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Get Ready for 'A Slap in the Face'

FILE - Texas Rangers baseball players Elvis Andrus (left) and Rougned Odor playfully slap each other to celebrate their 5-0 win over the Houston Astros in a baseball game, July 11, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Get Ready for 'A Slap in the Face'
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Now, it's time for Words and Their Stories, a program from VOA Learning English.

Each week, we tell the story of words and expressions often used in American English. Some of them are old. Others are new. Together, they form a living language.

On today’s show, we will be talking about the act of hitting someone with the palm of your hand. We call this a slap!

Growing up, you may have experienced a slap or two. Do you remember how it felt? Probably not good.

And when the slap is on your face, the feeling is even worse! You often do not see it coming until the open palm lands on your cheek. The sting on your face can cause tears to well up in your eyes. It hurts. And you may feel insulted and offended.

And that brings us to today’s expression: a slap in the face.

Used as an expression, “a slap in the face” is not a physical act. It is a surprising action or comment that offends someone. A slap in the face is humiliating and can also cause disappointment.

Word experts say the expression dates back to the late 1800s.

It may have come from the idea of defending yourself against unwanted sexual attention. When that happens, you might slap that person across the face. Generally speaking, in the 1800s women would likely be the ones slapping men in those situations.

But the expression “a slap in the face” could also come from an old tradition between men – the duel. A duel is a contest with deadly weapons arranged between two people in order to settle a point of honor.

In the past, a man could challenge another to a duel by slapping him across the face with an empty glove. To protect his honor, or to save face, the slapped person must agree to the duel.

Today, the expression “a slap in the face” means an insult. More often than not, “a slap on the face” is done on purpose. It is intentional.

Now, let’s hear how to use “a slap in the face” in everyday life.

Imagine actors preparing for a big show.

In this 2018 photo, actors rehearse in a studio. (Courtesy Photo: Haris Tjio)
In this 2018 photo, actors rehearse in a studio. (Courtesy Photo: Haris Tjio)

​Catherine is in the studio rehearsing her song. Then suddenly, Oscar bursts into the room. He is so angry he can barely speak. Catherine stops singing and stops the music.

Catherine: Oscar, I’m right in the middle of my big song. What’s the matter?
Oscar: Sorry, Cat. But I just got some really bad news.

Catherine: My name is Catherine. Not Cat.

Oscar: Can we please stop talking about you for a minute? The director is giving my part in the show to Manuel!

Catherine: What? Why?

Oscar: She said that Manuel is really talented and deserves to play the lead.

Catherine: Whoa. What a slap in the face! Your face, I mean.

Oscar: I know how that idiom works, Catherine. Thanks.

Catherine: So, what else did she say?

Oscar: She said that lately I’ve been very ‘unprofessional.’

Catherine: She must be talking about all those rehearsals you’ve missed.

Oscar: Perhaps.

Catherine: But the show opens in a week. What are you going to tell your friends and family?

Oscar: I have no idea. They’ve planned a big opening night party and everything. This is so humiliating. How can I face them?

Catherine: That’s going to be a huge loss of face … again I’m talking about your face.

Oscar: Can you stop with the all these humiliation idioms?? They’re not helping!

Catherine: Sorry. But wow, what a blow.

Oscar: Cat!

What a blow, indeed. The director’s decision is certainly a major slap in the face. As we heard in the dialogue, you could also say that the news came as a blow to Oscar. In other words, the director’s decision was surprising, unwanted and hurtful. It did damage as a blow would do.

And Catherine really increased the tension with all of her idioms of humiliation.

And that’s all we have for you on today’s show. Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Ibrahim Onafeko wrote this story with additions from Kelly Jean Kelly and Anna Matteo. Kelly Jean Kelly also edited this story and read the dialogue with Bryan Lynn. At the end of the program, the rock band Kiss sings their 1989 song "Love's a Slap in the Face."


Words in This Story

sting v. to affect with sharp quick pain or smart

well upphrasal verb come up in a strong way (as of feelings and thoughts or tears)

humiliatingadj. extremely destructive to one's self-respect or dignity

save face - idiom to avoid having other people lose respect for oneself

intentional adj. done in a way that is planned or intended

studio n. a place for the study of an art (such as dancing, singing, or acting)

rehearse v. to prepare for a public performance of a play, a piece of music, etc., by practicing the performance

lead (role)n. the main role in a movie or play

idiom n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

dialogue n. a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing : a conversation between two or more persons