam.

So how do we use it? ‘To fly in the face of something/someone’ really means to have the opposite opinion of someone else. This opinion we are challenging is often the common or widely accepted opinion. So if you said that you think global warming is a myth, we could use an example similar to the one above and say:

“Your view that global warming is a myth flies in the face of everything we have learnt about the environment.”

This idiom is not necessarily negative. We can say that Copernicus’ view that the Earth went around the Sun, rather than the other way round, flew in the face of the beliefs of the time, of supposed common sense and visual experience. But he was right, and everyone else was wrong.

Useful in the Speaking exam for talking about: Education (“I dream of a different education system for my country, but it’s one that flies in the face of the government’s current policy”), Internet (“I think the internet is a great tool. The ultra-fast exchange of information means fresh, revolutionary ideas are continually flying in the face of the status quo”), Smoking (“I don’t understand how we can still allow tobacco companies to advertise their products. It just seems to fly in the face of all the awful things we know smoking can do to you.”)

5. Elbow grease

Elbow grease in a tin. Add it to the shopping list.

Last up, what do you think ‘Elbow grease’ means?

A) To get really sweaty after exercising (e.g. “Phew, what a workout. I’ve got the elbow grease now!”)

B) To not bathe for a long time, thus developing a greasy layer on the elbow (e.g. “I really need a shower. I’m starting to get the elbow grease.”)

C) To use a lot of effort, usually when cleaning something (e.g. “It won’t take that long to clean the kitchen. Just a bit of soap and some elbow grease should do it.”)

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Answer: C) To use a lot of effort, usually when cleaning something.

Sometimes you’ll hear somebody complain that they have a stain (dirty mark) on their shirt that they just can’t get out. Or they complain that their car isn’t as shiny as it was when it was new. What can you tell them? Use some elbow grease! Perhaps you’ve experienced using elbow grease. Maybe that time when your kitchen got really dirty, and you spent hours on your hands and knees scrubbing the floors? Well, now you know: you were using elbow grease. And next time you can say it!

“The kitchen was absolutely filthy, but with a bucket of soapy water, a bit of determination, and a lot of elbow grease, we got the job done in under 2 hours.”

Useful in the Speaking exam for talking about: Family (“My brother’s house is really dirty. All he needs is a mop and some elbow grease, but all he has is the mop”), Home (“My home is always spotless, especially my kitchen. All it takes is a bit of soap and some elbow grease once a week to keep it looking nice”), Transport (“I’m very proud of my car. A few times a month I’ll bring out the wax and the elbow grease and spend a couple hours cleaning it”).

So, how did you do? Let us know in the comments section below. Hopefully this article has added some idioms to your vocabulary and you feel a bit more confident about using them in the Speaking exam. If you have any more body part idioms you want to share with me and my students, add them to the comments below! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next Sunday!

 

2 Comments
  1. Afisa Diya November 10, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Got five of them right 🙂