This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of CONNECT.
Unpacking common English expressions
Pitta-Gay Powell (Ehime)
Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, once asked, “What’s in a name. . .”. Here, I want to take it a step further and ask, “What’s in a phrase?”
Among native speakers of English, there is often a lot more meaning to words used than how they may sound to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners. Words may form metaphoric expressions, idioms, and other figurative devices which make communication a lot more colorful.
The potential challenge to EFL learners became clear to me when one bilingual Japanese adult explained that identifying sarcasm is difficult, especially in speech. It got me thinking that cultural differences may play a part in this challenge since sarcasm’s primary aim is to mock and Japan really is a country of courtesy. But it also got me wondering what other figurative devices native speakers take for granted when speaking that EFL learners may have difficulty understanding.
As fall has settled in, surprising me with the aggressiveness of its cold personality, let’s start exploring fall-related figurative expressions first.
How many times has a native speaker spoken of “taking a leaf (page) out of someone’s book?” Probably more times than anyone is willing to count. But can you imagine the confusion as an EFL learner tries to comprehend what a random leaf would be doing in someone’s book? Furthermore, why would anyone want to take it? Well, the expression is an idiom likening “someone’s book” to their life, and to “take a leaf (page)” means that the receiver of the statement should emulate something—such as a positive character trait—from that person’s life.
Leaves are associated with autumn more than any other season because it is at this time that they are most different and arguably most beautiful across the world. They change color and eventually fall off trees, leaving them bare. This affects animals and signifies a drastic change in season is about to begin—winter. Many of the autumn-related figurative devices are centered in vocabulary which reflects things that are prominent in the season such as leaves, animals and even rain.
So often, native speakers of English casually speak of “turning over a new leaf,” “squirreling away” valuables or “saving something (especially money) for a rainy day.”
For many of us, these common statements trigger no alarm as we automatically understand that someone is starting over, hiding stuff, or saving money in preparation for something unexpected. However, we need to be mindful in the presence of EFL learners because those images created through our speech are likely to cause confusion. Either we who understand these expressions will explain them during conversation or avoid them for the sake of clear communication.
If you are a person who uses these kinds of expressions often, I imagine you’ll be “walking on thin ice” with your EFL friends really quickly. Get it? Winter? Thin ice? There are at least as many winter-related idioms as there are autumn ones. To walk on thin ice conjures the image of someone walking on thin ice above water—a lake’s surface for example. When a step breaks the ice, they fall in. Therefore, the meaning of the idiom has very little to do with actual ice but everything to do with danger and negative emotion.
“Break the ice” is another winter-related idiom, but this one has a more positive meaning. To break the ice is a metaphoric way to describe what people say or do in a tense situation—such as a gathering of strangers—to make others feel relaxed or comfortable.
It may be that winter is the least favorite of all four seasons because most of its related idioms are mostly negative. We may argue about this or “put it on ice.” To put something on ice to postpone it. This idiom is usually used as it relates to topics of discussion or decision-making. Sometimes, your views may be unfavorable, and you end up getting “the cold shoulder” from your friends. Here, the”cold shoulder,” like many idioms, has nothing to do with a shoulder or even the temperature. Instead, it refers to being ignored. If your friends ignore you, it’s natural to feel “iced out”—feeling no affection from your peers. A similar idiom is “to leave (someone) out in the cold” which describes abandonment amid harsh conditions.
After winter, must come spring. Here is where the expression “spring cleaning” comes from. Winter tends to be cold and dreary in many places. During winter, some places are so cold that not much cleaning is necessary or possible as it is difficult to move about. In spring when the ice thaws, the whole house is usually cleaned so thoroughly it makes up for all not done in winter, and the house looks as vibrant as the cheerful weather outside. This ”spring cleaning” takes a lot of effort so the term is used all throughout the year to refer to any major cleaning.
This cleaning usually makes many people who clean “as mad as a March hare.” This expression is a simile which likens a person’s character to that of a March hare. The March hares are particularly chaotic in the spring season, especially as it is their mating season which they attend to rather vigorously. The expression, however, is completely non-sexual and is used at any time of the year to describe chaotic behaviour. After all this cleaning, some people find that they are no “spring chicken”—not young.
The summer, the sunniest season, is a likely favorite—especially for children. For those who go to school, summer is their time to unwind and bask in the sun. When someone is described as “a ray of sunshine,” that’s a good thing. It means that they are chirpy and exude the positivity of a fair day. However, if one is told to “brighten up” neither a sheen nor glow is required, just a more positive countenance.
Finally, let’s look into “one sparrow does not make a summer.” This may be said in various situations, but I doubt any early ESL learner would get it since the saying has absolutely nothing to do with a bird and is not confined within the season. What it means is that one good thing is no indication of greater good things or change. It implies that a single positive occurrence is unreliable.
In truth figurative expressions are innumerable—even the ones that are connected to seasons. They are discouraged in writing in favor of clarity while they are kept alive in speech because they make oral communication more interesting and often add more depth than literal words could inspire.
As EFL learners grasp proficiency in the language, they will need to become accustomed to these common non-literal expressions. At the same time, native speakers have a responsibility to their EFL friends and colleagues to choose their expressions wisely, be mindful, be patient, and look out for a need to explain.
Pitta is an English teacher with her hands in multiple arts. She writes poetry, watches and draws anime, reads and writes science fiction mystery novels, and makes a hobby of sleeping at odd hours of the day.