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Don't 'Bite Off More Than You Can Chew'

Emmaline Dendinger enjoys a big bite of snow as she plays in her Jackson, Mississippi neighborhood, Dec. 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Don't 'Bite Off More Than You Can Chew'
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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 used in American English. Some are old. Some are new. Together, they form the living and always changing language of the American people.

To say that language is “living” is a figure of speech. Languages are always changing. So, we say they are living. It does not mean that language needs air to breathe and food to eat.

But you and I do!

And eating involves several actions: biting, chewing and swallowing.

Now, sometimes when we are hungry, we may eat too fast or too much. We may, in fact, bite off more than we can chew.

We take a big bite and then have a hard time breaking down or swallowing the food. This can lead to a really unpleasant feeling. We have eaten more than our body can take at one time. The result is not good. We may feel sick.

Well, the same thing can happen in other situations besides eating. With many things, you can figuratively bite off more than you can chew.

The expression "biting off more than you can chew" means to take on too much. You agree to do more than you actually can.

I think it is safe to say that we have all been there.

For example, you really want to do something or you want to prove something to yourself or others. So, you accept responsibility for a project.

What is the problem there, you might ask?

Well, the project might be much too difficult or complex for one person. But, you think you can do it on your own.

You, my friend, have just bitten off more than you can chew.

We have other terms and expressions that mean about the same thing. You could say that you have taken on more than you bargained for. You have taken on too much. You have overextended yourself.

Another great expression that means the same is this one: You have spread yourself too thin. This is visually quite interesting. If you can imagine yourself being pulled in different directions until you become thinner and thinner and thinner...!

Some language experts say the expression "bite off more than you can chew" came into use in the 19th century. At that time, some people chewed tobacco leaves. Some people, when offered tobacco, would take a big bite – a piece much bigger than they could chew!

That may or may not be the origin. But in any event, when someone bites off more than they can chew, they promise themselves or others to do work that they cannot complete.

When using this expression, the reason you cannot complete the project is not important. Maybe you were already involved in too many other things. Maybe you didn't have the skills to finish the task. Or maybe you underestimated the time required to complete the job. Whatever the reason, it did not get it done!

Okay, now let’s hear two friends use this expression.

Steve and Michael are roommates. Steve is cooking in their first-floor apartment, while running downstairs to the laundry room and writing a research paper. Michael watches as his very stressed-out roommate runs back and forth from one job to another. Finally, he asks Steve a question.

Steve, what is going on? You've been going non-stop all morning! And why are you running back and forth to the laundry room every 20 minutes? You don’t have that many clothes!

I volunteered to do the laundry for older people in the building. You know, they can’t make it down to the ground floor since the elevator broke.

And the cooking?

Oh that. I promised to make treats for Sara’s birthday party this weekend.

That is so nice of you. But it shouldn’t make you stressed. You love baking cookies.

I do! But with the holidays around the corner, I’m also super busy at work. Plus, my research paper for that online poetry class must be done in three days. I’m swamped!

You have bitten off more than you can chew … again! When will you learn? There are only so many hours in a day. You just can’t do it all.

I know. I just have a really hard time saying "no."

Here, practice with me. I’m going to ask you to do me a favor and you must answer, “no.” Okay?

I’ll try.

Hey, Steve if you have some time tomorrow I need help painting my bedroom. What do you say?

Nn… nn…o...

Steve? Just say no!

And that is all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. But join us again next week when we investigate the story behind another word or expression.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo!

Ibrahim Onafeko wrote this story. Anna Matteo and George Grow were the editors. The song at the end is Suzi Quatro singing “I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew.”


Words in This Story

figure of speech n a phrase or expression that uses words in a figurative way rather than in a plain or literal way

figuratively adv. with a meaning that is different from the basic or literal meaning and that expresses an idea by using language that usually describes something else

to bargain for phrasal verb to expect or plan on (something)

visual adj. relating to seeing or to the eyes visually adv.

stressed-outadj. being anxious, tired and irritable because of too much work or pressure

laundry n. clothes, towels, sheets, etc., that need to be washed or that have been washed

elevatorn. a machine used for carrying people and things to different levels in a building

This is a bank of elevators. (When there is more than two elevators in an area, we call it a "bank.")
This is a bank of elevators. (When there is more than two elevators in an area, we call it a "bank.")

swamped v. to cause (someone or something) to have to deal with a very large amount of things or people at the same time — usually used as (be) swamped

practice v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

favor n. a kind or helpful act that you do for someone

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