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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs
Lesson 38: There’s Your Trouble
There’s Your Trouble – The Dixie Chicks
In each lesson of KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, we introduce listeners to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common English expressions and explain how to put them to effective use. Each week, we cover a different theme. This week, as our opening tune suggests, the theme is trouble, those difficult situations that we all find ourselves in from time to time. Today, we will look at eighteen common idiomatic phrases and expressions that you can use to talk and write about those “low points” in our lives. And we close off with a couple more phrases that will help you stay positive when things are not as good you’d like them to be.
This lesson is available to download in PDF format. To test your knowledge of today’s phrases before the lesson begins, take 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 boost your English speaking and writing skills is to review and practice what you’ve learned, over and over again … which is what these Wordcasts are all about.
Phrasal verbs and idioms are not quite the same thing. 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 whose figurative meaning is separate from its literal or real meaning and which is often impossible to figure out just by looking at it.
1. GO PEAR-SHAPED
To GO PEAR-SHAPED is a British expression that is used to show that something has gone very wrong with our plans. One theory about the origin of the phrase says that it is a Royal Air Force slang expression relating to the difficulty of performing loops while flying: pilots describe a loop that is poorly executed as having gone “pear-shaped.” To flop, fail, flounder, and backfire are some near synonyms.
Our group presentation about the Vikings started out well, but it quickly WENT PEAR-SHAPED when Danny knocked over the projector during his medieval weapons demonstration.
My first date with Freddie WENT PEAR-SHAPED when he claimed to have forgotten his wallet and asked me to pay for our meal.
The Falcons were in the lead until the end of the third quarter, but the game WENT PEAR-SHAPED when our star quarterback was injured.
According to Murphy’s Law, if something can GO PEAR-SHAPED, it will.
2. IN DIRE STRAITS
When you are IN DIRE STRAITS, you are in a very difficult situation, especially one that involves not having enough money. Put another way, you are broke, destitute, strapped for cash, down and out, and (even more informally) skint or as poor as a church mouse.
My dad has been out of work for nearly nine months, putting our family IN DIRE financial STRAITS.
Emergency payday loans may help you out when you are IN DIRE STRAITS, but you end up paying a fortune in interest.
Recent changes in the global economy have left many developing countries IN DIRE STRAITS.
3. A CAN OF WORMS
When you open A CAN OF WORMS, you try to solve a problem only to make the problem worse. In some cases you even cause additional problems.
My friend Thomas, who’s adopted, knows who his real parents are, but he doesn’t want to meet or see them. He says that it’s A CAN OF WORMS he doesn’t want to open.
A teacher who makes an exception to the rules for one student is just opening up A CAN OF WORMS.
The TV show is about a rookie journalist fresh out of college who opens up A CAN OF WORMS when a simple human-interest story she is working on proves to be more than meets the eye.
4. IN A PICKLE
When you are IN A PICKLE, you are in a difficult but usually easily fixed situation. A little assistance from a friend or family member, say, will set things right. In a jam is the nearest synonym.
With three huge homework assignments due on Monday, Kendra found herself IN A PICKLE when her laptop crashed and she couldn’t retrieve her files.
“I’m IN a bit of a PICKLE. My car won’t start, and I need to get to class,” Sylvia explained to her friend. “Could you give me a lift?”
Jolene was IN A PICKLE when she realized she’d left her house keys at the office.
5. IN OVER ONE’S HEAD
When you are IN OVER your HEAD, you are caught up in a situation or activity that is too difficult or complicated for you to deal with.
This semester, Jennie signed up for four courses instead of her usual three and soon realized that she was IN OVER her HEAD.
“I’m IN OVER my HEAD trying to organize the end-of-the-school-year family picnic all on my own. I need some help,” Georgia told the committee.
Despite having excelled at math in middle school, I was IN OVER my HEAD when I took advanced calculus in high school.
Something (an idea, book, movie, etc.) that is OVER your HEAD is too difficult or confusing for you to understand.
The show’s humor and themes are sometimes OVER my ten-year-old son’s HEAD, but he still enjoys watching it and often laughs out loud.
The idea of “zipping files” and using a “drop box” in the “cloud” is still OVER my HEAD, even though my daughter has tried to explain the process to me numerous times.
I soon realized that the poem and its language were OVER MY HEAD, and I gave up reading it.
6. PUT A SPANNER IN THE WORKS
To PUT (or THROW) A SPANNER IN THE WORKS is a British expression that means to do something that prevents a plan, activity, or process from succeeding. Americans usually say PUT A (MONKEY) WRENCH IN THE WORKS to mean the same thing.
The sudden withdrawal of the headline act for the summer music festival has THROWN A SPANNER IN THE WORKS for the planning committee.
We were going to take the kids to Disneyworld in August, but my in-laws THREW A SPANNER IN THE WORKS when they announced that they would be spending the entire summer with us.
7. AN UPHILL BATTLE
When you are fighting AN UPHILL BATTLE, you are trying to solve some problem or deal with some tricky situation, but there are many obstacles in your way.
My senior thesis has become AN UPHILL BATTLE. The more research I do, the more information I need to include in it.
With so much competition, getting our party catering business going has been AN UPHILL BATTLE.
Unless the government offers monetary incentives, getting more people to use public transportation and to give up driving their cars to work will be AN UPHILL BATTLE.
8. TIP OF THE ICEBERG
The TIP OF THE ICEBERG is a small part of a much bigger problem. This idiom, of course, alludes to an iceberg, only the very “tip” or top of which is visible on the surface, with nine-tenths of it underwater.
This math worksheet is just the TIP OF THE ICEBERG. This weekend, I still have to write a book report for English class, finish my social studies project, and study for a biology test.
“I’m afraid that replacing your tires is just the TIP OF THE ICEBERG,” the mechanic told Sara. “You need new brakes, too, and your axle is badly out of alignment.”
Two Olympic-bound athletes were charged with steroid use, but they could be just the TIP OF THE ICEBERG as more Olympic hopefuls get tested for performance-enhancement drugs.
9. SCRATCH THE SURFACE
When you SCRATCH THE SURFACE of something, you deal with only a very small part of it.
So far I have only SCRATCHED THE SURFACE in re-paying the student loans I took out to go to graduate school.
Unfortunately, the aid raised by the charity organization will hardly SCRATCH THE SURFACE of what is needed to solve the refugee crisis in Syria.
When you SCRATCH THE SURFACE of some research subject, say, or some place you are going to visit, you still haven’t examined the subject in depth, or haven’t experienced the place fully.
Until recently, archeologists had only SCRATCHED THE SURFACE of what Stonehenge meant to ancient Britons, but new discoveries are shedding some interesting light on the subject.
Too bad you can only stay one week. You’ll only have time to SCRATCH THE SURFACE of all that Beijing has to offer.
10. GET TO THE BOTTOM OF something
When you GET TO THE BOTTOM OF a problem or situation, you find its underlying cause or discover the real truth about it.
I have no idea why you keep getting pop-up ads on your computer, but why don’t you call Declan from I.T.? I’m sure he can GET TO THE BOTTOM OF it.
State forestry officials are determined to GET TO THE BOTTOM OF who or what started the raging fire that consumed thousands of acres of forest.
Decades after the disappearance of their only daughter, the O’Conner family is still trying to GET TO THE BOTTOM OF the mystery.
11. VICIOUS CIRCLE
A VICIOUS CIRCLE is a situation in which one problem leads to another problem, which then makes the first problem even worse or more difficult. A VICIOUS CIRCLE (or CYCLE) is something you definitely don’t want to get caught up or find yourself in.
Gareth was caught in a VICIOUS CIRCLE: he had to borrow money from his parents every month to make ends meet, but he didn’t earn enough money to pay them back and get ahead.
I get depressed because I’m overweight, and then I tend to overeat when I get depressed. It’s a VICIOUS CIRCLE I’ve been caught up in all my adult life.
12. COME TO A HEAD
When a problem or situation COMES TO A HEAD, it reaches a crucial or critical point and something must be done about solving or dealing with it.
The ongoing feud between the teachers and the school’s office staff CAME TO A HEAD at the weekly meeting when one teacher bluntly accused staff members of being lazy and incompetent.
Claire and Jeff’s marriage hadn’t been going well, and things CAME TO A HEAD when Jeff stayed out all Friday night, supposedly drinking with some colleagues.
Tension between neighborhood residents and police CAME TO A HEAD last night when officers tried to arrest a man for jaywalking, tempers flared, and rioting broke out.
13. BACK TO THE WALL
When you have your BACK TO (or AGAINST) THE WALL, you are in a very difficult situation without any means of escape. The only way to deal with the situation is to confront it head-on.
Chloe’s been lying and backstabbing for so long that she’s really got her BACK TO THE WALL now. No one trusts her anymore.
With his BACK TO THE WALL, Tyler had no choice but to tell his parents that he had spent all his college tuition money on a new sports car.
Sometimes, you have to say “no” when people ask you for favors, Fiona. Now you’ve taken on too much, and you’ve got your BACK AGAINST THE WALL.
14. LAST RESORT
Say you have a problem and have tried various ways to solve it without success. Your LAST RESORT is the final course of action you take after all else has failed.
“Withdrawing Tina from school simply because she doesn’t get along with a couple of her classmates should be a LAST RESORT,” I told Jane, Tina’s mom.
If the weather isn’t nice on Saturday, we’ll have to cancel our plans to hold the birthday party at the amusement park and hold it at our house as a LAST RESORT.
Despite being instructed to only use force as a LAST RESORT, two policemen were caught on CCTV camera aggressively striking an unarmed teenaged boy.
I still haven’t found a suitable B&B for our weekend away, but we can always stay in a chain motel as a LAST RESORT.
LAST-RESORT is sometimes used as a modifier, as in:
In a LAST-RESORT effort to gain their son’s release, the hostage’s parents made a televised plea to the terrorists.
15. DODGE A BULLET
DODGE A BULLET is one phrase that is easy to understand. If someone shoots a gun at you and misses, you have DODGED (that is, been able to avoid) A BULLET. Metaphorically speaking, to DODGE A BULLET means to be saved from a bad situation. To make a narrow escape is a close equivalent.
“You really DODGED A BULLET when you decided not to come camping with us this weekend, Derek. It’s been raining cats and dogs for three solid days!”
I was so relieved when I got Miss Clarkson for third-period English and not grumpy old Mr. Rosewater. I really DODGED A BULLET this semester!
With the bases loaded, and no one out, it looked as if the Red Sox were sure to lose, but they DODGED A BULLET when the closer Uehara came in and struck out the last three batters.
16. CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN WE COME TO IT
When we say that we will CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN WE COME TO IT, we mean that we will not think about dealing with a particular problem or situation until it becomes absolutely necessary to do so.
Miranda asked me how we would cope if no boys signed up for the glee club this year, but I told her that we’d CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN WE COME TO IT.
Mari: What are we going to do if we miss the last train home?
Kim: I have no idea. We’ll have to CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN WE COME TO IT.
Let’s not worry now about what we’ll do if our advertising campaign proposal isn’t approved by the president. We’ll CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN WE COME TO IT.
17. COME OUT IN THE WASH
When a problem or difficult situation COMES OUT IN THE WASH, it works out or is solved successfully. This phrase alludes to a stain on an article of clothing that comes out after being washed in the laundry.
I was worried that I might not be able to get all the preparations for the meeting done in time, but it all CAME OUT IN THE WASH.
The situation with your disagreeable new neighbor may seem hopeless now, but I’m sure it will COME OUT IN THE WASH once you get to know each other better.
On the other hand, when something unpleasant or secret COMES OUT IN THE WASH, it means that someone has discovered or learned the truth about it, as in:
Marcia: Why did Howard decide not to go to university even after being offered a full scholarship?
Samantha: I’m not sure, but it will probably COME OUT IN THE WASH sooner or later.
18. SAVED BY THE BELL
Imagine that your teacher has just called on you to answer a very difficult question that you don’t know the answer to. Just then, the bell rings, signaling the end of the class. You were literally SAVED BY THE BELL from having to answer. Thus, SAVED BY THE BELL means to be rescued from an unpleasant situation at the very last moment. The phrase comes from boxing, by the way.
All eyes were on me, and I thought I would have to agree to be president of the Honor Society, but I was SAVED BY THE BELL when Cathy volunteered.
We were about to head out into the snow and sleet when my son’s soccer coach sent us a text saying that training was cancelled. Talk about being SAVED BY THE BELL!
At one point, I thought I was going to have to close my new café down, but I was SAVED BY THE BELL when my parents offered to loan me the money to keep it going for another six months.
19. SILVER LINING
An old English proverb says that “Every cloud has a SILVER LINING,” meaning that the sun is always shining, even behind the darkest, heaviest clouds. In other words, even when a situation appears hopeless, there is A SILVER LINING–a positive way of looking at things.
The SILVER LINING is that, once the arduous task of writing my dissertation is over, I will finally have my college degree.
Rachel was disappointed about losing her job, but there was a SILVER LINING: she now has more time to spend with her family.
Every cloud has a SILVER LINING. My flight was cancelled due to heavy snow, but then I was able to spend an extra day in Paris and see it in its white, wintery glory.
20. LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
The LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL is the prospect that a situation or problem that has long been troubling you can finally be solved or overcome.
Our family has had a few tough months financially, but now that Mom’s found a new job, we can finally see the LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.
The unemployment rate is still high, but the government has assured the people that there is a LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL, and that the economy is recovering and jobs are being created.
When you can SEE THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL, there are signs that a long and difficult task or project is nearly finished or coming to an end.
We’re halfway through exam season, so we can SEE THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.
Recovery from the accident has been a long, slow process, but the patient has made excellent progress and can now see THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.
Now that you have a good understanding of all of key words and phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise. How did you do?