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From Monkeys to Potatoes



Welcome to Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

On today’s program we will talk about several very common expressions. Even though these expressions use simple language, English learners may find them difficult to understand. In fact, native English speaking children often have trouble, too.

Speaking of children -- what child doesn’t like to jump around and act silly sometimes? Monkeys are also known for acting silly. So, when kids act up, parents or teachers may tell them to stop monkeying around.

To monkey around means to do things that are not useful or serious, or to simply waste time.

Now, in the United States, children do not usually have monkeys as pets, but they do often have dogs. And dogs make most children feel happy. But for some reason – a reason that word experts do not know – we use “dog” in a phrase that means to feel unwell. If you are as sick as a dog you are really, really sick and will most likely stay home from work or school.

Besides, dogs, cats are also a favorite pet here in the States. This next phrase combines cats and secrets to make a very common expression.

Let’s say you know a secret, a big secret. And let’s say you tell it to people. You have just let the cat out of the bag! This idiom means to reveal a secret or tell facts that were previously unknown.

If you let the cat out of the bag, you spoil a surprise. So, if your friend is planning a big surprise birthday for another friend, don’t let the cat out of the bag by accidentally saying it in front of the birthday girl.

Even though this is a very common idiom, the origin of “to let the cat out of the bag” is also unknown. However, the origin of our next expression is not hard to guess.

If you are doing an outdoor activity -- such as hiking in the woods, or having a picnic in a park -- what are some things that may disturb your good time? Bad weather could. And so could bugs! Crawling pests like ants, and flying ones like mosquitoes, could make your experience uncomfortable or annoying.

So, when we bug people we bother them so much that we affect their good time. This common expression is often said as a command: “Stop bugging me!”

Now, let’s move on to clothing.

Of course, you know what a hat it. But did you know that you can many at the same time?

If you wear many hats you do many different things, even if you only have one job. For example, if you work at a small company, the owners may expect you to answer the phones, manage some paperwork, speak to clients, and design the web site.

In today’s economy, some people say it is good to wear many hats when you are first starting your career.

While wearing my researching hat here at Learning English, I have learned that many languages use food in their idioms and expressions. English is no exception.

Some food expressions have good meanings, while others don’t. For example, being a couch potato is not a good thing. This means you sit on the couch all day and do nothing but watch television or play video games.

People who are couch potatoes are thought to be lazy and boring. Life does not excite them. They would rather watch others live on a screen.

Now, let’s say a friend of yours is a couch potato. You may wonder how he got to be that way. One day you visit this friend’s home and meet his mother and father. While you are there, you see the parents are also couch potatoes. You could say, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

This expression simply means that a child acts or looks a lot like the parents. Usually we use this expression when talking about bad things. But we can also use it to describe good traits that are passed down from a parent to a child.

We use the next two expressions when we have problems. One deals with your heart, and the other with your bank account.

Sometimes in life, we run into serious issues. They might require a conversation with someone about an uncomfortable or unpleasant topic. We call this kind of conversation a heart-to-heart. We use this expression as a noun or as an adjective, such as “heart-to-heart talk.”

But perhaps having a heart-to-heart doesn’t help to solve a problem. Let’s say you are having trouble paying your rent; having a heart-to-heart with your landlord may gain you a couple of weeks, but soon you will have to pay your rent. The only thing to really help this problem is money.

However, money can’t – and shouldn’t – help all problems. Also, it’s not a good idea to try to solve big problems with just money.

But sometimes, people do just throw money at a problem and hope that it goes away. For example, people having trouble learning English may try to throw money at the problem. They may buy classes, time with teachers and the latest language software. But these things will get them only so far. To really get better, they must simply study and practice.

And that’s all for this Words and Their Stories.

If you liked any of these idioms, practice using it. You can do that in the Comments Section!

I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. Olivia Liu edited the accompanying video.

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Words in This Story

silly adj. not serious, meaningful, or important

act upv. to act in an unruly, abnormal, or annoying way

reveal v. to make (something) known

previously adv. existing or happening before the present time

lazy adj. not liking to work hard or to be active

boring adj. dull and uninteresting

spoil v. to have a bad effect on (something) : to damage or ruin (something)

trait n. a quality that makes one person or thing different from another

landlord n. a person who owns a house, apartment, etc., and rents it to other people

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