Friday, 11 September 2009

Finding your feet

One of the exercises within the CD-ROM for the recently released Chambers Student Learners’ Dictionary involves inserting the name of a part of the body into the correct idiomatic expression. The exercise, designed for learners of English, may sound easy, but when you consider the plethora of expressions in English that involve various bodily appendages, you can understand how it might be a little more difficult for a learner.

The thinking behind body-related expressions is often quite clear. To do something behind someone’s back or to stab someone in the back is to be treacherous in a such a way that the victim cannot be aware of it or anticipate it. Similarly, sticking your neck out portrays the vulnerability that would be associated with that action, especially if performed around sharp instruments or fast moving traffic. Seeing eye to eye demonstrates a shared viewpoint, while something that falls on deaf ears may as well have not been said.

You can do more things with your feet than anyone would have thought possible, whether relaxing by putting your feet up, or putting your foot down in determination, or sometimes awkwardly putting your foot in it. All of these are only possible if you’ve got a leg to stand on of course, so you have to avoid paying an arm and a leg for anything. If you do end up making an expensive purchase you might pay through the nose, a process that sounds particularly painful.

One would also assume that losing limbs would represent injury, or at least discomfort, unless of course you’re laughing your head off, a surprisingly enjoyable experience, or someone’s been pulling your leg. Giving someone a hand can’t be too excruciating either, and is definitely more morally rewarding than a severed limb. And of course, while some may argue of the potential emotional stress, falling head over heels isn’t always as bad as it sounds.

There are so many expressions like this that it’s no wonder some English learners try to learn them all by heart, but with so many different variations they would really have their hands full, and even with the right phrase on the tip of their tongue, might never quite put their finger on it.

Deborah Smith

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