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April 8, 2001 - Slangman: Misunderstood Idioms - 2002-01-31

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster we look at the problem of misunderstood idioms. David Burke, better known to our listeners and to readers of his books as "Slangman," has had his ear to the ground -- and no, we're not pulling your leg.

RS: In plain English, that means we're not joking. To keep an ear to the ground means to listen closely for information. That's what Slangman did at a meeting in Saint Louis of the group TESOL: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.


"For example, one teacher told me that she asked her student if she would kindly 'crack the window,' and the student didn't know what to do with that. She thought, 'I'm not from the United States, is this some kind of strange ritual? Do you want me to break your window?' To crack a window simply means to open the window just a little bit, 'to crack the window.'"

RS: Another teacher told about asking a student to get some food for a party at school.


"She said, 'Listen, I need you to go buy a pizza and step on it!' Well, we know 'to step on it' simply means 'hurry' because that comes from a car, where you step on the gas pedal, you step on the accelerator. Step on it -- hurry! So, of course, the student thought 'there's a strange tradition. Well, when in America...' So 'get me a pizza and step on it' is not what you would think it means. You don't want to step on it."

AA: OK, now we cut to Hollywood. Slangman says an executive at a major movie company told him about a meeting to talk about a sales project.

RS: This was a big meeting. There were people from different countries...


"And there were in particular three executives from Japan, and they told the executives, 'well, we are going to shelve the project.' Well, we know that a shelf --

RS: "Is something that you would put a book on."

BURKE: "Or in the market, in stores, they all have shelves. Well, when they said to the executives, 'we are going to shelve the project,' the Japanese executives bowed in agreement, they went back to Japan and they produced millions of dollars of products -- because [the way they understood] 'to shelve the project,' they thought that meant to put our products on all the shelves of all the stores around the United States. They didn't realize that to 'shelve the project' meant the opposite -- we're taking the products off the shelf!"

AA: "Oh no -- what were these, movie tie-in toys or something?"

BURKE: "Yes, exactly! Anyway, they said 'this was a disaster for us.' So sometimes when we think an idiom means one thing it can mean something else. In fact, there was a teacher who told me a very funny story how one of her students, it was a girl, who asked her boyfriend -- they were both non-native speakers of English, but she was using her slang -- and she said to her boyfriend, 'Give me a ring tomorrow.' Well, what seemed very normal -- a ring on the telephone, 'give me a ring,' that's very common, we hear that all the time, 'give me a ring' -- well, her boyfriend thought, '(gasp) A wedding ring? We've only been going out together for a week!' So, of course, he panicked."

RS: Now what if a friend told you that you had "foot-in-mouth disease"? Slangman says relax, it's not what you might think.


"A very common expression is 'to put one's foot in one's mouth.' And we also call that the 'foot-in-mouth' disease. When you put your foot in your mouth, it means you said something that you should not have said, and you don't know how to take it back. (OPT) For example, let's say that somebody is really, really sensitive about their nose, for whatever reason, and you make a comment about the person's nose by accident, and you realize you just caused horrible embarrassment. So your friend might say, 'wow, you really put your foot in your mouth.' (END OPT) And if it's something you do all the time, if you're constantly saying things that you shouldn't be saying, you'd say, 'wow, you really have foot-in-mouth disease.'"

AA: "Or is that 'foot-IN-mouth -- isn't it with the I-N instead of A-N-D?"

BURKE: "Actually you're right. It's the way we say it, though. The disease that's happened right now is foot-and-mouth, but in slang, in everyday conversation, the word 'and' and the word 'in' are pronounced as apostrophe-n ('n). So foot-in-mouth can either be heard as foot-and-mouth or foot-in-mouth, it depends on the context. So when you hear that someone has 'foot-'n-mouth disease,' it has that connotation and it came from this horrible epidemic."

AA: Slangman David Burke, in Los Angeles. He says you can learn how Americans really speak by visiting on the Internet, or if you hear some slang you don't understand, send an e-mail to

RS: Our address is or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20237 USA. Next week I'll take you to an island where some descendants of American slaves struggle to hold on to their land and their language. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC Richard Thompson "I Misunderstood"