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An idiom abroad. Sleeping like a baby, a log, or a top and trying to use as many English idioms as possible. With help from Peter Sellers, Roachford, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Alan Partridge!

Date posted: Sunday 18th May 2014


I’m on my international travels again and the trouble has already started. It was a 17-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur and I seemed to be the only passenger on the plane who was wide awake. If I don’t get eight hours beauty sleep every night I wake up looking and feeling ugly, and that’s not what delegates on my training courses are expecting. Unfortunately it’s too late, as I only managed two hours sleep at my hotel before my physical self was fully alert and raring to go. It’s going to be a hard day’s night. On the flight I wanted to do some background reading for my book and plan an article. Unfortunately, the man next to me was tossing in his sleep, (he couldn’t turn as there wasn’t enough room) so I felt it would be best if I switched off my reading light, to help him drift off to the land of nod. Sadly, the only alternative for me was to watch films and TV on the in-flight entertainment, in the hope that this would help me to get 40 winks, or at least have a bit of a cat nap.

Fat chance! There were so many international blockbusters to choose from, that sleep would have to go onto the back burner. But which film to watch first? Naturally I plumped for the Norwich-based tour de force that is Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. The plot was so dense and fast paced that I fell for it hook line and sinker.

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa: doing for North Norfolk what Wallander did for Southern Sweden and Sarah Lund for Copenhagen?

After that, every film on the menu paled into insignificance, but Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips could just about hold a candle to Partridge. By the time I got to Malaysia I felt like I had been burning a candle… at both ends. I looked like I had been dragged through a hedge backwards and badly needed to hit the sack. I went for a curry in the hotel restaurant first, but I was so flaked out that I could feel myself dropping off as I was eating. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pilau. That certainly ruffled the waiter’s feathers and I was led to my room with the side of my face covered in biryani. I was so embarrassed I just wanted the earth to swallow me up. I’m dog-tired and really scared that I won’t be able to function properly while I’m leading tomorrow’s training. I’m having kittens about it. No doubt I’ll feel and look like death warmed up and delegates will think I’m close to kicking the bucket.

When you’re feeling sleep-deprived and know you have to work the next day, all sorts of mad anxious thoughts enter your head unbidden and you begin to ask questions about the big mysteries in life. Like why do German toilet bowls have shelves just above the water line? Let’s not go there, or unplug the genie from that particular bottle. So the only thing to do is get up, check your emails and watch stuff on YouTube. Which is where I have just seen Peter Sellers’ brilliant send up of Laurence Olivier, hamming it up as Richard III. What a wind up merchant! He was totally taking the Mick!

Lawrence Olivier as Richard III. His acting is a bit over the top and risky. Is he sailing three sheets to the wind? Or is he drunk? He does look a bit like he’s had one over the eight. He used to be on the wagon, but now it looks like he’s totally fallen off it.

Peter Sellers as Lawrence Olivier. What a wind up!

Last year when I was in a similar situation in the middle of the night in Bangkok, I thought a couple of hours of watching You Tube would do the trick. I began to feel a bit light-headed, so I decided to hit the hay. Unfortunately I slept like a baby: I was awake after an hour having wet my bed and was screaming down the phone for room service to send someone up to give me a feed. Only joking. I did manage a few hours of very deep sleep, but was woken by the sound of rustling and found a load of leaves and bark in my bed. I must have been sleeping like a log. I drifted off again, only to find myself totally wound up and in a flat spin. My sheets were completely wrapped around me and I looked like a cross between a mummy and a caterpillar. Even though I resembled a circus tent, I actually felt refreshed, so I must have slept like a top. Apparently my dad was the same when he was staying abroad, so I guess I’m just a chip off the old block, (which sometimes people say I have got on my shoulder, because I was constantly in my older brother’s shadow.)

In most hotels in very hot countries you need to have the air conditioning on during the night in your bedroom. If you choose to have it off then you will sweat like a pig (or sweat conkers if you are Welsh, or carrots if in Holland). I usually put earplugs in, to drown out the noise of the air con, but that’s no good tonight because I need to get up at the crack of dawn, and am terrified that I won’t hear my alarm. When I was at boarding school, someone spread an old wives’ tale around the dorm that if you bang your head on the pillow six times just before you go to sleep then you will wake up at six o’clock. Bang seven times and you wake up at seven o’clock. It was quite spooky to hear all those boys banging away ten to the dozen as soon as the lights went out. It used to give me the willies.

I need to wake up at half past five, so am unsure what half a bang should be like. Is a gentle tap going to be enough, or will that rouse me at five past the hour? If I bang too hard, I might shake a leg at ten to six. I’m in two minds about what to do: stay awake and feel like death warmed up, or risk nodding off with the earplugs in? You could say I’m caught between a rock and a hard place (the pillow and mattress are rather on the firm side). Hopefully I won’t fall between two stools (That curry was mighty strong after all.)

Enough already. I know that I’m over-egging the pudding, but the point I’m making, having gone round the houses in order to get from A to B, is that the English language has lots of idioms. Around 25,000 to be precise. Us Brits often seem to think that our language is the richest in the whole world, and therefore the hardest to learn. It’s true, not only do we have mad spelling and pronunciation; to cap it all we have all these crazy idioms. Yes, our language is the most difficult to spell in the world (closely followed by Swedish and French), but all languages have idioms. These are words and phrases that have a literal meaning and one that is non-literal or figurative. The literal interpretation of the word ton in ‘I have a ton of homework.’ Is that ‘I will need a truck to deliver all the paper that I will need to complete my assignment.’ The figurative meaning is, ‘I have a lot of homework.’ All languages have idioms, as a means of describing an event or feeling. Many are similar when translated, while some seem utterly rude or bizarre. In English, many idioms are derived from agricultural practices or objects in daily life that no longer exist. We still use these sayings, as they are part of our everyday life and common parlance. English also has a huge number of idioms derived from our seafaring days and from boxing (on the ropes, out for the count, throw in the towel etc.)

I find this out when leading courses on language development. I use English idioms, and ask delegates who speak languages other than English to give me an equivalent saying in their language, in the hope that everyone will get my drift. So if I am getting hot under the collar, or look like I am getting my knickers in a twist about something, I can guarantee that someone will throw me a line by giving me the lowdown on a similar idiom in their language.

When I’m close to losing my rag or making a mountain out of a molehill, or even creating a storm in a teacup because the IT has let me down, then someone who speaks French will tell me I’m ‘milky soup’ (quick tempered) or if they were Hindi speaking I might be ‘excreting embers’ (to put it politely). If I had really put my foot down while driving through France, a speed cop might tell me I had been ‘pressing on the mushroom’ or ‘rolling with the tomb open’.

I’ve been turning all this over in my head because I’ve recently come across a great book that is designed to explain English idioms and figures of speech to children with Asperger’s syndrome. What did you say? What do you mean? An illustrated guide to understanding metaphors, by Jude Walton, is an illustrated guide to some common idioms that children are likely to hear in school, and which could cause a lot of confusion as the youngsters take the sayings quite literally. Having read it, I think it will be great for all children, as well as adults getting to grips with understanding everyday English. Many children love to use idioms and to find out where they come from. Often they are sayings that have been passed down for generations within families, or associated with older loved ones such as grandparents.

Please get in touch with me and share the sayings that you like. Here are a few from the European Day of Languages website.

Some of these will have us all laughing like a drain and wetting ourselves. For example in English we say, ‘There’s no use crying over spilt milk’, but in Wales (apparently) they say, ‘Paid â chodi pais ar ôl piso’ (‘don’t lift a petticoat after peeing’). In English we say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, while the French say (allegedly) ‘Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse.’ I’ll leave you to translate that one yourself.

Now that really takes the biscuit.

Take care out there


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6 responses to “An idiom abroad. Sleeping like a baby, a log, or a top and trying to use as many English idioms as possible. With help from Peter Sellers, Roachford, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Alan Partridge!”

  1. My mother’s favourite for dirty children was “Black as the devil’s nutting bag” – understood I think by mining communities and when astounded would always say “I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!” and when things could not be found they were “up in Annie’s room behind the clock”
    I think that it is really intersting that children’s understanding of idioms develops almost alongside their understanding of sarcasm – adults really make English complicated, but what a poorer, less rich language we would have without those complications!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Felicity!
      Could those be the most obscure, yet truly fascinating set of idioms in English?!
      All languages have idioms, and we should use them. That’s an interesting point you make about children’s understanding of sarcasm and idioms. I guess it’s something to do with the growing awareness that words can have many meanings. Sarcasm is often portrayed by tone of voice and facial expression, ( i.e. a purposeful mismatch between the two.) so children must need quite a complex grasp of communication to understand that you can say one thing, but mean the other.
      Many thanks for your comment
      Best wishes

  2. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael, you really made me laugh. I hadn’t heard the one about the carrot (the Dutch one) but here is a really silly one from the Netherlands. In Dutch it is: Ik heb er een broertje aan dood. Translated into English: I have a little brother dead to it. Meaning: I really hate doing this. My mother knew loads of idioms. My Welsh dictionary has a whole section devoted to Welsh idioms. I think they’re great. On the subject of sarcasm, I have noticed that my pupils use this word, and the word ironic, to a far greater extent in the last couple of years. Is this thanks to social media? Elly

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Elly!
      Which words do the youngsters that you teach use? Social media is their world now, I guess.
      We were discussing who might be classed as an ‘extrovert’ and a good definition is ‘ a person who gets their energy from other people.’ One of the delegates wondered if you could apply this to someone who does a lot of social networking via the Internet. It’s an interesting thought!

  3. Alice says:

    Hi Michael, I didn’t realise how some of my everyday language gets picked up by my reception children! I told a child that they were ‘on a roll!’ He replied ‘do you mean a sausage roll?’ That put a smile on my face!

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