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Kick Up Your Heels!

British travelers kick up their heels as they celebrate Christmas Day at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, December 2012. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
British travelers kick up their heels as they celebrate Christmas Day at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, December 2012. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Kick Up Your Heels!
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Now, it is time for Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program we explain the meaning and usage of common expressions in American English.

Today we will talk about expressions with the word “heel.”

Now, heel has several meanings, many of which relate to the end or back of things. For example, we call the two ends of a loaf of bread the heels. This can be good to know, especially if you like dipping a bread heel into a simmering pot of tomato sauce or soup.

Another meaning of heel is the end of your foot. In an earlier Words and Their Stories, we explained the story of Achilles’ heel in detail. So, we won’t repeat that expression in this program. Why should we when there are so many others to choose from?

Just as the heel is the back of your foot, the heel of your shoe is also the back part. Many women like to wear high-heeled shoes. They may look nice but high-heels can cause pain and are not good for your feet. Sometimes we call the really high-heeled shoes that women wear "killer heels."

Speaking of shoes, wealthy people usually have many. To be well-heeled means to be wealthy and well-to-do. Perhaps wearing nice shoes is where “well-heeled” comes from.

Let’s move from shoes to pets! You may hear dog owners who are training their dogs say something like, “Heel, boy! Heel!” Here the verb “heel” means to follow or stop at a person’s heels.

Now, you would not to leave your beloved pet with a heel. This is a person you cannot trust. “Heel” used in this way comes from an early 20th century American expression meaning an "incompetent or worthless criminal." Language experts say this definition may come from a "person in the lowest position" being compared to the heel of the foot.

Let’s talk more about this body part.

Have you ever wanted to describe a situation where you were unwilling to change your mind about something? You could say you dug your heels in. Someone digging their heels in the ground would be difficult to move.

Stubborn is a good word to describe people who have dug their heels in. You could even use them together. For example, I stubbornly dug my heels in when my friend suggested we go to the mountains instead of the seashore. I really wanted to go to the beach!

If someone (or something) is at your heels, they are following closely behind you. Let’s say you have a little brother who really wants to hang around you all the time. He is always at your heels – which could become annoying.

However, being on the heels of something is a little different. This expression means that something happens soon after something else. For example, Sonia and Timothy announced their plans to get married on the heels of another big announcement – Sonia’s divorce from her last husband. Good timing, Sonia!

As a body part, our heels find themselves in two other common expressions.

To kick up your heels means to have fun. Some word experts think this expression may have come from the world of horses. Others say it comes from the way you might use your feet when you are waiting for something. Regardless of its origin, Americans often use this expression after they have been very busy, as in this example: “After studying all month, the students were happy to finish their exams, kick up their heels and relax!”

The saying to cool your heels means you are forced to wait for something to happen. For example, you may have to cool your heels at a doctor’s office or in a long line at the store. We often use this expression as a command. If your friend really wants to go to a party, but you need to make a quick stop first, you could say, “Hey, cool your heels! The party will still be there!”

“To cool your heels” is also casual. If I were talking in a more serious and official situation, I might say that I waited patiently.

This expression dates back to the 16th century. After horses ran a long race, their feet were hot. So the animals stood in water to cool their feet. By the next century, people were using the saying cooling his heels to describe someone who was in a hurry but had to wait for something.

And that’s all for this Words and Their Stories. We will be back next week. Until then, you’ll just have to cool your heels.

I’m Anna Matteo.

"Kick up your heels and swing with me. Oh my, Baby. Kick up your heels and swing with me. Gonna dance with me tonight. Kick up your heels and swing with me. Oh my, Baby. Swing it like you mean it!"

Anna Matteo wrote this Words and Their Stories for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is Jessica Mauboy singing "Kick Up Your Heels."


Words in This Story

simmer v. to stew gently below or just at the boiling point

stubborn adj. refusing to change your ideas or to stop doing something

annoying adj. to cause (someone) to feel slightly angry

patient adj. able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people : patiently adv.