Monday, August 26, 2013

"A Small, Powerful Word: Hit" from VOA

Now, Words and Their Stories, a VOA Special English program about American expressions.

I’m Rich Kleinfeldt with some expressions containing the word “hit.”

“Hit” is a small word, but it has a lot of power. Baseball players hit the ball. Missiles hit an airplane. A car hits a tree.

“Hit” also joins with other words to create many colorful expressions. One is “hit the road.” It means to travel or to leave a place, as suggested in this song “Hit the Road.”

Another common expression is “hit the spot.” At first it meant hitting a spot at the center of a target with an arrow. Someone who did so was satisfied with his shooting. Now, hitting the spot usually means that a food or drink is especially satisfying.

Many years ago, Pepsi Cola sold its drink with a song that began “Pepsi Cola hits the spot, twelve full ounces, that’s a lot…”

Another expression involving hit is “hit bottom.” Something that has hit bottom can go no lower. If the price of shares of a stock hits bottom that might be the time to buy it -- its value can only go up.

A student who tells you his grades have hit bottom is saying he has not done well in school.

When a student’s grades hit bottom it is time to “hit the books.” “Hit the books” is another way to saying it is time to study. A student might have to tell her friends she cannot go with them to the movies because she has to “hit the books.”

Not hitting the books could lead to an unpleasant situation for a student. The father or mother may “hit the ceiling” when they see the low grades. Someone who hits the ceiling -- the top of the room -- is violently angry. A wife may hit the ceiling because her husband forgot their wedding anniversary.

To build something of wood, you usually need a hammer. That is what you use to hit nails into the pieces of wood to hold them together. When you “hit the nail on the head” -- exactly on its top -- it goes into the wood perfectly. And when someone says your words or actions “hit the nail on the head” he means what you said or did was exactly right.

If you are tired after hitting all those nails on the head, then it is time to “hit the hay.” That expression comes from the days when people slept on beds filled with dried grass or hay. Some people slept on hay in barns where they kept their farm animals.

​Hitting the hay simply means going to bed. That is a good idea. I think I will hit the hay now.

This VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Frank Beardsley.

I’m Rich Kleinfeldt.

Other Idioms With Hit:

"hit the jackpot" = win a lot of money. Example: My friend won the lottery and hit the jackpot.

"hit it off" = get along well with another. Example: The teachers at Mission Campus really hit if off.

"hit someone up" = borrow money for a short time. Example: I hit my brother up for $100 until the follow week.


1. When I published my book, I thought I would ______________________. But I really didn't make that much money.
a: hit bottom
b: hit the ceiling
c: hit the books
d: hit the jackpot

2. I'm real short today. Can I ________________ for ten bucks until tomorrow?
a: hit you
b: hit you up
c: hit bottom
d: hit the jackpot

3. Well, it's been a long day, and I think it's time we hit the hay. This means ___________________.
a: get the hay ready for the horses
b: do exercise with hay bales before turning in
c: go to bed and sleep
d: have a whisky before turning in

4. I realized our business ______________ when there were zero sales in August.
a: hit the jackpot
b: hit bottom
c: hit the ceiling
d: hit the books

5. I had to really __________________ because it was close to exam time.
a: hit the road
b: hit it off
c: hit the books
d: hit the ceiling

6. I enjoyed the party because of the people. We really hit it off, meaning ___________________ .
a: we got drunk together
b: we got along with each other
c: we got into the fight in the street
d: we played a game whose object was hitting a target on the wall

7. When you said this economy was going from bad to worse, you really __________________________ .
a: hit the nail on the head
b: hit the spot
c: hit bottom
d: hit it off

8. My father ____________________ when he saw my poor report card. I had to promise him I would do better.
a: hit the spot
b: hit the ceiling
c: hit the books
d: hit me off

9. I really like this fruit drink you gave me. It really ___________________ .
a: hits the spot
b: hits it off
c: hits it up
d: hits me where it hurts

10. "Hit the road" means __________________________________ .
a: bang a hard object on the road's surface
b: begin a trip or leave a place
c: reconstruct a damaged road
d: turn left at the stop sign

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Clothing Expressions" from VOA

Painting by Kay Smith, nationally known
watercolor artist. Her website is

"Hanging Out to Dry"

Now, the VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories.

Have you ever considered all the English expressions that include words about clothes? Let’s see if I can name a few off the cuff -- or without any preparation.
People wear pants to cover the lower part of their bodies. We sometimes say that people who are restless or nervous have ants in their pants. They might also fly by the seat of their pants. They use their natural sense to do something instead of their learned knowledge. Sometimes, people may get caught with their pants down. They are found doing something they should not be doing. And, in every family, one person takes control. Sometimes a wife tells her husband what to do. Then we say she wears the pants in the family.

Pants usually have pockets to hold things. Money that is likely to be spent quickly can burn a hole in your pocket. Sometimes you need a belt to hold up your pants. If you have less money than usual, you may have to tighten your belt. You may have to live on less money and spend your money carefully. But once you have succeeded in budgeting your money, you will have that skill under your belt.

I always praise people who can save their money and not spend too much. I really take my hat off to them. Yet, when it comes to my own money, I spend it at the drop of a hat -- immediately, without waiting. And sadly, you cannot pull money out of a hat. You cannot get money by inventing or imagining it.

Boots are a heavy or strong kind of shoes. People who are too big for their boots think they are more important than they really are. I dislike such people. I really do. You can bet your boots on that. Yet, truly important people are hard to replace. Rarely can you fill their shoes or replace them with someone equally effective.

My father is an important person. He runs a big company. He wears a suit and tie and a shirt with sleeves that cover his arms. Some people who do not know him well think he is too firm and severe. They think he is a real stuffed shirt. But I know that my father wears his heart on his sleeve. He shows his feelings openly. And, he knows how to keep his shirt on. He stays calm and never gets angry or too excited.

Also, my father has never lost his shirt in a business deal. He is too smart to lose all or most of his money. This is because my father rolls up his sleeves and prepares to work hard. He often has a special plan or answer to a problem that he can use if he needs it. He is like a person who does magic tricks. We say he has a card up his sleeve.

This VOA Special English program “Words and Their Stories” was written by Jill Moss. I’m Faith Lapidus.


1. I wouldn't invest in that company if I were you. If you do, you might _____________________ .
a: make a lot of money
b: lose your shirt
c: take your hat off
d: fly by the seat of your pants

2. Ready for this? Let's roll up our sleeves and ________________ .
a: take a break
b: drink a couple of beers
c: take off our pants
d: get to work

3. Because our salaries aren't large, we've needed to budget our income every month. Fortunately, we have that skill ___________________.
a: out of a hat
b: under our belts
c: in our shirts
d: next to our boots

4. People who are too big for their boots think _______________________ .
a: they need to buy a smaller size
b: they need to return to school to get more training
c: they are not ready to take on extra work
d: they are more important than they really are

5. Another way to say "He wears his heart on his sleeve" is "______________________ ."
a: He cries at the drop of a hat
b: He's a real stuffed shirt
c: He doesn't know how to tighten his belt
d: He has something up his sleeve

6. I've got ten dollars and it's burning a hole in my pocket. This means
a: the ten dollar bill was left in the sun too long
b: I will probably spend the ten dollars soon
c: I'm angry there isn't more than ten dollars in my pocket
d: I need change for the bus

7. If you know how to keep your shirt on, you know how to _________________________ .
a: sew on your buttons
b: feel comfortable even though it's hot
c: stay calm and never get angry
d: impress people with your sense of fashion

8. Tom's wife wears the pants in the family. This means that __________________ .
a: Tom's wife has a job but Tom doesn't
b: Tom's wife likes to do carpentry jobs
c: Tom's wife is the person who controls the family
d: Tom's wife needs a new dress

9. If an employee is "flying by the seat of his pants," it's likely _______________________ .
a: he doesn't have much experience
b: he's trying to do the job too fast
c: he's cutting a lot of corners
d: he's using his extensive experience to instruct others

10. Speaking "off the cuff" means _____________________________ .
a: wearing a short sleeve shirt while speaking
b: rolling up your sleeves before you begin to speak
c: speaking without preparation
d: speaking without blaming anyone for anything

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Hot Idioms" from VOA

Now, the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

“Hot” is a simple, easily understood word. So are most of the expressions made with the word hot -- but not always, as we shall see...

The words hot potato, for example, give you no idea at all to the meaning of the expression “hot potato.”

The potato is a popular vegetable in the United States. Many people like baked potatoes, cooked in an oven or fire. Imagine trying to carry a hot, baked potato in your hand. It would be difficult -- even painful -- to do so. Now we are getting close to the meaning of “hot potato.”

Some publicly-disputed issues are highly emotional. The issues must be treated carefully, or they will be difficult and painful if an elected official has to deal with them -- as difficult and painful as holding a hot potato.

One such hot potato is taxes...

Calling for higher taxes can mean defeat for a politician. And yet, if taxes are not raised, some very popular government programs could be cut. And that
also can make a politician very unpopular. So the questions must be dealt with carefully -- the same way you would handle any other hot potato.

Another expression is “not so hot.” If you ask someone how she feels, she may answer “not so hot.” What she means is she does not feel well.

“Not so hot” also is a way of saying that you do not really like something. You may tell a friend that the new play you saw last night is “not so hot.” That means you did not consider it a success.

A “hot shot” is a person -- often a young person -- who thinks he can do anything. At least he wants to try. He is very sure he can succeed. But often he fails. The expression was born in the military forces. A “hot shot” was a soldier who fired without aiming carefully.

Hot is a word that is often used to talk about anger.

A person who becomes angry easily is called a “hothead.” An angry person's neck often becomes red. We say he is “hot under the collar.” You could say that your friend “is no hothead.” But he got “hot under the collar” when someone took his radio.

In 1963, “hotline” appeared as a new expression.

Photo: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy June 3, 1961 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy June 3, 1961

The hotline was a direct communications link between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States. The hotline had an important purpose: to prevent accidental war between the two competitors during the period known as the Cold War. The American president and the Soviet leader were able to communicate directly and immediately on the hotline. This helped prevent any conflict during an international crisis.

You have been listening to the VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories.

Our program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano.

I’m Warren Scheer.


1. A person with a tendency to get mad is a "_____________________ ."
a: hotshot
b: hothead
c: hot potato
d: hot guy

2. A "hotline" ________________ .
a: a special telephone connection that allows parties to reach each other quickly
b: a dangerous, live wire from a fallen pole
c: very fast inner city metro
d: the line of a fisherman who has unusually good luck

3. The problem of gun control in the United States is a political ___________________.
a: hothead
b: hot potato
c: hot under the collar
d: hot explosion

4. Maria saw Juan from a distance and confided in her friend Sara, "He's a hot guy." By that, she meant __________________ .
a: he loses his temper easily
b: he eats too many potatoes
c: he's a handsome man
d: he's going to be a politician

5. Tom said that the movie he saw last night wasn't too hot. He meant that _____________________ .
a: it wasn't very good
b: there wasn't enough violence in it
c: there wasn't enough sex in it
d: it was just the right temperature

6. A "hot shot" is someone who ______________________________ .
a: is not confident in himself
b: is very skillful and knows it
c: gets angry at the drop of a hat
d: is an excellent marksman

7. A stockbroker who says "This company is really hot right now." _______________________ .
a: is trying to get me to sell my stock in the company
b: is trying to persuade me to buy stock in the company
c: is discouraging me from investing in the company
d: is saying that the company's current popularity is only temporary

When Sam dated Norman's girlfriend, normally mild-mannered Norman suddenly ________________________.
a: felt like a hot potato
b: quickly reached for the lover's hotline
c: wanted nothing more than to take hot shot at Sam
d: got hot under the collar

9. David said, "I'm really hot for you, Jennifer." _______________________ .
a: This meant that Jennifer really liked David
b: This meant that David was crazy about Jennifer's baked potatoes
c: This meant that David really liked Jennifer
d: This was a request to Jennifer that she please lower the temperature in her apartment

10. If a person is full of "hot air", that means the person ______________________.
a: talks too much and doesn't really say much
b: has a digestive problem
c: is just like a hot shot only more egotistic
d: is always slightly off the ground

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Cat Idioms" from VOA

Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

Cats are the most popular pets among Americans. So it is not surprising that there are many expressions about cats. Some cats like to catch small birds, like canaries. If someone looks very proud or satisfied with himself, we say he looks like the cat that ate the canary.

Sometimes, a cat likes to play with a small animal it catches.

So if you play cat and mouse with someone,you change between different kinds of behavior when dealing with another person. For example, a child might offer something sweet to her little brother and then take it away when he reaches for it.

A cat will often catch a small animal and present it to its owner. The saying that looks like something the cat dragged in describes something in bad condition.

Two old and funny expressions describe something that is the best or finest. Americans might say that something is the cat's meow and the cat's pajamas.

Children might call a child who is easily frightened a fraidy cat or a scaredy cat. A copycat is someone who acts just like someone else or copies another person's work. A fat cat is a person with a lot of money.

You may have known that cats spend most of their time sleeping. Sometimes people sleep for a short time during the day. This is called a cat nap.

If you tell about something that was supposed to be a secret, we say you let the cat out of the bag. If you are not able to speak or answer a question someone might ask if the cat has got your tongue.

Have you ever watched children in a classroom when their teacher leaves for a few minutes? When the cat's away, the mice will play means people sometimes misbehave when there is no supervision.

You may have heard this expression: curiosity killed the cat.This means being too concerned about things that are not your business might cause problems.

If your home is very small, you might say there is not enough room to swing a cat. But you probably should not try this at home!

If you ever had cats as pets, you know it is difficult to train them or to get them to do something. Cats are not like sheep or cows that can be moved in a group. So we say a difficult or impossible job is like herding cats.

We leave you with a song from the musical play, "Cats."

This VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES was written by Shelley Gollust. I'm Faith Lapidus.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Business Idioms Quiz


WELCOME. Many new learners of English find that after completing their courses in school, they are still a little confused when they enter the world of business and jobs. They hear phrases like "That guy is really out to lunch." Does that mean the person is eating lunch? No. It means the person behaves inappropriately. So naturally, new English speakers are a little bewildered. Here is a quiz featuring ten common phrases or words used in conversations at work. Check them out.

From the four choices, can you select the meaning of the idiom?

1. I have a lot on my plate right now. This means " _____________________ ."
a: I have a lot of things to do
b: There's too much food on my plate
c: The dishes are piling up in the sink
d: My name is too long for the metal sign on the door

2. That's a no-brainer. This means "________________ ."
a: That person doesn't have much intelligence
b: That person has a very good mind
c: That's very easy to understand
d: That's an issue we really have to think carefully about

3. We're talking about apples and oranges here. This means, "___________________."
a: We're talking about fruit
b: We're comparing citrus fruit with another type of fruit
c: We're talking about things that cannot be compared
d: We're talking about things that too many people are eating every day

4. We certainly jumped the gun when we changed offices. This means "________________."
a: We prevented a robber from entering our offices
b: We made the decision to change offices too quickly without careful thought
c: We found a gun in the new office that had been left behind by a previous renter
d: Changing to the new office made us very nervous

5. The boss has been keeping his recent hiring decisions under wraps. This means "________________________ ."
a: The boss is about to reveal who he is going to hire
b: The boss has decided to give hiring responsibility to the board of directors
c: The boss has decided he doesn't want to hire any new employees
d: The boss has been keeping his new hiring decisions secret

6. My gut tells me we need to change the way we're selling this product. This means "___________________."
a: I have a strong intuitive feeling that our current way of selling the product isn't working
b: The current product is represented to taste differently than we're saying it tastes in our advertising.
c: The product will make people sick as it has made me sick
d: We need to sell the product much more aggressively than we're currently selling it

7. The journalist was given the green light to write the article exposing government corruption. This means, "_____________________."
a: The journalist was given permission to write the article
b: The journalist was given the opportunity to present his ideas to the staff in a meeting
c: The journalist was told to stop writing the article about government corruption
d: The journalist was told to wait until the light turns yellow

8. It's the supervisor's fault production is too slow, but he's trying to pass the buck. This means, "____________________."
a: The supervisor is raising workers' pay so they'll work faster
b: The supervisor is trying to blame someone else for the slowness of the production
c: The supervisor isn't supervising production because he's gambling with the company's profits

9. We couldn't get our product off the ground. This means, "_____________."
a: The product was too heavy to load in the trucks
b: We couldn't start working on the development of the product
c: The product simply didn't sell very well
d: We weren't able to ship the product from the warehouse because our trucks weren't available

10. We ordered materials from X Company, but they gave us a raw deal. This means that _____________ .
a: the materials we ordered were poor quality
b: the materials we ordered were brand new
c: the materials we ordered unfinished
d: the materials we ordered were much cheaper than we thought they were going to be

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Get Your Act Together" from VOA

I'm Susan Clark with the Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

A woman from Japan was telling a friend about her trip to the United States. The woman had visited major businesses and investment companies in New York City and Chicago.

"I studied English before I left home," she said. "But I still was not sure that people were speaking English."

Her problem is easy to understand. Americans in business are like people who are in business anywhere. They have a language of their own. Some of the words and expressions deal with the special areas of their work. Other expressions are borrowed from different kinds of work such as the theater and movie industry.

One such saying is "get your act together".

When things go wrong in a business, an employer may get angry. He may shout, "Stop making mistakes. Get your act together."

Or, if the employer is calmer, he may say, "Let us get our act together."

Either way, the meaning is the same. Getting your act together is getting organized. In business, it usually means to develop a calm and orderly plan of action.

It is difficult to tell exactly where the saying began. But, it is probable that it was in the theater or movie industry. Perhaps one of the actors was nervous and made a lot of mistakes. The director may have said, "Calm down, now. Get your act together."

Word expert James Rogers says the expression was common by the late nineteen seventies. Mister Rogers says the Manchester Guardian newspaper used it in nineteen seventy-eight. The newspaper said a reform policy required that the British government get its act together.

Now, this expression is heard often when officials of a company meet. One company even called its yearly report, "Getting Our Act Together."

The Japanese visitor was confused by another expression used by American business people. It is cut to the chase.

She heard that expression when she attended an important meeting of one company. One official was giving a very long report. It was not very interesting. In fact, some people at the meeting were falling asleep.

Finally, the president of the company said, "Cut to the chase."

Cut to the chase means to stop spending so much time on details or unimportant material. Hurry and get to the good part.

Naturally, this saying was started by people who make movies. Hollywood movie producers believe that most Americans want to see action movies. Many of their movies show scenes in which the actors chase each other in cars, or in airplanes or on foot.

Cut is the director's word for stop. The director means to stop filming, leave out some material, and get to the chase scene now.

So, if your employer tells you to cut to the chase, be sure to get to the main point of your story quickly.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Bird Idioms" from Voice of America

Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

Today we explain some expressions about birds. For example, if something is for the birds, it is worthless or not very interesting. Someone who eats like a bird eats very little. And a birds-eye view is a general look at an area from above.

Did you know that if you tell a young person about the birds and the bees you are explaining about sex and birth? Have you ever observed that birds of a feather flock together? In other words, people who are similar become friends or do things together. Here is some good advice: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This means you should not risk losing something you have by trying to get more of something you do not have.

Sometimes I can do two things by performing only one action. This is called killing two birds with one stone. But I would never really kill any birds. I love all kinds of animals. This is a real feather in my cap. It is something to be proud of.

Most of the people I work with are early birds. They believe that the early bird catches the worm. They think that a person who gets up early in the morning for work has the best chance of success. Everyone in my office works hard, but some people have had their wings clipped. Their jobs have been limited. This is because the office is organized by pecking order. People with more years and experience are given more responsibility.

Some bird expressions are about crows, chickens and ducks. For example, when I am driving, I always travel as the crow flies. I go the most direct way. Anyone who eats crow has to admit a mistake or defeat.

Now let's talk about my sister. She is not very young. She is no spring chicken. She will work any job for chicken feed -- a small amount of money. She is easily frightened. For example, she is too chicken-livered to walk down a dark street alone at night. Often she will chicken out – she will not go out alone at night.

My sister was an ugly duckling. She looked strange when she was a child, but she grew up to be a beautiful woman. Sometimes she thinks too much about having something in the future before she really has it. She counts her chickens before they are hatched. Sometimes her chickens come home to roost. That means her actions or words cause trouble for her. However, my sister does not worry about what people say about her. Criticism falls off her like water off a duck's back.

Politicians are sometimes considered lame ducks after losing an election. They have little time left in office and not much power. Congress holds a lame duck session after an election. Important laws are not passed during this period.

This VOA Special English program, WORDS AND THEIR STORIES, was written by Jill Moss. I'm Faith Lapidus.