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Would a Top Banana Run Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off?

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: English teacher Nina Weinstein explains some common idioms in American English. She likes teaching idioms in categories to help her students remember them.

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Often when you see an idiom book, the idioms are presented in alphabetical order, so you don't really have anything to hang on to."

RS: "You need a context, is what you're saying."


RS: "So let's start off with animal idioms. Give us a few."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "OK, animal idioms. We've got to eat like a bird. So if we imagine how much a bird eats, how much can a bird eat?"

RS: "Very little."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Very little. To eat like a horse -- so now we've got a two thousand pound animal who's going to be eating a lot more. To quit something cold turkey is another idiom."

AA: "It means to stop suddenly, like to stop smoking suddenly."


RS: "I love this one, to run around like a chicken with its head cut off."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Right, we can imagine how people kill chickens when they're going to eat chicken. They chop the head off and them I'm told -- I'm actually a vegetarian so I'll just have to trust this one. But I'm told that the chicken still runs around even though it doesn't have its head on. But you can imagine it doesn't have a lot of direction."

RS: "And just moving on from there, the food idioms seem to present a better picture of things. To be the top banana, that's a great one -- "

NINA WEINSTEIN: "That's a great one."

RS: "To be to top in your class, to be the best at something."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "And to be the boss. The top banana would be the boss."

AA: "And usually, you would hope that the top banana would be a smart cookie, would you not?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "You would. To be a smart cookie, that's another one where I don't really know what the story is."

RS: "It's funny, when you just isolate these things, they seem to be quite funny. To be a nut, we know someone who is crazy is referred to as a nut, it can be not clinically crazy -- especially not clinically crazy!"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Exactly, exactly."

RS: "And if something is a piece of cake, it doesn't mean that you necessarily consume it."

NINA WEINSTEIN: " We have also a piece of pie -- or, I'm sorry, not a piece of pie but easy as pie, or a piece of cake. So they both mean easy. And I think that one is a little bit more obvious. If we think about how people make cakes, cakes can be very simple to make, and pies are even easier, and so it has that connotation of something easy to do."

RS: "Another category that you have down here are color idioms, and I know there's probably a gazillion of them, but let's just name a few."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "OK, we have to see red, and I think that one can come from the idea of your blood sort of going to your head when you become angry. People's faces turn red when they become angry. To be tickled pink ... [Laughter]"

RS: "Means you're very happy. Doesn't mean anything about tickling."

AA: "Versus feeling blue."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "You're feeling blue, OK, you don't have enough oxygen in your body so that's where you kind of get that negative -- "

AA: "Yeah, that term forever has been associated with sort of feeling down or feeling -- "

RS: "Sad."

AA: "Sad."

RS: "Well, the blues, the music the blues."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "The blues."

AA: "And so you can see red or feel blue or you can have a green thumb. What does that mean?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "A green thumb means that you're a good gardener, you're good with plants."

RS: "We might have a green thumb under a blue moon."


RS: "What does once in a blue moon mean?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Once in a blue moon would be very infrequently."

AA: "Yeah, there's actually like, there's a technical definition of what that means that astronomers use, but basically in common use, when you say once in a blue it just means once -- kind of, you know, rarely."

RS: "There's a very popular song called 'Blue Moon.' Old song."

AA: "That's right."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Will you sing some of it?"

RS: "Blue moon. I won't sing it, but maybe you will. We can find a recording of that."

AA: "That's right, that's right."

RS: "I saw you standing alone ... "

NINA WEINSTEIN and RS: "Without a love of my own."

RS: "Thank you for helping me out there."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "You are so welcome! I don't think anyone else is going to thank us, but we thanked each other."

RS: "OK."

AA: English teacher and author Nina Weinstein plans to reissue a book called "Crazy Idioms" in August through Her other books include second editions of "Vocabulary Tools" and "Whaddaya Say: Guided Practice in Relaxed Speech."

And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Previous segments with Nina can be found at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Blue Moon"/The Marcels