Active Vocabulary

Friendly classes in English as a foreign language

Spoken English

From the horse's mouth – number 1

Talking about talking!

In these occasional blog posts, I’ll be talking about colloquial language, idioms, cultural references (such as TV) and other ‘bits and bobs’ that make up the English that you’ll hear in the streets, in the shops, in cafes, pubs and restaurants, in schools and universities, and in other social contexts.

Let’s start off with some idioms and colloquialisms. Since we’re talking about talking, I thought we’d cover some words and expressions that are connected in one way or another with the idea of speaking.

Here’s a little story. Well, to be honest, it’s not a great story – it’s just a bit of fun. I’ve tried to use as many idioms, metaphors and colloquial forms as possible. The interesting words are underlined. You may know some (or even all) of them. If not, see if you can identify their meaning from the context. There’s some explanation at the end. Here we go!

A conversation in the office
Speaker Dialogue
(Mouse over underlined expressions for a quick explanation)
Susan What’s up? Cat got your tongue? Has the cat got your tongue? A more-or-less meaningless question that we may ask when someone doesn't speak.
Henry Eh? What are you on about? What are you on about? What are you talking about? Compare: I don't know what you're on about = I don't know what you're talking about.
Susan You haven’t said a word for an hour. Come on, out with it. What’s up?” Out with it. We use "Out with it" to encourage someone to tell us something that they don't want to say.
What's up? Americans use "What's up?" as a greeting. However, in British English (as here), it usually means, "What's the matter?"
Henry Oh, I’m just worried about the presentation that I’ve got to give tomorrow. I really hate these things. I know I’m going to get all tongue-tied as soon as I stand up in front of all those people. To be tongue-tied = to be unable to speak, perhaps because of shyness or embarrassment. The image of the metaphor is that your tongue has been tied with string, so that you are physically unable to speak.
Susan What’s the presentation about again?
Henry I’m supposed to fill them in on progress with the project so far. To fill someone in on something = to give them all the information that they need to bring them up to date about a specific topic.
So far = up to the present point in time, in the context of some process that is still in progress.
Susan So? Why don't you give them the usual flannel? Flannel is literally a type of cheap fabric. In this idiom, it implies that you give somebody a long-winded explanation that isn't of much value.
Henry Well, actually, I've made pretty good progress, but that’s part of the problem. I really don’t like blowing my own trumpet. Last week, I went to John Taylor’s presentation about marketing. He’s really got the gift of the gab, hasn’t he? He woffled on for an hour about how great his team are. I was bored stiff, but the managers swallowed it hook, line and sinker. When he told them that his team was the most important in the company, I had to bite my tongue. As far as I'm concerned, he's a complete waste of space. To blow your own trumpet = to tell other people how great you are and how well you have done.
To have the gift of the gab = to have the skill of being able to persuade people by speaking verbosely and convincingly.
To woffle = to speak verbosely, but without saying very much. Adding the adverb "on" implies continuing to do something for a period of time.
Bored stiff is a very common idiomatic expression that simply means "very bored".
To swallow something (e.g. a story, an explanation or an excuse) hook, line and sinker = to believe completely something that you are told, in spite of the fact that it is false. The image comes from fishing; a fishing hook, a fishing line and a sinker (a heavy, metal weight) are equipment that fishermen use. In the image, the fish swallows not only the bait (the piece of food that the fisherman puts on the hook), but also the hook itself, together with the line and the sinker.
To bite your tongue means that you have to make a great effort to stop yourself from saying something, in spite of the fact that you really want to say it.
To describe someone as a waste of space implies that they are so useless that they are not even worth the physical space that they occupy in the world.
Susan I know. He’s full of hot air. You have to take everything he says with a pinch of salt. Full of hot air describes a person who tends to talk a lot about his plans and intentions, but whose words don't have much value. A much more vulgar variant is full of sh*t.
To take somebody's words with a pinch of salt means to be cautious about accepting the truth of what somebody says.
Henry You can say that again! Then I had to give my talk about our project. I was so nervous, I was talking nineteen to the dozen. And when I let the cat out of the bag about the software problems we’ve had, I could have kicked myself! We say, You can say that again! when we completely agree with what someone has just said. It implies that we agree so strongly with the statement that we are giving our permission for the other person to repeat it.
To talk nineteen to the dozen means to talk very quickly. Normally, of course, there are twelve items in a dozen. In this idiom, we are saying nineteen words in the time it usually takes to say twelve.
To let the cat out of the bag means to give away a secret without meaning to do so. In the image of the idiom, we inadvertently allow the cat to jump out of the bag and escape.
We say I could have kicked myself when we make some kind of mistake, which we instantly regret. We are so angry with ourselves for making such a stupid mistake, that we feel like giving ourselves a kick.
Susan Ah well, never mind. It’s no use crying over spilt milk. I’m sure it’ll all go like a dream this time. The managers will be singing your praises. You’ll see. It's no use crying over spilt milk is a proverb that means that there is no point in complaining or feeling sad about something that has already happened. In the image, the milk has already been spilt and there is nothing that we can do about it, so worrying about it is useless.
We say that something goes like a dream when it goes perfectly. In other words, everything goes as well as we dreamed that it would.
To sing someone's praises means to say nice, complimentary things about someone.
Henry I'll believe it when I see it! We say I'll believe it when I see it when we think that something is very unlikely to happen and we need to see it before we can believe it.

In the next "From the horse's mouth", I'll talk about colloquial language related to work. See you then!