Accessibility links

Make Sure You Are Not a Pain in the Neck

Now the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

This program explores the origin and uses of popular words and expressions in American English.

Today we explain how a common body part -- the neck -- is used in many English expressions.

A pain in the neck is a common complaint. The neck muscles hurt. Turning the head from left to right is difficult. Even the smallest movement becomes painful. No matter how it got that way, a sore neck hurts.

Pain in the neck” is also common expression in American English. We use this expression to describe something or someone that gives you an irritated, uncomfortable feeling.

You know, like the couple that comes into a movie theater late. While the important first few minutes of the movie play, they step over everyone to get to the only seats available – in the middle of the row. They take off their coats and bags, blocking people’s view of the movie screen. Then as they eat popcorn loudly, they begin talking.

“This movie better be as good as the book,” one says.

“I know,” says the other. “We paid a lot for these tickets!”

And so did everybody else! And the audience wants to enjoy the movie, not listen to these two pains in the neck.

This expression is not used only for people. Certain activities and events can be a pain in the neck.

For some, washing the dishes is a pain in the neck. Maybe for you, attending long, boring meetings at work is a pain in the neck. For me, remembering all my passwords is a pain in the neck.

But let’s get back to annoying people. Annoying people can make us angry, so angry that we may want to wring their necks.

This is a common threat to say when we are angry at someone, as in this example: “She stole my idea for a book. I could just wring her scrawny, little neck!”

Sometimes we take the time to describe the neck we want to wring.

There are many types of annoying people whose neck you may want to wring – especially annoying people on the road.

Let’s say you are driving along a highway. Traffic is moving quickly at first. Then cars start slowing down, almost to a standstill. You wonder what could be causing the delay.

This traffice is at a standstill.

This traffice is at a standstill.

Then you see it: An accident on the other side of the road. The cars involved have been pulled away, and all that is left is some broken glass, parts of some cars and two police officers.

The problem now is that people are slowing down to stare – to rubberneck.

Rubberneckers look at the damage from the accident instead of the road. They drive slowly and cause traffic delays. Rubberneckers and traffic delays are both pains in the neck.

Sometimes when a person rubbernecks, he is actually sticking his neck out of his car window. But doing that is different from the idiomatic phrase to stick your neck out.

To stick your neck out has several meanings.

It means to take a chance or a risk. You can stick your out neck out by investing a lot of money in a risky business deal.

To stick your neck out also means to put yourself at risk for someone else. For example, you could say, “Look, I really stuck my neck out for you. I could lose my job because I lied for you!”

This phrase also means to give an opinion that other people may not like or that other people are scared to give.

For example, “She really stuck her neck out at the meeting for saying what she did. Her views may not be politically popular but they do make sense.”

Now, if you are up to your neck with something, you are either busy or in a very difficult situation. If you are up to your neck at the office, you are so busy with work you have little time for anything else.

And if you are up to your neck in debt, you owe a lot of money. When that happens, you may have the bank breathing down your neck. They keep calling and sending you nasty letters demanding their money back.

So, now you know that the expression to breathe down someone’s neck is not romantic – even though it might sound like it.

But did you know that to neck, as a verb, is romantic? It means to kiss passionately. This expression was more popular years ago. But people still know what you mean if you say you saw a couple necking in the woods.

By the way, the word “neck” makes a very common informal phrase when paired with the word “woods.”

Neck of the woods means a certain area or region. If I say, “Caiden comes from your neck of the woods” it means Caiden grew up near you. I could also say, “Hey, yesterday I was in your neck of the woods. I was going to stop, but didn’t have time.”

In a close horse race, horses often run neck and neck.

In a close horse race, horses often run neck and neck.

And finally, neck and neck is a very close competition. Let’s say two people are trying to win a scholarship contest. Both have great grades and test scores, both have great volunteer activities and both speak a foreign language. You could say that in the competition they are neck and neck.

Now, let’s listen to a short dialogue using some of these expressions.

Here’s a little background information. Max and Celia are in an MBA program. As a final semester project, they are in a sales competition with their classmates. Let’s listen and see how they are doing.

CELIA: "Okay, Max, we have one week left until the end of the sales competition. What’s our number today?"

MAX: "Let’s see … as of today we have sold 567 magazine subscriptions."

CELIA: "That number is too low! We are neck and neck with Thomas and Meredith’s team. If we want to win, we have to do better. What are doing today to sell more subscriptions?"

MAX: "Well, I have a list of businesses to call."

CELIA: "I thought you did that yesterday! What else are doing today?"

MAX: "Look, it doesn’t help to have you breathing down my neck like this."

CELIA: "You’re right. Sorry to be a pain in the neck. I just really want to win."

MAX: "Hey, isn’t Meredith from your neck of the woods?"

CELIA: "Yes, we grew up together in the same neighborhood and have always been competitive with each other."

MAX: "That explains why you want to win so badly. But I do too. Don’t forget. I really stuck my neck out getting this list of businesses to call. I had to guarantee my dad that we would win before he would share his private contacts with me."

CELIA: "You’re right. Okay, you call the businesses. Right now, I’m up to my neck in phone calls, too. Let’s meet after lunch to see how things are going."

And that brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories.

You are now officially up to your neck in neck expressions. And if we did not give you a pain in the neck, join us again next week for more American English!

I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this article for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

scrawny adj. very thin in a way that is not attractive or healthy

standstill n. a state in which all activity or motion is stopped

romantic adj. of, relating to, or involving love between two people

informal adj. having a friendly and relaxed quality : of language : relaxed in tone : not suited for serious or official speech and writing

subscription n. - an agreement that you make with a company to get a publication or service regularly and that you usually pay for in advance

Show comments