KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 28 HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


  Monster Mash– Bobby Boris Picket

In this season of KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, we’ve been introducing you to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common English expressions and showing you how to put them to effective use in your own writing and conversation.  Over the past few episodes, we’ve looked at nearly 100 idiomatic expressions and phrases based on action verbs—run, walk, hop, skip, and jump.  But with Halloween fast approaching, today we’ll have a little “scary” fun and check out some informal, but useful phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions that you are likely to hear or come across as the day for witches, goblins, and ghosts, not to mention “trick-or-treating,” draws near.

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, use the answer sheet to see how well you did.  Always keep in mind that the best way to give your English speaking and writing skills a real boost is to review and practice what you’ve learned, over and over again … which is what these Wordcasts are all about.

As explained in previous Wordcasts, a phrasal verb is an idiomatic expression made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both.  An idiom, on the other hand, is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning separate from its literal or real meaning.



When you have or stand only a GHOST OF A CHANCE of doing or accomplishing something, you have only the slightest chance.   In other words, your chances of succeeding are “next to nothing.”

Have you seen how much bigger the boys on the other team are compared to our boys?  I don’t think the Trojans have a GHOST OF A CHANCE of winning today’s match.

Cindy’s mother:       Do you think Cindy can get in to the performance arts academy?

Director:                   I hate to be so frank, Mrs. Thomas, but she doesn’t stand a GHOST OF A CHANCE.  The other applicants all have much more experience. 

Betty:              If traffic’s heavy, there’s a GHOST OF A CHANCE that I’ll be late for the school musical tonight. 

Andrea:          Can’t you take off work early?  Jenny’s singing a solo in the first act, and she really wants you to be there to hear it.




The idiomatic phrase WITCH HUNT has its roots in an embarrassing episode in American history. It was a time when certain over-zealous religious leaders accused some women in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, of being witches and working for the devil.  Mock trials were held and many “witches” were put to death.   Today, a WITCH HUNT is any campaign that pretends to be looking for terrorists or other subversives, say, when in reality the campaign is just being used to punish or get rid of people whose views, religious beliefs, racial or ethnic background, and so on are “different” from those of the majority or those in power.

Principal Harris suspended several students that she called a danger to the other students, but actually, it was just a WITCH HUNT to harass kids who dress differently and have different lifestyles.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, some conservatives in the U.S. Congress conducted a WITCH HUNT against innocent people whom they accused of being anti-American.




A SKELETON STAFF is the least number of employees needed to keep a shop, event, or other operation running smoothly.

Many of our teachers are going home to England and America for Christmas this year, so we’ll have to run our winter make-up courses on a SKELETON STAFF. 

The police station in town only has a SKELETON STAFF on weekends, so all non-emergency inquiries must be taken up with the county police.

Because of last night’s heavy snowstorm, several of the nurses weren’t able to get to the hospital for their shift, so we had to make do with a SKELETON STAFF.

Budget cuts are forcing many schools to get by with a SKELETON STAFF.




SKELETON IN THE CLOSET (CUPBOARD in British English) refers to an embarrassing or discreditable fact in someone’s background that he or she wants to keep secret or private.

As far as I know, our family doesn’t have any SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET, unless, of course, you want to count my cousin Greg, who was once jailed for demonstrating against nuclear power.

“Feel free to ask me anything you want,” the presidential candidate said during a press conference.  “I don’t have any SKELETONS IN my CLOSET—I’ve got nothing to hide.”




When you SPIRIT someone or something AWAY or OFF, you remove him/her or it in secret.

As party seekers were welcoming in the New Year, an art thief broke into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and SPIRITED AWAY one of Cezanne’s most famous paintings.

An orphaned baby elephant was SPIRITED AWAY in a small airplane moments after poachers had killed its parents. 

Bodyguards SPIRITED the troubled rock star OFF through the hotel service entrance before the paparazzi could snap any photos. 





You can use the phrase IN SPIRIT when you are physically unable to be at a particular place for a particular purpose, but your thoughts are with those people who are in attendance.

Jeffery can’t be with us for Thanksgiving dinner today.  He had to stay at college and finish an important paper.  But he told me to tell you all that he’s with us IN SPIRIT. 

Stephanie:     It’s a shame you can’t make it to the class reunion, Joan.

Joan:               I really wish I could be there, but I just can’t take the time off from work.  I’ll be with you IN SPIRIT, though.

On the other hand, if you are IN THE SPIRIT, you are in the mood for something like a celebration or holiday.

To get everyone IN THE SPIRIT for the Homecoming football game, the cheerleaders held a pep rally in the school gymnasium. 

It’s only October, but many of the shops on the High Street are already getting IN THE SPIRIT of Christmas. 

You might also hear someone say, “THAT’S THE SPIRIT!”  This expression is used to tell someone that he/she has the right attitude or sense of responsibility.

Oscar:               OK, Mr. Lahr.  I’ll join the debate team if you think I would be an asset.

Mr. Lahr:       THAT’S THE SPIRIT, Oscar.  We can use your knowledge and logical way of thinking.




When something MAKES your BLOOD RUN COLD, it frightens you or fills you with terror.

Late last night, I heard a creaking noise coming from the attic that MADE my BLOOD RUN COLD. 

My granddad used to tell us stories about some of the horrible things he witnessed during the war in Vietnam that would MAKE our BLOOD RUN COLD. 



 8.   MAKE one’s BLOOD BOIL

If something MAKES your BLOOD BOIL, on the other hand, it makes you extremely angry.

It MAKES my BLOOD BOIL to think about how those two bullies picked on my little brother at school today.   I wish I could give them a taste of their own medicine!

Jason:             Calm down, Olivia!  Don’t let it bother you so much.

Olivia:            It just MAKES my BLOOD BOIL when someone rudely cuts in front of me in line like that.

As a true animal lover, nothing MAKES Jenna’s BLOOD BOIL more than seeing people treating their pets cruelly. 




Someone who is HOT-BLOODED is easily angered or has very strong emotions that make him or her easily excited.  Hot-tempered and passionate are the closest equivalents.

They say that people from Sicily are HOT-BLOODED, but my grandmother, who immigrated to America from Palermo, is the gentlest, most even-tempered person you could ever meet. 

Even before he was arrested for reckless driving and causing a multi-vehicle pile-up on the freeway, the NFL lineman had a reputation for being a HOT-BLOODED thrill-seeker. 

COLD-BLOODED, on the other hand, refers to someone who shows no pity or compassion for other people’s misfortunes.  Cruel, pitiless, inhuman, merciless, uncaring, savage, and brutal are some near synonyms.

The police are searching the area for a convicted COLD-BLOODED murderer who escaped from prison late last night. 

Crime-fiction novelist James Ellroy’s latest best-seller is about a COLD-BLOODED killer who picks up unsuspecting hitchhikers. 

Just so you know, in biology, an animal that is COLD-BLOODED has a body temperature that varies with that of the environment.  Reptiles, amphibians, and fish are COLD-BLOODED.  WARM-BLOODED animals, on the other hand, are animals that maintain a constant body temperature, often higher than the surrounding environment.  Mammals and birds are WARM-BLOODED.

And one more thing: the phrase IN COLD BLOOD is used to describe a murder that is done without any feeling of guilt or remorse.

In his most famous work, Truman Capote fictionalized a real-life incident in which two men broke into a house in the middle of the night and murdered an entire family IN COLD BLOOD.




 10.                NEW/FRESH BLOOD

NEW or FRESH BLOOD refers to new members of a group, school, or company, typically people that can offer new ideas or contribute something different or unique.

“Many of our best members will be graduating in June,” the school choir director said. “So we’ll need to recruit some NEW BLOOD if we’re going to continue performing next year.”

Without some NEW BLOOD to bring in fresh, innovative fundraising ideas, the PTA will probably end up putting on the same, boring events they’ve been doing for years. 

The tennis club’s membership numbers are dwindling, so we’re advertising in the local newspaper hoping to get some FRESH BLOOD.


 11.                BAD BLOOD

If there is BAD BLOOD between you and another person, there are really strong feelings of hatred or disgust between you.

We never talk about it, but there’s been BAD BLOOD between my dad and his brother, my Uncle Fred, that goes back to long before any of us kids were born.

“There is no BAD BLOOD between Susan and me,” the young pop star said in an exclusive interview.  “The tabloids have blown our little argument all out of proportion.”

 The police believe that the damage done to Mr. Whitman’s car may have been a result of BAD BLOOD between him and his neighbor.




12.                BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER

BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER is technically a proverb, but it is commonly used like an idiom.  It means that family (blood) relationships are stronger and more important than any other kind of relationship.

Georgia:         I can’t believe that the director cast his own daughter for the leading role in the play.  I’m so much better for the part than she is.

Tim:               Well, Georgia, as they say, BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER.

I’d really like to go to the music festival with you next Saturday, but I have to go to my cousin’s birthday party that same day.  BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER, after all. 



 13.                STAB IN THE BACK


To STAB someone IN THE BACK means to do or say something that offends or harms a person who trusts you.  Betray is the nearest synonym.

I told Leslie not to tell anyone my secret, but she STABBED me IN THE BACK and told everyone at school. 

Henry:            I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me, Debra.  What have I done?

Debra:            I’ve heard about all those awful things you’ve been saying about me to the rest of the swimming team, Henry.  Why would you STAB me IN THE BACK like that?

Matthew’s been lied to and STABBED IN THE BACK by someone he believed was his best friend.  No wonder he doesn’t trust anyone anymore. 

A BACKSTABBER, by the way, is someone who does or says things that are harmful to someone who trusts him or her.

Selena is such a BACKSTABBER!  She said she would support me when I ran for class president, but then she turned around and ran herself.



If you SCARE THE (LIVING) DAYLIGHTS OUT OF someone, you frighten that person very much. Scare the life out of and scare the pants off of are some other closely related informal phrases.  If something SCARES THE (LIVING) DAYLIGHTS OUT OF you, it really frightens you.

The teacher got in trouble for telling a Halloween ghost story that SCARED THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF his first-grade class.

Amy crept up behind Jenson in the cafeteria and clapped her hands right next to his ear.  It SCARED THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF him.

I refuse to get in a car with Colton.  He drives like a maniac and SCARES THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF me.

It usually takes a lot to frighten me, but last night’s lightning and thunderstorm SCARED THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF me. 



 15.                SCARE STIFF

If something SCARES you STIFF, or if you are SCARED STIFF, you are practically paralyzed with fright.  Scared to death is the closest synonym.

The first time I experienced an earthquake, I was SCARED STIFF, but now I’ve lived in Tokyo for so long that I barely even notice the frequent tremors.    

We heard some scratching noises coming from the basement that SCARED us STIFF.  It turned out to be a stray cat looking for a way out. 

The Saw ride at Thorpe Amusement Park is purposely designed to SCARE riders STIFF. 




16.                SCARE OFF/ AWAY

To SCARE OFF/AWAY means to frighten someone into leaving.

“I don’t want to SCARE any of you OFF, but you can expect more homework, more tests, and more pop quizzes in my class,” the new history teacher told her students. 

We installed motion sensors in our backyard that should SCARE OFF any would-be intruders.

Mandy SCARED OFF her attackers on the station platform by screaming at the top of her lungs.

Shh!  Do you see that woodpecker on that branch up there?  I want to take a photo of it, so don’t SCARE it AWAY.



17.                SCARE INTO/ OUT OF

When you SCARE someone INTO doing something, you make a threat to make sure he/she does what you want.

The school principal is looking into complaints from parents after some seventh graders were SCARED INTO handing over their lunch money to older students. 

Recent reports about the amount of preservatives found in some produce have SCARED many people INTO buying only organic fruit and vegetables. 

When you SCARE someone OUT OF doing something, you make a threat to make sure he/she doesn’t do it.

Don’t let Frank’s stories about accidents and deaths SCARE you OUT OF going for a skydiving lesson, Gina.  If you want to give it a go, you should. 


18.                SCARE UP

We use the slang expression to SCARE UP when we don’t have something we need and must go out and find it or make do with what is available.  To throw together, cobble together, whip up, and rustle up are some near informal equivalents.

When my son Kenny showed up after school with six of his friends, I had to look through my cupboards and refrigerator to SCARE UP some snacks that would satisfy seven hungry, teenaged boys. 

Petra:             Do we have enough mugs to serve coffee to all the parents?

Donna:           No, but you should be able to SCARE UP some paper cups from the faculty room.

Jess, don’t go out and buy a new Halloween costume for your son. We can SCARE something UP for him out of the things my children keep in their dressing-up box.


 19.                FREAK OUT

To FREAK OUT means to have a strong reaction to something that is frightening or shocking.  To panic, snap, lose control, and lose one’s cool are some similar expressions.

I FREAKED OUT when I got to school today and realized that we were having a big test.  I was sure it was next Monday.

Tammy:         (panicking) I just got a text from school saying that there was a fire in the cafeteria and all children need to be picked up immediately!

Kendra:          I’m sure everything is fine, so don’t FREAK OUT.  Just drive safely.

I told Patsy that her new hairstyle made her look just like her mom and she FREAKED OUT and started screaming at me.

When a magnitude 4.4 earthquake hit Los Angeles earlier this year, two news anchors FREAKED OUT on live television and dove under their desks. 


20.                WARD OFF

To WARD OFF means to protect or defend yourself or someone else against danger, criticism, or attack.   Some synonyms include fend off, repel, and thwart.

They say that the best way to WARD OFF schoolyard bullies is to ignore them, but sometimes that’s very hard for a kid to do.

According to folklore, if you don’t have a clove of garlic on hand, you can WARD OFF vampires by sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of your house. 

If you’re going camping by the lake, make sure you take some citronella candles with you to WARD OFF the mosquitoes. 

I’m prone to colds at this time of year, so I’ve been taking vitamin C tablets to try to WARD them OFF.





Just for fun, here are five more little Halloween treats to add to your bag of idiomatic goodies—some common informal expressions that you are sure to come across or hear sometime.


1.         GHOST TOWN: A GHOST TOWN is a small town that was once thriving but that for some reason just died and disappeared.  The expression is often used metaphorically these days to describe a place that is not at all busy, as in:


Yet another shop in the mall has closed its doors.  It won’t be long before the mall turns into a GHOST TOWN.


2.         GHOST WRITER: A GHOST WRITER is a professional author who writes a book, usually an  autobiography, for a famous person who doesn’t have the confidence or skills to write it him- or herself.


The former president claims to have written his memoirs on his own, but many critics believe he used a GHOST WRITER.


3.         NIGHT OWL:  If you are a NIGHT OWL, you like to stay up and be active late into the night.


I’m not much of a NIGHT OWL.  “Early to bed and early to rise” is my motto.


4.         WITCHING HOUR:  This is an old-fashioned expression for midnight, or twelve a.m.


“Be home before the WITCHING HOUR,” my dad says every time I go out on a date.  He thinks he’s being funny.  I just find it irritating!


5.         SCAREDY CAT:  This is a slang term for a person who is excessively fearful—a coward, you might say.  We often also call such a person a chicken!


Wendy:          Shall we ask Peter to go bungee jumping with us?

Hannah:         Are you kidding?  He’s he biggest SCAREDY CAT I know!




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 28 PRETEST

KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 28 PRETEST ANSWERS