KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 23 A GOOD SPORT

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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Lesson 23:  A GOOD SPORT  

Eye of the Tiger- Survivor

In this season of KA Wordcast, we’ve been introducing you to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common English expressions.  And we’ve been showing you how to put the phrases to good use in your own writing and conversation.  A couple of weeks ago, we looked at twenty idiomatic expressions that originated from America’s favorite pastime, baseball.   But, of course, baseball is not the only sport that has added a wealth of great phrases to the English lexicon.  Lots of other sports—and games—have enriched the language, too.  Today, we will focus in on twenty of the most common English “sports” expressions, the ones you are most likely to come across on TV and in movies, in books and magazines, and in everyday conversation: the ones you will want to try out for yourself right away.

This lesson is available to download in PDF format.  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.  Remember that reviewing and practicing over and over again is the best way to “build up” your English speaking and writing skills.  And that is exactly what these Wordcasts are all about.

As explained in previous Wordcasts, a phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both, while an idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning separate from its literal or real meaning.  (If you need a “catch-up,” be sure to check out KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, Lessons 1 through 9 for more detailed explanations.)



If you’ve ever tried out for a sport team, you know how tough competition can be.  If you have the skills and athletic ability the coach is looking for (and if you’re “on” or having a good day), you’ll no doubt MAKE THE CUT, which means that you’ll be chosen for the team.  The phrase comes from professional golf, where players who score high (or, rather, in golf, low) enough after the first two rounds (on Thursday and Friday) of a tournament are allowed to play the last two rounds (on the weekend, and have a chance to win some prize money). The idiomatic phrase to MAKE THE CUT is used to talk about various “elimination process” situations (including other sports besides golf) where you have to be good enough to be considered or chosen, as you will see in the examples below.

Jake:   How did the tryouts for the varsity basketball team go, Amy? 

Amy:   I didn’t MAKE THE CUT, unfortunately.  But the coach said that if I keep playing as well as I’m playing now, I’m a shoo-in for next year’s team.

Derby County F.C. has a stronger team this year, and, after coming so close to MAKING THE CUT last season, supporters are hoping that the side will be promoted to the Premier League.

Of the 48 contestants who made it through to the Hollywood round, only twenty-four will MAKE THE CUT for the televised American Idol competition. 

When more than 300 people apply for a handful of positions, how do employers decide who MAKES THE CUT and who doesn’t?



2.   UP TO PAR

A PAR in golf is the number of strokes a very good golfer would normally require to complete a particular hole, round, or course.  Idiomatically speaking, if you are doing something UP TO PAR, or you are UP TO PAR at something, you are doing it at a high level of competence or are very good at it.  The phrase is also used to talk about one’s physical condition or health.

When you bring your writing skills UP TO PAR, Henry, and brush up on your grammar and spelling, we will consider letting you work on the school newspaper.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go, Candace,” the manager said in a grave voice.  “Your work performance these past few months has NOT been UP TO PAR.”

I can’t promise that everything I serve tonight at dinner will be restaurant quality, but I’m confident that my white chocolate cheesecake will definitely be UP TO PAR.

Lottie wasn’t feeling UP TO PAR this morning, so she stayed in bed and called in sick to work.




Literally, when you’re playing tennis or ping-pong and the BALL IS IN YOUR COURT, it’s your turn to make the next move (that is, return the ball to your opponent’s court, if you can).  More figuratively, we say the BALL IS IN YOUR COURT when we want a response or reaction from someone.  It basically means, “I’ve said (or done) what I have to say (or do), so it’s your turn to respond in some way.”

I’ve told Tanya that we can’t be friends again until she apologizes for the horrible things she said to me.  The BALL IS IN HER COURT now. 

Mrs. Jenkins has heard the student body’s complaints about the new “no religious or symbolic jewelry” policy.  Now the BALL IS IN HER COURT to respond.  

Robyn:           Did you ever call that girl you met at the concert? She was really pretty.

Joe:                 I did a few days ago and left a message on her phone.  The BALL IS IN HER COURT if she wants to go out with me.


Until a 100 years or so ago, most people traveled by boat or ship, so it should come as no surprise that many English expressions have to do with boats and ships and sailing (and fishing, as in number 8 below). Here are four such expressions to add to your knowledge “score sheet.” 



The phrase to LEARN THE ROPES comes from the days of sailing ships when new crewmembers had to learn which rope hauled up which sail (or how to tie various shipboard knots).  Nowadays, we use this term to mean to learn the basics of something new.  To SHOW someone THE ROPES means to show (or teach) someone how something is done.  To break someone in is a good common substitute.

Once you’ve LEARNED THE ROPES, you will be put in charge of making sure that all the returned library books are registered on the database and put back where they belong.  

It took a couple of sessions for Ellie to LEARN THE ROPES, but she gets on very well with all the preschool children, and I believe she will make an outstanding teacher when she finishes her course at college. 

During your first few weeks on the job, you’ll be working with Gordon, one of our most experienced editors, who will be SHOWING you THE ROPES. 




Since the sixteenth century, the noun “snag” has referred to any sort of projection in a body of water that makes it difficult or impossible for a ship or boat to pass through.  Today, in daily use, when you HIT A SNAG, you come up against a problem or obstacle that slows you down or stops you from moving forward.

Our plans to throw Dad a surprise birthday party HIT A SNAG when we learned that he would be away in France on a business trip that week. 

Annabel:        Your new house should be nearly finished by now.  When do you move in?

James:            I’m afraid it’s going to be a few more weeks yet.  We HIT A SNAG with the electrical wiring. 

India’s much anticipated mission to Mars HIT A SNAG when they encountered a problem with the Mangalyaan spacecraft’s liquid fuel thruster. 




In sailing, you can’t proceed if you don’t have a strong or favorable wind.  If the wind suddenly dies down, you may go dead in the water.  The idiomatic phrase to TAKE THE WIND OUT OF ONE’S SAILS is derived from this and means that something has caused a person to lose confidence or enthusiasm.

Jessica:          What are you looking so glum about?

Richard:        Oh, I was doing very well at work when I made a big mistake and cost the company a lot of money.  It really TOOK THE WIND OUT OF my SAILS.

When the Greek team scored an easy goal just a minute into the second half, it seemed to TAKE THE WIND OUT OF the Samurai Blue’s SAILS.




Literally, when you are on a boat or ship and you GO (or fall) OVERBOARD, you fall over the side and into the water, as in this example:

The Coast Guard is searching the waters between Seattle and Bainbridge Island for a ferry passenger who fell OVERBOARD in last night’s heavy windstorm. 

This has given rise to the phrase to GO OVERBOARD, which means to go too far (or do too much) when you are doing something, or to be a little too eager or enthusiastic about something.  Usually, when you GO OVERBOARD at something, you ruin or spoil it.

Some of the parents have complained that the teachers are not doing enough real teaching and have been GOING OVERBOARD on preparing kids for standardized national tests.

As usual, the Davidsons have GONE OVERBOARD decorating their house for Christmas.  All those lights and gaudy inflatable figures look cheap and vulgar, if you ask me.

Pam:   What should I cook for dinner when the Kitsons come around on Sunday?

Chris: It’s only going to be the four of us, so you don’t need to GO OVERBOARD and cook a seven-course meal like you did the last time.

“This credit card is for you to purchase school necessities with and to use in emergencies.  If you GO OVERBOARD with it, I’ll cancel it,” my mom told me.




Fishing has produced a lot of common expressions, too, like the phrase OFF THE HOOK (imagine a fish being caught on a fish hook and then being taken off).  In everyday usage, when you are OFF THE HOOK, you are freed from an obligation or have avoided a difficult situation.  You can also GET or BE LET OFF THE HOOK.

Fred:  Oh, no.  I forgot to bring my homework assignment.

Pam:   Don’t worry.  You’re OFF THE HOOK.  We have a substitute teacher today. 

Angus:            Do you think Justin Bieber’s celebrity status will GET him OFF THE HOOK for drunk driving?

Barbara:        No.  I think the judge will hand him the sentence he deserves.

I’m surprised that Mom LET you OFF THE HOOK for coming home so late last night.  She must have been in a good mood this morning.




From archery, shooting, and darts, we get the idiomatic phrase to be ON TARGET, which means to be correct and accurate, to be on schedule, or to be moving along or improving at a desired rate.

Jane, you were right ON TARGET about how many people would end up coming to the school quiz night.  Thanks to you, we didn’t go overboard on the food orders.

Boss:  How are you coming along with the Harrison proposal, Kelly?

Kelly:  I’m right ON TARGET, Mr. Gibson.  I’ll have it on your desk by Friday morning. 

In my book, the film critic’s review of the new James Bond film was right ON TARGET.  The action sequences were great, but the actors’ performances left something to be desired.


Games such as billiards, card playing, and the like have also given rise to many colorful English idiomatic expressions.  Here are a couple of the most common and useful.


10.                CALL THE SHOTS

In a game of professional billiards, a player has to declare his next move (that is, name the pocket he plans to sink the ball in) before he can take the shot.  From this we get to the idiomatic phrase to CALL THE SHOTS, which means to be in a position (such as that of a business manager, chairman, coach, or team captain, say) to take decisive action or make important decisions.

Why does Oscar always get to CALL THE SHOTS?  I’m also very responsible and have a good head on my shoulders, so I think I could manage this team just as well as he can. 

We had always depended on Alison to CALL all THE SHOTS, so when she stepped down as chair of the office entertainment committee, the rest of us struggled to organize the annual Christmas party.

While upper management looks for a new section chief to replace Jefferson, Cindy will be CALLING all THE SHOTS. 



11.                CHIP IN

The phrase to CHIP IN most likely comes from the game of poker, where a player shows that he/she wants to play the next hand by placing poker chips or money into the kitty or pot.  (A chip, by the way, is a flat, round piece of plastic or metal that stands in for cash.) Idiomatically speaking, when you CHIP IN on something, you help or contribute money, time, or ideas towards it.

Angie:             Ellen wants a new iPod Touch for her birthday, but it costs over £150.  How about if we all CHIP IN and get one for her?

Blake:             That’s a great idea.  Just let me know how much my share will be. 

If every parent CHIPS IN just thirty minutes of his/her time on Saturday morning, I’m sure we can get the school grounds in perfect shape for the Summer Sports Festival.  

Everyone CHIPPED IN his or her ideas, and by the end of the meeting, we’d come up with a new marketing plan that was sure to bring more customers into the shop.

For your information, CHIP IN is often confused with the phrase PITCH IN, and both can be used to mean to help.  But while CHIP IN is often used to talk about helping out financially (“Let’s all CHIP IN $20”), PITCH IN is never used in this way.  It just means to help or cooperate, usually so that a job can be completed more quickly (“If we all PITCH IN, we can finish the report in no time”).

Here are a few excellent expressions that come from horse racing:


12.                WIN HANDS DOWN 

Jockeys need to keep a tight rein on their horse to encourage it to run, but in a race where the leader is far ahead of the rest of the field, the jockey can afford to show off and drop his hands before the finish line and still win—hence the phrase to WIN HANDS DOWN, that is, to win very easily or with little effort.

With more than eighty percent of the votes cast in her favor, Sharon WON this year’s student body president election HANDS DOWN. 

France is trailing four nil with only three minutes left on the clock, so it looks as if Germany will WIN this match HANDS DOWN. 

The losing Republican candidate said that she could have WON the race for the Senate seat HANDS DOWN if it hadn’t been for the media’s “unfair bias against conservatives like me.”



13.                ACROSS THE BOARD

When you are at the racetrack and place a bet ACROSS THE BOARD, you wager equal amounts on the same horse to win, place, and show.  In everyday speech, when something is done or happens ACROSS THE BOARD, it is done or happens in every part or aspect of it.  ACROSS THE BOARD can also mean equally for everyone and everything.

Despite overwhelming opposition from parent-teacher groups, the Department of Education plans to cut spending ACROSS THE BOARD in all non-academic subjects, including art and music. 

Enrollment has plunged since the cap on university fees was raised to £9,000, so there are still many course vacancies ACROSS THE BOARD for the upcoming academic year.

Mr. Patrick has promised substantial raises and bonuses ACROSS THE BOARD if the company makes a profit this year, so let’s all put in 100 percent.   




In a horserace, a thin metal wire marks the finishing line.  A race goes DOWN TO THE WIRE when two or more horses still have a good chance of winning as the race nears the “wire.” The idiomatic phrase DOWN TO THE WIRE describes a situation where the outcome is still not known, or something is not completed, until the very last moment.

We had very little time to get the sets ready for the evening’s performance, which meant that the stage crew had to work right DOWN TO THE WIRE and just managed to finish as the curtain went up.

With the score tied at 89 all and only a minute left on the clock, the state championship game is going DOWN TO THE WIRE. 

“It’s difficult to say which way the election will go,” the news analyst said. “I predict it will go DOWN TO THE WIRE, and we will have to wait until all the votes are counted to know who wins.” 



15.                HAVE or GAIN (GET) THE UPPER HAND

We say someone HAS THE UPPER HAND when he/she has an advantage over someone else or is in a dominant position.  The phrase probably (though there other theories) originated from a method for deciding who bats first in a schoolyard or sandlot baseball game.  The process goes something like this: one team captain grabs a baseball bat at the bottom.  The opposing team captain then grasps the bat just above the first captain’s hand.  They proceed hand over hand up the bat until one captain’s hand covers the top.  That captain’s team then bats first.

There’s no doubt that William will HAVE THE UPPER HAND in the class race this year, as he is nearly a year older than all the other boys and at least half a foot taller. 

According to one market analyst, physical retailers will never be able to GAIN THE UPPER HAND on their online counterparts unless they embrace what technology adds to a shopper’s retail experience.

After many hours of negotiations, the president finally GAINED THE UPPER HAND and convinced the other side that the proposed trade deal would be to their mutual benefit.



16.                HIT BELOW THE BELT

In boxing, HITTING BELOW THE BELT (that is, below the opponent’s waist) is unfair and illegal, not to mention dangerous! In real life, when someone HITS you BELOW THE BELT, he/she says (or does) something that is unfair, unscrupulous, or unethical.

Filled with shame and hurt pride himself, Oscar felt backed into a corner and started bringing up personal things that HIT everyone BELOW THE BELT.

Alex:               So, Sarah, since you aren’t into studying, are you planning to cheat your way through high school?

Sarah:             That’s HITTING way BELOW THE BELT, Alex.  I may not be a brain like you, but I’m certainly not a cheater!

Political candidates often HIT BELOW THE BELT and say the most damaging things they can come up with about their opponents. 



17.                THROW IN THE TOWEL

In boxing, when a boxer is taking a terrible beating and can’t (or shouldn’t) continue the fight, his manager will often literally throw a towel into the ring to let the referee know that he, the manager, wants the bout stopped (so that his fighter doesn’t suffer serious injury).  As an idiom, to THROW IN THE TOWEL means to give up doing something, often to avoid defeat or humiliation.  In other words, it means to quit, drop out, or face facts.

This math problem is way over my head.  I’ll never solve it.  I’m THROWING IN THE TOWEL.

Alicia:            I can’t go on, coach.  I’ve been swimming for nearly eleven hours, and I can’t feel my legs anymore. 

Coach:            Don’t THROW IN THE TOWEL yet, Alicia!  Only a mile to go!

You shouldn’t THROW IN THE TOWEL and give up on your dream of becoming an actress just because your drama teacher made a few critical comments.

When Sally could no longer stand her boss Mr. Herman’s tyrannical outbursts, she THREW IN THE TOWEL and walked off the job. 



18.                JUMP THE GUN

Literally, when a runner in a sprint or dash JUMPS THE GUN, he/she starts before the pistol indicating the start of the race is fired, as in:

We all had to start the 100-meter race again because Jasmine JUMPED THE GUN.

We use the idiomatic phrase to JUMP THE GUN when we want to talk about someone doing or saying something too soon, without giving much thought to his/her actions or words.

I shouted at my daughter before she had time to explain why she was so late coming home from school.  I later apologized for JUMPING THE GUN, but I still feel bad about what I did. 

The cub reporter caused a media frenzy when he JUMPED THE GUN and made assumptions in print about the suspect before the police had had time to thoroughly investigate the crime scene. 



19.                GET A (one’s) SECOND WIND

A long-distance runner will often feel too out of breath to continue, but then he/she will somehow find or GET his/her SECOND WIND—that is, find the strength and energy to persevere and finish the race.  Some scientists believe that a runner’s SECOND WIND comes because the body suddenly reaches the just-right proportion of oxygen in the bloodstream.  Others say that the SECOND WIND comes when the body produces a high level of endorphins.   At any rate, to GET A SECOND WIND means to be able to find the strength or will to keep going in a race, game, bout, or match, and, by extension, to feel renewed energy or enthusiasm for a job, career, project, and so on (so that you don’t have to throw in the towel!).

Bennie GOT his SECOND WIND half way through the race and finished the 89-kilometer Comrades Run in just under twelve hours.

Tanaka seemed to tire a little in the fifth inning, but when he came out in the sixth, he GOT his SECOND WIND and pitched perfect ball the rest of the game.

I’d been working on my biology assignment all afternoon and thought I would call it a day.   But after dinner, I GOT A SECOND WIND and managed to finish it before bedtime. 

Rex:                I thought you said you were tired and wanted to go home.

Maile:             I seem to have GOTTEN my SECOND WIND.  I really love this song.  Doesn’t it make you want to dance?   



20.                TAKE SIDES

In sports, of course, the sides are the two teams opposed to each other in a game.  But the word SIDE is also used more figuratively and idiomatically to mean a stance or position on a particular issue or matter of debate.  The expression to TAKE SIDES means to support one “side” against another in an argument, conflict, debate, or contest.  Some synonyms include to side with, stand by, back up, root for, and champion.

My mother always TOOK SIDES with my brother whenever he and I had an argument, but Dad usually backed me up. 

When my good friends George and Robert had a falling out, I didn’t want to TAKE SIDES, but I couldn’t help feeling deep down that George was in the wrong.

The whole point of a televised political debate is to get the public to TAKE SIDES with a certain candidate and to encourage people to go out and cast a vote for him or her.    




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-test” exercise.  How did you do?

KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 23 PRETEST 

We’ll be back again next week with lots more useful phrasal verbs for you to study and get to know.

KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 23 PRETEST ANSWERS