Think in English with Adah

A TEFL blog: You have to train yourself to think in English

A Phrase A Week: To make a pig’s ear of something


This phrase does not relate to the ears of a pig which is a cold dish found in many cuisines around the world.

If you make a pig’s ear of something, you make a mess of it.

 “Look at all the mess the brothers have made. What a festival!”


‘To make a pig’s ear’ is a mid 20th century phrase and means ‘completely botch something up; make a complete mess of it’. This is first found in print in a 1950 edition of the Reader’s Digest:

“If you make a pig’s ear of the first one, you can try the other one.”

The expression derives from the old proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’, which dates from the 16th century.


1.      I was filing back some documents and would you believe it, I made a right pig’s ear of it, I misfiled everything.

2.      I made so many spelling mistakes on my document that I made a t pig’s ear of it. My boss got mad. He asked me if I had ever heard of a spell checker.

Even when you have made a pig’s ear of it, stay cool and don’t forget to smile.

A Phrase A Week: As cool as a cucumber


If someone is as cool as a cucumber, they don’t get worried by anything.


It means to be very calm and in control of your emotions, especially in a difficult or surprising situation.


This idiom may be based on the fact that in hot weather the inside of cucumbers remains cooler than the air.



1.      Joan felt nervous, but she acted as cool as a cucumber.

2.      The politician kept cool as a cucumber throughout the interview with the aggressive journalist.

3.      When everything seems to be going wrong, she stays as cool as a cucumber.

A Phrase A Week: If the shoe fits, wear it!


If a description applies to you, then accept it.

 This expression is often used when something derogatory is said about a person who then complains to a third person. The third person, if they agree with the original negative comment, might suggest “If the shoe fits, then wear it”.


“If the shoe fits, wear it” is often shortened to “If the shoe fits…”, leaving the listener to fill in the blank. The expression is the American version of the earlier British phrase “If the cap fits, wear it”, which is also still in general use.

The change from cap to shoe may well have been influenced by the Cinderella story, which has a snug-fitting slipper as the primary plot device. Versions of the tale that include the “lost slipper” scenario were well known in the USA and Europe by 1773. “If the shoe fits” has been used for centuries in a figurative sense and its most common usage now is in shoe shop advertising slogans.


Jack: Just because I’ve missed two or three sessions, my fitness trainer says I lack motivation.

Jill: Well, if the shoe fits, wear it.


A Phrase A Week: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Not a phrase this week but, just for a change, a proverb…


This proverb means that everyone needs to take some time off from work, relax and have some fun. Don’t overdo it.



English phrases frequently include names. Jack appears in more phrases than does any other name. That might be expected as Jack is a colloquial form of John and, for the period in which the majority of these phrases were coined, John was the most common boy’s name amongst English speakers. Jack was the generic name for the common man; a lad, a fellow, a chap, but also with the hint of rogue (a dishonest man). ‘John’ appears in our phrases and sayings hardly at all and this is probably because ‘Jack’ was considered the more interesting character.

The name Jack also appears in this kind of famous pumpkin lanterns that people carved for Halloween.

The origin of Jack-o-lantern


The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard (someone who often drinks too much) and trickster (someone who uses dishonest methods to get what they want), tricked Satan (the most powerful evil spirit) into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember (a piece of coal that is still hot and red after a fire has stopped burning) to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip (see the picture below) to keep it glowing longer. 

The Irish used turnips as their “Jack’s lanterns” originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.

A Phrase A Week: To take something with a grain of salt


To consider something to be not completely true or right. If you take what someone says with a pinch of salt, you do not completely believe it.


The idea comes from the fact that food is more easily swallowed if taken with a small amount of salt.

One of the reasons salt has historically been so important to humanity is its ability to preserve food and to hide the taste of rot. Hence the expression, “take it with a grain of salt” when someone tells you something that might not be accurate.


1.      They took my explanation with a pinch of salt. I was sure they didn’t believe me.

2.      You have to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. She has a tendency to exaggerate.

3.      It’s interesting to read the reports in the newspapers, but I tend to take them with a grain of salt.


A Phrase A Week: Lo and behold!


When you tell someone about something surprising that happened, you can say “Lo and behold!”



The word ‘lo’ as used in this phrase is a shortening of ‘look’. So, lo and behold! has the meaning of look! – behold!.

Something not very far removed from lo and behold appears in the Bible, Genesis 15:3 (King James Version):

“And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.”

The complete phrase is first recorded in an 1808 letter in the Correspondence 1787–1870, of Queen Victoria’s lady of the bedchamber – Lady Sarah Spencer Lyttelton:

“Hartington… had just told us how hard he had worked all the morning… when, lo and behold! M. Deshayes himself appeared.”


1.      I went into a bar just next to our hotel and, lo and behold, who should I see sitting there but Jim Gibson!

2.      Carrie tried her luck at the lottery and, lo and behold, won1500! 

A Phrase A Week: To save one’s bacon


If something saves your bacon, it saves you from failure or difficulties. You can also say that someone saves your bacon if they save you from a lot of trouble.



1.  You saved my bacon there. I’d probably have lost my job if you hadn’t been ready with an explanation.

2.  It’s a short book but it could save your bacon when you’re traveling overseas.

A Phrase A Week: To get to the bottom of something


If you get to the bottom of something, you find out its real cause or the true story behind it.


1.      The police don’t know who did the robbery yet, but they promised to get to the bottom of it.

2.      I’m not sure how a mistake like this could happen, but I’m determined to get to the bottom of it and make sure it never happens again.


A Phrase A Week: To be on one’s toes


To be concentrated so that you are ready to deal with anything that might happen.



1.      He keeps changing the rules just to keep us on our toes.

2.      Seven managers attended the project meeting last Friday and I was the only one reporting for our team. It really got me on my toes.


A Phrase A Week: Fish Out of Water


A person who is awkward and out of place.

If someone is a fish out of water, they are placed in a situation that is completely new to them and confuses them.


1.      She is like a fish out of water at these blind dates her mother makes her attend.

2.      After retirement, my father has nothing to do except spending most of his time surfing on the Internet. He is such a fish out of water!


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