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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs
Lesson 10: Animal Lovers
“Octopus’s Garden”: The Beatles
In this season of KA Wordcast, we’ve been introducing you to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common expressions that “crop up” all the time in everyday British and American English. And we’ve shown you how to put the phrases to good use in your own writing and conversation.
If you’ve been tuning in regularly, you already know what we mean by idioms and phrasal verbs. But for those of you joining us for the first time, you can “catch up” by listening to KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, Lessons 1 through 9.
Many of today’s phrases involve some kind of animal—wolves, horses, fish, and so on. We’ve already covered a few animal-based phrases in previous lessons, including “raining cats and dogs,” “cash cow,” “let sleeping dogs lie,” and “barking up the wrong tree.” There are hundreds of such idioms in English, but for this lesson, we will look at only the most common—the ones you are most likely to come across in TV and film, books and magazines, and everyday conversation: the ones you will want to try out for yourself right away.
This lesson is available to download in PDF format. If you would like to test your knowledge of today’s phrases before the lesson begins, try taking the quick “pre-test” that is downloadable from our website. Then, after the podcast, you can use the answer sheet to see how well you did and how much you have learned.
1. HORSE AROUND
To HORSE AROUND means to play—often in a rough, naughty, or mischievous way—when you are supposed to be studying, working, practicing a sport, or doing some other serious activity. Fool around, goof off, monkey around, carry on, and roughhouse are near equivalents.
Coach: Stop HORSING AROUND you two! We’ve got a big game tomorrow, and you need to stay focused!
Player: Bobby started it, Coach, not me! I was just trying to protect myself!
Jennie was given two days of after-school detention for HORSING AROUND and talking loudly during the assembly this morning.
Mom: Why are you HORSING AROUND playing games? Aren’t you supposed to be doing your homework?
Justin: But Mom, I finished all my assignments at school during study period.
It was raining cats and dogs, so my sons Mark and Max spent all afternoon HORSING AROUND in the living room playing sumo and kickboxing.
2. GET (DOWN) OFF ONE’S HIGH HORSE
When a person is ON HIS/HER “HIGH HORSE,” he/she is being arrogant or bossy. So when you tell a friend or classmate to GET OFF HIS HIGH HORSE, you are asking him to be more humble—to stop acting so stuck-up, haughty, conceited, or snooty—to get his nose out of the air.
Someone needs to tell Lucy to GET OFF HER HIGH HORSE and stop being so bossy. No one asked her to be the leader of our group study project.
Stacey: I’ve won the class mile run three years in a row now. That must be some kind of record!
Nicholas: GET OFF YOUR HIGH HORSE, Stacey. It’s not that big of a deal.
Mr. Donavan is a good teacher, but sometimes he needs to GET DOWN OFF HIS HIGH HORSE and remember that kids don’t have the fifty years’ experience and knowledge he has.
3. STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Information (whether it’s important news or just idle gossip) that comes STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH comes from an authoritative or dependable source, often directly from the person the information is about.
George: It’s official. Terry-Anne is definitely moving to Portland.
Dana: Where did you hear that?
George: STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH. She and I talked about it at lunch today.
Jim: How do you know there won’t be any story problems on our math test tomorrow?
Quinn: I overheard Mr. Johnson talking to Mrs. Reynolds. It’s STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH, so it must be true.
I despise rumors and gossip. If the information doesn’t come STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH, I refuse to believe it.
4. CRY WOLF
If you’ve read Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” you probably have a good idea of what to CRY WOLF means. In the story, a shepherd boy mischievously tells everyone that a wolf is coming, when, in fact, there is no wolf (the boy was just “horsing around”). But when a wolf really does show up and the boy shouts “Wolf! Wolf!” everyone ignores him. So to CRY WOLF means to cry or complain about something when there is nothing really wrong. It can also mean to ask for someone’s help when no help is really needed.
Don’t pay any attention to Kaitlyn when she says she feels sick. She’s just CRYING WOLF to get out of having to do P.E.
Pam: Is Ginny really going to quit the softball team, or is she just CRYING WOLF to get attention?
Patty: No, she’s really quitting. Her parents want her to concentrate more on her studies.
The famous striker was given a yellow card for CRYING WOLF and exaggerating an injury during last weekend’s match.
5. SMELL FISHY
If something (a story, idea, piece of information) a friend tells you SMELLS FISHY, that something doesn’t sound quite right or true. Synonyms for FISHY include suspicious, questionable, dubious, far-fetched, and suspect. Some informal synonyms include sketchy, shady, funny, and off. Something can also SOUND or BE FISHY. And the phrase can be used to describe a person, too.
Mr. Wilson read and re-read the essay one of his students had submitted. “Something SMELLS FISHY,” he thought. “I’ve read these exact words somewhere before.”
Richard: Dennis wants to sell me an Xbox 360 for $20.
Amanda: That SMELLS a bit FISHY to me, Richard. Make sure you try it out first.
Are you telling me that half the class is off sick on the day of a big test? That SOUNDS FISHY to me, Roger. Perhaps you should give some parents a call.
There IS something definitely FISHY about the new prime minister. I don’t trust him.
6. HAVE A COW
To HAVE A COW means to be very worried, upset, or angry. The phrase is mainly Americanism popularized by Bart Simpson in the animated TV series, The Simpsons. It is often used in the negative: When you tell someone, “DON’T HAVE A COW!” you want him/her to chill out, calm down, and not be so angry. Be careful when and with whom you use the phrase, though: it’s very informal and can sound pretty harsh.
My mom HAD A COW and put me on restriction when I told her I only got 72% on my history test. No TV and video games for a week!
Coach Rodriguez is going to HAVE A COW and make us do twenty extra wind sprints when he hears that we left the kit bag out on the field in the rain last night.
Angie: It was an accident, Dad. Don’t HAVE A COW!
Dad: That was a brand new iPhone you dropped in the bath. You should have been more careful.
7. GET someone’s GOAT
The phrase, to GET someone’s GOAT has a rather interesting origin. In horseracing, goats were often placed in the stable with a horse the night before a big race. Why? Because goats are thought to have a calming effect on horses. Devious (tricky or cunning) opponents, however, often tried to steal the goat to upset the horse and cause it to perform badly. These days, the phrase is used figuratively to mean to annoy or anger someone.
Julia really GET’S MY GOAT sometimes. She’s such a know-it-all and never let’s anyone else get a word in edgewise.
If you want to be mean and GET Jerome’s GOAT, just mention how he lost to that freshman at the chess tournament last summer.
It really GETS MY GOAT when people flick their cigarette butts out the car window. It’s not only inconsiderate, but potentially dangerous as well.
The editorial urged President Meecham to “toughen up” during the upcoming negotiations and to not let the brash young dictator GET HIS GOAT.
8. IN THE DOGHOUSE
If you are IN THE DOGHOUSE, it simply means that you are in trouble with someone, usually because you have angered or annoyed him/her. It’s as if you are being punished like a dog that is forced to stay outside in its doghouse, away from people. To be in disgrace, to be in someone’s bad books, and to be out of favor are closely related phrases.
Alana: I heard you’re IN THE DOGHOUSE again, Sam. What did you do this time?
Sam: I was kicking a soccer ball around the house and broke the mirror above the fireplace.
I’m always IN THE DOGHOUSE with my philosophy teacher Mr. Shipman. I guess I should stop talking so much and try keeping some of my opinions to myself.
The mayor found herself IN THE DOGHOUSE with the press and Asian community when she made a comment that many interpreted as racist.
9. ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The phrase ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM is a little hard to understand. Say you’re in a meeting and there’s an important topic that everyone is aware of but doesn’t mention because talking about it might be uncomfortable. That topic is the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. To not state the obvious is similar in meaning.
The ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM at the dinner table in our house last Sunday was why my older sister Meg decided to drop out of high school.
“Someone has to address the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, so it might as well be me,” Harold said to his fellow English teachers. “Why did so many students fail their entrance exams this year, and how are we, as teachers, responsible?”
10. The LION’S SHARE OF something
When you receive the LION’S SHARE OF something that is being divided up, you get the largest part or portion. Synonyms include most, the majority, the bulk of, and more than half.
I earn a decent salary from my part-time, after-school job at the DVD shop, but I put the LION’S SHARE OF my paycheck into my college savings account.
It has always been the custom in Japan for the eldest son to inherit the LION’S SHARE OF the family estate.
Captain America grabbed the LION’S SHARE OF the box office this weekend, earning over $300 million worldwide.
1. WOLF DOWN/PIG OUT
In last week’s episode, Food for Thought, we looked at the phrase PICK AT, which means to eat your food without much enthusiasm or appetite. WOLF DOWN and PIG OUT are two more ways you might “put away” your food.
To WOLF something DOWN means to eat something very quickly (often without properly chewing) because you are in a hurry to do something else or to go somewhere.
Don’t WOLF DOWN your food like that, Christopher! Take smaller bites and chew carefully.
Mom: Did you eat a proper lunch today?
Brittany: I didn’t have much time, so I WOLFED DOWN a sandwich and some potato chips between classes and had a chocolate bar on my way home.
When you PIG OUT on something, you eat a large amount of food greedily or eat ravenously as if you were starving. To gorge and devour are more formal ways of saying PIG OUT. To scoff down, gobble up, stuff one’s face, and scarf down are some informal equivalents.
I PIGGED OUT on junk food all weekend, so I’m only going to eat fruit and vegetables for a few days.
Alexi: Should we go out for dinner at that all-you-can eat place tonight?
Brendan: I’d rather not. I always PIG OUT and eat way too much. How about we just go out for a little sushi?
2. CHICKEN OUT
To CHICKEN OUT means to get out of having to do an activity because of fear or cowardice. In other words, you are too scared, nervous, or apprehensive to do it.
David: Gee, Harriet, we were really looking forward to hearing you sing tonight at the talent show. What happened?
Harriet: I just CHICKENED OUT at the last minute. I guess I’m not ready to perform in front of such a large crowd after all.
I got all geared up to do the bungee jump, but when I looked down and saw how far below the river was, I CHICKENED OUT.
To CHICKEN OUT ON SOMEONE means to break a promise and not do something for or with someone. To go back on one’s word and to back out of are close equivalents.
Del: Where’s Joe? I thought he was coming to the Halloween Haunted House with us tonight.
Candy: He says he’s ill, but I think he just CHICKENED OUT ON us.
We took parachuting lessons and had everything planned, but when we got up in the air, my husband CHICKENED OUT ON ME and refused to jump out of the plane.
3. SQUIRREL something AWAY
To SQUIRREL something AWAY means to store or hide it like a squirrel stores nuts to use over the winter. Put aside, set aside, stash away, keep in reserve, stockpile, and stock up on are other phrases you can use in its place.
My grandmother SQUIRRELED AWAY money for years from what she earned selling homemade jam and cakes. She saved up enough to put my brother and me through college!
Luckily, I’ve SQUIRRELED some money AWAY for emergencies like this. So if you need some cash to go home and see your family, I’m happy to loan it to you.
4. FISH OUT
To FISH OUT simply means to pull something out of something. It can be used to talk about things or people and is especially useful when talking about a lost item or person that you have to reach down for. Remove, extract, retrieve, and haul out are close synonyms.
James FISHED OUT a coin from his pocket and gave it to the homeless man on the street.
Paula: Can you help me? I dropped my keys into the koi pond and can’t reach them to get them out.
Vincent: I’ll see if I can get a net or something to FISH them OUT for you.
The emcee reached deep into the barrel and FISHED OUT the winning raffle ticket.
Once, when I was four or five, I fell into a river. I couldn’t swim, but luckily, my dad spotted me, jumped into the water, and FISHED me OUT.
5. CLAM UP
Imagine you see a clam on the beach. As you approach it, it closes itself up tightly, doesn’t it? With this in mind, you should have no trouble guessing that our next phrase, to CLAM UP, means to refuse to talk or answer.
Every time I think Josh is going to talk about what’s been happening at school, he just CLAMS UP. I’m really worried that he might be being bullied.
Walter: I don’t want to talk about my problem with you or anyone else. It’s private.
Counselor: Sometimes it’s better to get things off your chest than to CLAM UP about them, so when you’re ready, Walter, remember that I’m here if you need me.
6. BEAR WITH someone or something
Our next phrase, to BEAR WITH someone or something, may sound like an animal-related phrase, but it actually has nothing to do with the large beast we know as a bear. Here, BEAR is the past tense of the verb BORE, which (among other things) means to endure a difficulty or a bad situation. So to BEAR WITH means to be tolerant and patient with someone or something.
Please BEAR WITH me for a moment as I try to sort out some technical issues. We should be back on line in a few minutes.
Judge: What is going on, Ms. Jackson? What’s the delay?
Mayor: I’m sorry, Your Honor. Please BEAR WITH me for a moment. I need to explain something to my client.
7. DUCK OUT
Our next phrase, to DUCK OUT, is another expression that sounds as if it might be animal related. But no, it is based on the verb to DUCK, which means to lower your head or move your body to avoid being hit, and does not refer to the quacking water bird with webbed feet. To DUCK OUT can mean to sneak out of or leave a place briefly, usually in order not to be seen, or to avoid or back out of a duty, promise, or obligation.
Judith: Where’s Kenny?
Jessie: He DUCKED OUT to make a phone call. He’ll be back in a moment.
I really needed to study for an exam, so I just made a quick appearance at Frankie’s birthday party and DUCKED OUT after the cake and ice cream.
Lauren told me this afternoon that she’s coming to the dance tonight, but she’ll probably DUCK OUT on us. She’s never been too keen on school discos.
8. WEASEL OUT OF something
A weasel is a small carnivorous animal related to minks, otters, and badgers. A person who is described as a WEASEL is deceitful or dishonest. So to WEASEL OUT OF something means to avoid a job or a responsibility, often in a deceitful or dishonest way.
Ethan: Don’t try to WEASEL OUT of your responsibilities, Jane. You’re the one who came up with idea in the first place.
Jane: I know, but I didn’t realize how much work a beach clean-up project would involve.
My son William always comes up with all sorts of excuses to try to WEASEL OUT of doing his chores, but I don’t let him get away with it.
9. MONKEY WITH someone or something
To MONKEY WITH someone or something means to bother or interfere with that someone or something. To mess with, meddle in, and butt into are closely related phrases.
Haley: Mom! Ellen’s been MONKEYING WITH my phone again. She’s taken about a thousand pictures of her stuffed animals!
Mom: Well, you shouldn’t leave your phone lying around where a four-year-old can reach it.
Don’t MONKEY WITH the TV yourself, Kenny. Let’s call in a repairman and get it done properly.
10. RAT ON
If you ask most people what animal they hate most, they are very likely to say the rat. Metaphorically speaking, a rat is a person who is up to no good. Thus, to RAT ON someone means to report that person to some authority (parent, teacher, boss), usually behind his or her back in order to get him/her in trouble. To tell on and fink on are common equivalents.
Pat: How did the teacher find out you weren’t really home sick yesterday?
Cathy: Andy must have RATTED ON me. He was the only one besides you who knew.
In the movie, one of the gang members RATS ON the others to the police and has to change his identity and spend the rest of his life hiding out in fear.
Now that you have a good understanding of all the key phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre- exercise.
We’ll be back again next week with lots more useful phrasal verbs for you to study and get to know.