Idiomatic and metaphorical expressions


The Skills for Life Quality Initiative suggests the following activity, which I have completed with my current knowledge and reflected on.

a) What is the literal meaning of the following expressions?
b) What social or cultural sphere or historical event have they arisen from?

● The tip of the iceberg – a) starting something hard b) ?
● To meet one’s Waterloo a) ? b) ?
● A spinster a) a woman who isn’t married and spins! b) ?
● A navvie a) a sailor b) possibly from merchants?
● Trouble and strife a) wife b) cockney rhyming slang – adjective to describe the opinion of the husband on the wife’s character
● May as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb a) ? b) ?
● A tea leaf a) thief b) cockney rhyming slang, unsure?
● To sail close to the wind a) something’s dangerous b) maybe someone went out in a storm?
● To lose one’s thread a) ? b) ?
● To hide one’s light under a bushel a) ? b) ?
● To scrape the barrel or to scrape the bottom of the barrel a) looking for some kind of resolution, insult that is the lowest of the low b) maybe a peasant survived from yeast at the bottom of a barrel of beer?!
● A chip off the old block a) someone’s the same as their parent b) tradesman story?
● To flog a dead horse a) wasting your time b) ?
● Time and tide wait for no man a) ? b) ?
● Wellington boots a) ? b) ?
● A sandwich a) ? b) ?

Unfortunately for me, there were many phrases I didn’t know, and wasn’t sure of their origins! Maybe I need to add idioms to my list of things to do or maybe my generation have more literal meanings than previous generations? I don’t know. The last 2 made me laugh – I obviously know what wellies and sandwiches are, but had no idea of their linguistic significance!

How would you discuss the use of idiomatic and metaphorical expressions with your learners? 

I think we use idioms and metaphors without even thinking of the literal meaning. I never remember studying them myself at school, but they are something which i have picked up from spoken discourse. We teach many idioms in ESOL, but I have never even thought of covering idioms in literacy, and I have no idea why.

I think it depends on the purpose of the activity to be honest, and its validity in a learner’s development. You could do a similar activity to the one above (but maybe with more relevant examples to them). They could make a fun coded idiom letter to a friend to develop vocabulary and phrases.

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