Learn Why Superman Has Nerves Of Steel With This Weeks Podcast
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Hi there, I’m Hilary and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English – the first one of 2018. I hope you enjoyed the break if you are in a country that celebrates Christmas and also Happy New Year to you. If this is the first time that you’re listening to our podcast, then we’re here to help those people who have basic English, but who want to understand better and speak more fluently. Listen to our podcasts a number of times to help you understand the vocabulary and the grammar, automatically. So English will become automatic, a bit more like your own language.
So, a new year – and let’s get down to some new idioms. Today I’ve chosen a set of idioms which all use the word ‘nerve’ – so some phrases and expressions which use the word nerve. But first of all, let me explain the word nerve – because it may not be one that you know. Your nerves are a part of your body – in fact they run all through your body. If you see an image, a picture or a diagram of your nerves – they look like little trees growing inside you. And the job of your nerves is to carry the messages inside your body. So if you hold something which is hot and which is burning your hand, your nerves will ensure that the message ‘Ouch, this is hot!’ reaches your brain, the machine inside your head. This makes you drop whatever it is that’s hot and burning you, automatically – and really quickly before it hurts you any more. So your nerves run all the way through your body and carry messages – and are really important.
So that’s the medical bit. Now for the idioms. So what are the phrases we ‘re going to look at? Well…
A bag of nerves
To have the nerve/to have a nerve
Nerves of steel
To get on someone’s nerves
To hit a nerve or to touch a nerve
Firstly there’s a word in English which is related to the noun nerve or nerves, and it’s an adjective – which is the word ‘nervous’. If someone is nervous it means they’re fearful of something that’s going to happen. Nervous is how you might feel at a job interview. Or if you’re going to give a big speech, in front of hundreds of people. It means that the thing you are fearing is in the future. You’re fearful about how you’re going to do, how you’re going to perform. So another way of saying that you’re nervous, this kind of fearful is to say ‘Oh, I’m a bag of nerves’. You might hear sentences like this ‘After the accident, she was a bag of nerves when she had to drive the car again’ or ‘I was a bag of nerves when I had to walk on the ice’. Probably be a bit careful with this phrase. It’s OK to say it of yourself, or you might say it of a 3rd person, (he, she, it or they – someone who wasn’t listening). But you probably wouldn’t say ‘You’re a bag of nerves’ to someone, unless you knew them really well. They might not like you saying that about them. So a bag of nerves.
The next phrase which uses the word nerve actually means the opposite. If you say ‘you have the nerve to do something’ – it means that you aren’t scared, you aren’t nervous, or you may be, but you’ll do it anyway. Saying that ‘you have the nerve to do something’ is like saying ‘you have the courage to do it’. If you’re using it in a positive way, you might say someone has the nerve to jump out of a plane with a parachute or someone else has the nerve to ski down a mountain side. It means they have confidence, courage to do these things. You might hear it in the negative – for example ‘I don’t have the nerve to jump out of a plane’. That’s true! I also don’t have the nerve to go bungee jumping – if you know what that is. That’s never going to happen for me because I’m afraid of heights! There are other expressions – like saying someone has ‘nerves of steel’. Steel is a metal which is very strong. So if someone says you have ‘nerves of steel’, it means you have a lot of courage. Usually used when someone is doing something difficult or scary. Like ski jumping or sky diving, or rock climbing – you’ve got to have ‘nerves of steel’. You can also ‘hold your nerve’ – which means you keep on because have courage – or you can ‘lose your nerve’, which means you give up because you’re too fearful, too frightened. So ‘to have the nerve’ or ‘to hold your nerve’ – kind of means that you have courage.
A very slightly different phrase – if you change ‘to have the nerve’ to ‘to have a nerve’, it immediately has a different, more negative meaning. If you say ‘he has a nerve’ – it means that you think that the person is doing something he shouldn’t be doing. It’s the sort of thing people sometimes that shout at each other in the street, if they’re angry. If you park your car across someone’s driveway – the owner of the house might shout ‘You have a nerve, parking across my driveway like that!’ So it means that you’ve done something without thinking of the other person, and actually you shouldn’t have done it. If you say someone ‘has a nerve’, it has a critical meaning. If you put your rubbish in your neighbour’s rubbish bin, or if you let your dog poo on their lawn, on their garden – it’s the sort of thing that people say. ‘You have a nerve’ – so it’s got the meaning, the sense of you being ‘on their territory’, doing something you shouldn’t. So ‘he’s got the nerve’ and ‘he’s got a nerve’ have quite different meanings. The first one is probably quite admiring, quite positive and the second is definitely negative and probably critical.
The next phrase – to get on someone’s nerves. That sounds like incorrect grammar, but it’s a commonly used phrase in English. If something ‘gets on your nerves’, it means it’s annoying you, it’s making you cross or irritable. And usually the meaning is that what’s annoying you has happened repeatedly, it’s happened lots of times. So this is an idiom you might use, a phrase you might use if your children are being very noisy and running around the house, making a mess. You might say ‘They’re getting on my nerves’. You might say your neighbours are getting on your nerves, because they’re playing loud music. Or if your hair keeps falling in your eyes and you need to go and get a haircut, you could say ‘My hair is getting on my nerves’. So it can be a person who ‘gets on your nerves’ – or it could be an animal, or it could be a thing. It’s making you irritable. Grrr.
The last phrase for today – ‘to hit a nerve’. If you go back to the original, medical meaning of the word nerve- so your nerves as part of your body. Remember, this is how messages flow between different parts of your body and your brain. Then, if you imagine being at the dentist – you’re having your teeth looked at. And if the dentist is working on your tooth – ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, with the drill – and OUCH! They’ve hit a nerve – that means that there’s a sudden pain, you jump out of the dentist’s chair. Aaah – horrible. Then that’s what the phrase to ‘hit a nerve’ means. But it’s also used as a metaphor. So sometimes items on the news ‘hit a nerve’ or ‘touch a nerve’ with people. It means it’s a topic, a subject that’s very sensitive and it gets an emotional reaction. So ‘touching a nerve’ can mean that someone feels angry, or sad or frightened – but it’s strong emotions of some kind. So if someone writes an article in a newspaper and it goes out one week and then there are lots of complaints. Lots of readers of the newspaper email or call in to complain, you might say that the newspaper article hit a nerve. Another example, this weekend on the news, a book has been published in the US by Michael Woolf called ‘Fire and Fury’. And in the book are revelations, surprising things said by Donald’s Trump’s previous right-hand man, Steve Bannon. Obviously, whatever is in the book has ‘touched a nerve’ with Donald Trump – as he seems to be doing all he can to rubbish it. But this just seems to make people want to read it more – it’s now Amazon’s number one best selling book!
Anyway enough for now. Don’t forget to listen to this podcast a number of times and there will be another one next Monday. Also don’t forget, if you feel ready to listen to English conversation, to practise your understanding of two people talking, not just me – have a look at our Course One: Activate your Listening on our website – adeptenglish.com. It’s available to buy now and it will really help your language learning. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.