Hi, this is Peter from the Yamashina branch of Smiths School of English. Many of my high-level students have enjoyed studying idioms over the years. An idiom is a phrase which can’t be understood literally. Few English idioms have a direct equal in Japanese. Killing two birds with one stone is one of the few examples I have come across. I have found my students like to create an image or situation to understand the meanings of many idioms. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Not my cup of tea
If something is not your cup of tea it means that you don’t like it so much. There is also though an implication that you understand many other people do like that thing. What kind of image can we make to understand this? The stereotype image of British people is of a nation of tea drinkers. Therefore, a cup of tea is a much-loved thing. Saying that something is not your cup of tea represents a rejection of that thing. In turn we can understand a reason for the rejection is dislike of that item. I have to admit, as a coffee drinker, English tea is not my cup of tea.
Burn the midnight oil
Burning the midnight oil refers to working late into the night. We can make an image from this idiom by imagining a time before electric lighting was common. After sunset, if someone needed light to work, they would need to use candles or oil lamps. If you still need to have light at midnight you would therefore be burning the midnight oil. In Japan it seems many school students are doing this, particularly before the many tests they take.
Can’t swing a cat
I can’t swing a cat in my new apartment is something I often hear from westerners when they first arrive in Japan. This refers to the cramped condition or lack of space in their new home. The imagery here is dark and of course not something we should do. We have to imagine picking up a cat by the tail and swinging it around our heads. We can’t manage to do this because the head of the cat hits the wall as soon as we start spinning. As a cat lover I again tell you not to try this at home.
Bury the hatchet
To bury the hatchet is finally stop a long running argument or feud. A hatchet is a kind of small ax-like weapon which was often used by native American Indians in combat. The picture we need to draw here is of burying the weapon in the ground and so now being unarmed and unable to continue fighting. If you have had a long-term disagreement with someone, isn’t it time you found a way to bury the hatchet?
There are many idioms in the English language, often the meaning isn’t clear at first glance, but you can often make a picture to get to the meaning. Do you have a favorite idiom, if so, be careful not to overuse it, it may become a cliche.