10 British animal idioms and expressions

Dogs in window

Think you’re the cat’s whiskers – or even the dog’s bollocks – when it comes to knowing your animal idioms in British English? You’re probably right – so the next time you’re listening to your friend rabbiting on, why not try dropping one of the following common British expressions into your conversation? You’ll soon sound like you’ve been speaking British English for donkey’s years.

1. Make a pig’s ear of something

Dictionary definition: handle something ineptly

Have you ever seen a pig’s ear? While in Britain these fatty, hairy appendages have traditionally been given to dogs as a treat, their use in international cuisine is starting to have an impact on the London restaurant scene. It’s quite possible, however, that pig’s ear was originally pig’s rear – which perhaps makes more sense.

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Let’s just “call a cat a cat”: cat idioms in foreign languages

Cat cafe cat

Just a few weeks ago Christine Lindberg explored phrases and idioms that revealed the somewhat surprising way in which the English language describes man’s best friend. But what about that equally popular household pet – the beloved, fluffy, crazy cat? (Those three adjectives are among some of the most popular in the English language to precede the word cat, according to the Oxford English Corpus.) I decided to look at how our feline friends are portrayed in expressions and sayings – but this time I wanted to compare the way that cats are depicted in the English language with the way that they appear in other languages. So using the bilingual dictionaries available in Oxford Language Dictionaries Online (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish), I began researching whether cats are known universally for getting the cream.

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From silhouette to leotard: more everyday things named after French people (2)

France lavender

Inspired by the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, we’re looking at more everyday things which bear the name of the French person who discovered, invented, or inspired them…

A shadow of his former self

1759: France was in the grip of a financial crisis, fighting Britain in the Seven Years’ War and running up a deficit. The country’s newly-established (and rather academic) finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, decided to introduce tough new austerity measures. Partly inspired by his research trips to London, he proposed the English practice of subjecting the wealthy to taxes from which they had traditionally been exempted. He introduced the “subvention générale” (a tax on external signs of wealth, such as doors, windows, and servants) and ordered the rich to melt down their silverware, but unsurprisingly his proposals did not go down well and he was hounded out after just eight months in the job, retiring quietly to work on his chateau.

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From pralines to pasteurized milk: everyday things named after French people (1)

Nice glass of wine

On March 31 this year, Gustave Eiffel’s tower – arguably the most iconic symbol of France – celebrated its 124th birthday. Incidentally, the world’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction is the same age as other famous French creations such as the Moulin Rouge and Herminie Cadolle’s first modern bra… – anyway, with all things français in mind, let’s have a look at some other things that were named after the French people who inspired, invented, or discovered them. (You can also explore more in my second post on French eponyms.)

Snuffed out

We can trace the entire tobacco phenomenon back to a single moment in 1561: when Jean Nicot de Villemain, a young French ambassador, went to dinner at a friend’s house during his diplomatic stint in Lisbon, and was shown a garden plant from Brazil that apparently had incredible healing properties.

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Short fiction: Sisters

Kep kids

There’s a girl running through the rapeseed in the yellow afternoon. Jenny always loses at tig because I’m three years older than her.

“It’s not fair!” she yells when I leap on her back and we crash to the ground. “You really hurt me this time, Olivia!”

My sister rubs her arm in surprise.

“It’s just a bruise,” I tell her.

“I don’t know why we always have to play this,” says Jenny, standing up and dusting off. “It’s too hot. Why is it always ho-ot?”

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10 common mistakes with prepositions made by learners of English

Grammar

A preposition is a very common little word like at, for, in, on, and to, which the dictionary defines as

a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause.

For example:

PREPOSITION:
Thida works at the market.
This coffee’s for Luca!
Alejandro lives in Peru.
Agnieszka’s on the bus.
Mika’s listening to J-pop again.

Native English speakers rarely make mistakes with these very common prepositions. However, non-native speakers frequently get them wrong, often because they translate directly from their own language rather than listening to native English speakers (and yes, you always listen to something or someone).

The best way to improve your command of prepositions is to:

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Microfiction: Valparaíso

Valparaíso

Lilac jacaranda under blue and gold: in this pacific paradise, you’re kicking stones and humming as the city drops away below. A Cuban trumpeter trails flat orange notes. You spin me round by fountains splashing carmine Carmenere. I’m ecstatically serene. It’s raining rainbows.

“Look at them!” you say: two children kissing on a plant pot. “They’re finding their own way in love.”

Like we will, in the southern sun.

“Like I will,” you say, to yourself, “One day.”

I struggle after you in the high heat. Did I hear right?

“But not yet,” you say, to the stones, “Not yet.”

© Joanna Rubery 2017

[For the Oxford Words blog:] Jèrriais, the language of Jersey

Jersey sea

There was one thing I wanted to know as the plane touched down: were we actually abroad? On the one hand, everyone was driving on the left, paying in pounds, and speaking in English (albeit with what sounded like a faintly South African accent). On the other, everything was the wrong colour: yellow telephone boxes, red squirrels, and green pound notes (yes, pound notes – remember them?). As we wound our way through a lush forest of palm trees on the way to the capital, I looked at the bus ticket the driver had given me and saw:

Bouônjour à bord d’la beusse

It looked like French; or rather, it looked how French might look through a tropical haze. In fact, it was my first glimpse of real Jèrriais, the native language of Jersey – rich, colourful, and full of quirky phrases. I’m not sure if I ever worked out whether we were actually à l’êtrangi (abroad) or not; but I did learn this handy Monday-morning response to Comme est qu’ tu’es? (How are you?): J’sis coumme eune pouque mouoillie (I feel like a wet bag).

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10 mistakes made by learners of English

Banana skin

Do learners of English make particular mistakes in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary depending on their mother tongue? (While linguists distinguish between an error, made by a student who doesn’t yet know the correct rule, and a mistake, made by a student who knows the rule but momentarily forgets it, I’ll use mistake to cover both cases.)

It makes intuitive sense that some (particularly lower-level) mistakes are more likely to be made by speakers of certain languages. One well-known example is that speakers of Slavic languages, such as Polish, often miss out articles (*she bought new car) while speakers of Romance languages, such as Italian, occasionally drop in too many (I love the my sister!). These kinds of mistakes reflect the nature of the students’ mother tongues, and are arguably fairly minor, but other kinds – such as the greater tendency among speakers of certain Asian languages (like Khmer or Japanese) to mix up he and she – may lead to real communication difficulties.

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Microfiction: Speed Dating

Heart on beach

ooh, cute guy at the bar!- but we’re off

#1 – well. I guess it’s not a deal-breaker …

#2 – mmm, visa hunter

OK #3 is blind drunk

#4 – nice eyes!

#5 – ”…the rope snapped and  -” aargh! the bell

#6 – sits with his back to me

#7 –…isn’t it “aged up to 40”?

#8 – no. just – no

#9 – man from the bar! “At last!”

#10 – …sorry, still thinking about  – we’re done?

definitely #9! #4 and #9…

…oh.

OK.

refresh?

I’ll just hit refresh

© Joanna Rubery 2017