Exciting Adventures in the English Language and Culture

Category: A Fine Turn of Phrase

On the grapevine

On 24 May 1844 Samuel Morse presented his new invention – telegraph – to congressmen. To demonstrate its ability to speedily transmit information over great distances he sent a message from Washington to Baltimore.

The new means of communication met with great enthusiasm and soon telegraph lines criss-crossed the country.

Image by Conny Griebel from Pixabay

Rumour and gossip have been around for much longer than telegraph and like Morse’s invention have an almost magical capacity to spread information briskly, even if not in a straight line and often distorting the truth beyond recognition along the way. So, shortly after the historic demo, the phrase grapevine telegraph was coined. Over time, the word telegraph was dropped, but the grapevine has remained in the language, just like the social phenomenon it describes.

How do you know Sarah’s expecting a baby? – I heard it on the grapevine (i.e. someone, who heard it from someone else, told me).

Interestingly, the Russian equivalent of this phrase also features a 19th-century invention – the radio – as well as the country’s traditional pinafore dress sarafanсарафанное радио.

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Colour Idioms: Black

This is the final part of the mini-series on colour idioms and in today’s post we’ll be looking at idiomatic expressions with the adjective BLACK.

Image by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay

Let’s get started with the black sheep. When used idiomatically, this expression means a person who is an embarrassment or shame to their family or any other social group they belong to.

Coming from a family of high-achievers (someone who is very successful in their work), Emily, who dropped out of university and has been unable to get a decent job, is considered the black sheep.

Unsurprisingly, idioms with black, a colour traditionally associated with the dark side of life, mainly refer to rather unpleasant things. Here’s another example of this. When you do something wrong and people notice and remember it you get a black mark.

He got a black mark when his dissertation was found to contain plagiarisms.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

A black eye is what you end up with when someone hits you in the eye (ouch!).

Danny had a fight with his younger brother. He won and his sibling got a black eye.

And to finish on a positive note, a rare exception to the above mentioned rule – the new black. This expression is used to refer to things (and colours of course!) that have suddenly become fashionable or popular. Note that other words can be used instead of black in this idiom.

Pink is the new black – all fashion designers have made a generous use of it in their recent collections.

They say that for generation Z food is the new sex.

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Colour Idioms: White

This is part 4 of the series of blog posts on colour idioms and today we turn our attention to those using the adjective white.

Image by Mariano iPhotox Luchini from Pixabay

Let’s get started with as white as a sheet meaning extremely pale because you’re sick or experiencing a very strong emotion such as fear or anger.

– You’re as white as a sheet! What’s wrong?

– I think I’ve just seen a ghost!

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Colour idioms: Blue

This is part 3 of the series of posts on idiomatic expressions using colours. Previously, we had a look at some red and green idioms. Today we’ll be looking at the most common expressions using the word blue.

Image by Monionline from Pixabay

Let’s start with feel blue. Chances are you’re already familiar with this one as it’s used a lot. Blue in this informal expression means depressed, or sad and hopeless.

She’s been feeling blue ever since her boyfriend dumped her.

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Colour idioms: green

This is part 2 of the series of blog posts about colour idioms. Last time, we had a look at some red idioms, and today we’ll explore those that mention the colour green.

Image by Public Domain Pictures from Pixabay

Let’s start with have green fingers. This idiomatic expression has nothing to do with Shrek and everything to do with one of the favourite pastimes of British people – gardening. When someone says that you have green fingers, they mean you’re very good at gardening – everything you plant grows and thrives and whether you have a proper garden or just a few planters (a container for growing plants in) outside your window they look healthy and attractive.

My gran had green fingers. Her vegetable garden was her pride and joy and the envy of the neighbours.

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Colour Idioms: Red

This is part 1 of my new series of blog posts on colour idioms and we get started with the colour red.

Red hot

Image from Pixabay

If something is red hot, it’s extremely hot.

Be careful with the kettle – it’s just boiled and is red hot.

Go (as) red as a beetroot

Image by Christian Dorn from Pixabay

When you go red as a beetroot, you turn red in the face with embarrassment.

Alice went red as a beetroot when I caught her eavesdropping on my conversation with Melanie.

Red-letter day

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

This is an informal expression used to refer to a special and happy day you’ll never forget.

Ann’s husband did his best to make their 10th wedding anniversary a red-letter day for both of them.

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To Grin like a Cheshire Cat

Image by nakedprintpembrokeshir from Pixabay

In chapter 6 of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland the enigmatic Cheshire cat makes an appearance and the oft-quoted exchange takes place:

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where ―” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

They talk on for a little while and then the Cat vanishes

beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”

It’s very tempting to think that the Cheshire cat is Lewis Carroll’s invention but it’s not. The phrase to grin like a Cheshire cat (=to have a broad smile on your face) was already in use towards the end of the 18th century.

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It’s not rocket science

It’s not rocket science is commonly used to say that something is not very difficult to do or understand.

Designing a website may be a lot of work but it’s not rocket science.

The expression comes from the States.

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In one ear and out the other

I find it very annoying when people seem to listen to you, but when you later get back to what was said, you realize they can’t remember it. In this case we can say that your words went in one ear and out the other.

It went in one ear and out the other

Obviously, this has been happening for thousands of years, as one of the early written uses of the idiom dates back to the times of Ancient Rome.

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