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Don't Get 'Boxed in a Corner!'

Floyd Mayweather Jr. sits in his corner between rounds against Conor McGregor in a boxing match, August 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Eric Jamison)
Don't Get 'Boxed in a Corner'
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Now, it’s time for the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories. On this show we explore the origins, meanings and usage of common expressions in everyday English.

Today we talk about a very common place – a corner. This word has many uses and we use it in many expressions.

The most common definition of a corner is where two lines, edges, or sides of something meet. For example, squares have four corners. And unless they are round, rooms have corners.

Home decorators have advice related to corners: If you are painting a floor, start with the inside corners and work your way to the door. Otherwise, you will paint yourself in a corner. You will be stuck there, with no way to walk out without stepping on your newly painted floor!

As an expression, “painting yourself in a corner” means you have trapped yourself in a bad situation. You have not given yourself a good way out.

Okay, most rooms have corners and so do neighborhoods. A corner is where two streets meet. So, it’s a word we often use when giving directions. For example, I can tell my friend to meet me at the corner of Main Street and Pine Avenue.

The corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, California, is one of the most famous in the U.S. It was the corner of many protests against the Vietnam War. It's also known for the drug and music culture of the 1960s.
The corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco, California, is one of the most famous in the U.S. It was the corner of many protests against the Vietnam War. It's also known for the drug and music culture of the 1960s.

If your friends are looking for the corner store near your house, you can tell them, “You can’t miss it. Just go down the street and turn left. It’s right around the corner.”

However, you should know that when we are not giving directions, right around the corner has a meaning that is not related to space. It’s related to time.

“Right around the corner” can mean that something will be happening soon. So, if your birthday is right around the corner, you will be celebrating it soon.

In conversation, to turn the corner also means much more than telling someone how to get somewhere. When we “turn the corner,” we have passed a difficult part of some process.

Let’s say your boss gives you big project at work. But she doesn’t give you enough resources. So, the start is very rough. You struggle through many weeks of not knowing if the project will be successful.

But then finally, you achieve the project’s first major goal. You can say you finally turned the corner. You have gotten through the tough part, and now, everything will be fine.

We also call the sides of our eyes and mouths the corners. So, if you’re on a date eating messy pizza, make sure to wipe the corners of your mouth. That’s usually where the sauce collects.

Now, when we talk about the eye, corners get a little more interesting. Seeing something out of the corner of the eye means you see something quickly and unclearly. So, if the police question you after a traffic accident, you could say, “Sorry, officer. I didn’t see much. I simply caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye.”

We also use this expression to describe something we see in a secretive, suspenseful or romantic way. For example, “Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her -- the woman of his dreams! His heart began to pound in his chest.”

Some other definitions of corner are also secretive and romantic. A corner can be a place that few people know about or visit or a place that is very far away.

For example, if you know a man who lives very far away from you in a very private place, you can say he lives in a remote corner of the world. Your other friend is quite the opposite. She loves to travel and has visited every corner of the world!

If you want to visit a remote corner of the world, try Japan's Aoshima Island. Rumor has it that cats rule the fishing island. (Reuters 2015.)
If you want to visit a remote corner of the world, try Japan's Aoshima Island. Rumor has it that cats rule the fishing island. (Reuters 2015.)

Now, a corner doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can cut. But you can – at least in conversation.

When you cut corners you do something in a cheaper or easier way. For example, when my friends got married, they didn’t have much money. So, they cut corners on the music and photography. Instead of hiring a band, the bride asked her brother to play the guitar. And instead of paying a lot of money for a professional photographer, the couple gave all the guests inexpensive cameras and asked them to shoot candid photos.

Cutting corners on music and a photographer allowed my friends to spend more money on food and drinks. So, it was a good idea. However, cutting corners on expenses like childcare and healthcare is, most likely, not a good idea.

Some word experts suspect the phrase “cut corners” comes from taking a shorter route by taking a diagonal path. Moving diagonally allows you to literally cut out the corners.

Now, let’s talk about a type of corner found in sports.

In boxing, boxers fight in a four-cornered square called a ring. The corners of a boxing ring give us several expressions.

During a boxing match, the most dangerous place to be is in a corner. If a boxer gets trapped in a corner, he or she is unable to move right or left. This leaves them open to an attack. So, if you are boxed in a corner, or in a tight corner, or backed into a corner you are trapped and do not have a good way to get out.

Here are some examples.

“My girlfriend has me backed into a corner. She says I don’t take her out to dinner enough. But when I take her out to dinner, she says I spend too much money!”

“Look, I know you don’t agree with Neil’s ideas. But don’t box him into a corner. If he feels trapped, he will take his investment money elsewhere.”

“Stephanie is one of my oldest and dearest friends. But she’s really put me in a tight corner. She won’t come to my birthday party if Daniel comes. But Daniel is my close friend too!”

So, if someone boxes you into a corner, that person has control over you. In fact, the verb “corner” means to control something. It is used a couple of ways.

If you force someone to talk to you, you have cornered them.

Here are two examples:

“The fan cornered the famous actress and demanded her autograph.”

“The reporter cornered the politician outside his office with a series of difficult questions.”

“To corner” can also mean you have physically blocked someone’s path. If the police chase a criminal into a dark alley and there is no escape, they have trapped the criminal! The police may yell, “Give up! It’s no use trying to escape! We’ve got you cornered!”

We also use the verb "corner" this way in business. If you control the buying and selling of a product or service, you have cornered it. We often use “corner” this way in the phrase to corner the market.

For example, when it comes to freshly baked bread in the city, one business has cornered the market. No other bakery can compete. With this phrase, you can also add what type of market is being cornered. The owners of the bakery have cornered the city’s homemade bread market.

Now, we use many of these corner expressions in bad situations, such as when we are trapped, stuck by someone or surrounded by police.

Let’s end on a happy note. When we say someone is in your corner, it means they are on your side. They are fighting for you.

This expression also comes from the boxing world. The trainer is the person who comes to the boxer’s corner between rounds to give water, advice and medical help, if needed. So, if my friend says to me that she is in my corner, I know she is there to help me. In other words, she has my back.

And that’s the end of this Words and Their Stories. When it comes to improving your English, you can rest easy knowing that everyone here at Learning English is in your corner!

I’m Anna Matteo. And I'm Bryan Lynn.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. The song at the end of the program is Creedence Clearwater Rival singing "Down on the Corner."


Words in This Story

glimpse n. a brief or quick view or look : also – v. to look at or see (something or someone) for a very short time

suspenseful adj. a feeling or state of nervousness or excitement caused by wondering what will happen

romanticadj. of, relating to, or involving love between two people

candid adj. photography : showing people acting in a natural way because they do not know that they are being photographed

route n. a way to get from one place to another place

diagonal adj. joining two opposite corners of a shape (such as a square or rectangle) especially by crossing the center point of the shape

literallyadv. with the meaning of each individual word given exactly: in a completely accurate way

digress v. to speak or write about something that is different from the main subject being discussed