2 English Idioms You Need To Be Careful With Literally And Figuratively Ep 443

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English Idioms Can Be Tricky

We often use English idioms in a way that needs more imagination to get the meaning than you might expect. Today we cover 2 idioms that could not be more different in their meaning, however they both can be dangerous to us if used improperly. Idioms are fun really, it’s handy to know what the most common ones mean as it would surprise you just how often you will hear them in everyday English conversations.

You many not have come across the words figuratively and literally before so I’ve provided links to the meaning of these words. Literally means translating the words one by one and not pulling them together to create a greater meaning. Figuratively means you are being asked to take the English words and phrases and comprehend their meaning and then use them to imagine a more involved meaning.

So I might say “It was a low blow”, if you were to take this literally you might think about wind a breeze or something happening low to the ground. What I’m actually figuratively saying is that an action took place that was unfair. Tricky stuff for new English language learners.

Unless you learn to spot these metaphorical phrases, you will probably get tripped up by them every now and again. The good news is any Native English speaker probably won’t even notice. This type of conversation using idioms and figurative speech is often just thrown in to speed up the conversation or make it more colourful. You either get it or you don’t, but it probably won’t stop you from communication with an English speaker in any meaningful way.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

You Might Hear3
Give Us A2
First Of All2
You Listen To2
To Mean That2

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The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: 2 English Idioms You Need To Be Careful With Literally And Figuratively

Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. If you like our podcasts, if you find that your English improves because you listen to the Adept English podcast, then please help us reach more people.

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Two English Idioms you might hear at work

Let’s make it simple today. Let’s take two English idioms that you might come across in your work place, in the office. Things that your boss might say, if she or he speaks English.

They are ‘to take the bull by the horns’ and ‘to pussyfoot around’. Both of these idioms reference animals, so we like these ones. And they mean something quite opposite.

English Idiom - To take the bull by the horns

So first of all, what do we mean when we say ‘to take the bull by the horns’? Well, vocabulary first of all – the word ‘bull’, BULL? Well this is the word we use for some male animals. So we might talk about a ‘bull elephant’ or a ‘bull seal’ meaning the ‘adult male elephant’, or the ‘adult male seal’. But most commonly when you hear the word ‘bull’ in English, it means the animal that you eat as beef.

Confusingly, we use the word ‘cow’, COW in English to mean that type of animal – ones we get our milk from – but strictly speaking ‘cow’ means only the females. So to say ‘a male cow’ seems a bit silly – but that’s what we mean by a bull. We see more cows around because they’re the ones producing the milk.

Bulls, apart from for their meat, really have only one farming use – making babies – so you need fewer of them, I suppose. Another context in which you might hear the word ‘bull’? People say it in informal conversation to mean that something is ‘rubbish’ or ‘not true’.


A photograph of a bull with enormous horns. This English idiom is definitely not something you want to try literally.

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You might hear ‘That’s bull!’. I tend to avoid bad language on my podcasts ‘cause I don’t want to offend anyone – but just so you know what this means, ‘bull’ is used as short for bullshit or bull crap. Just be a little bit careful with those words in English – they may still offend some people who are sensitive,. But you will probably hear people say ‘That’s bull!’ It’s a very common expression.

And ‘by the horns’? Well, a bull’s horns are the big pointy things on its head. If you were a Spanish bull fighter, it’s usually the bull’s horns that you would be worried about – as well as his hooves, his feet – that’s HOOVES. A bull’s horns are his weapons, it’s what the bull fights with.

So ‘to take the bull by the horns’ could literally mean grabbing hold of the horns of a bull – sound quite dangerous! I’m not sure that this is how bull-fighters do it – it seems like a bad idea! Bull fighters seem to side step and give the bull something else to poke with his horns! But when we use this phrase as an idiom, ‘to take the bull by the horns’, it means ‘to deal very directly and firmly with a difficult situation’.

In your work place, there may be a difficult situation developing – and everyone has been trying to ignore it, pretend it’s not happening. And then someone might say ‘Let’s take the bull by the horns and sort this problem out!’ You might hear ‘I took the bull by the horns and challenged her about coming into work late’ or ‘I took the bull by the horns and reorganised all the files’. Or ‘I took the bull by the horns and questioned our courier about the missing parcels’.


So as you can see from those examples, we often use ‘to take the bull by the horns’ when we’re tackling a difficult problem directly. Difficult, because it’s been ignored for a while….or because it’s awkward, embarrassing or complicated and it will take a lot of effort to solve. So what about another idiom which means something more like the opposite?

English Idiom – To pussyfoot around

What does it mean if you ‘pussyfoot around something’? ‘To pussyfoot’ is a verb and it’s generally seen as a bad thing – so more commonly you’ll hear this verb being used in the context of ‘Don’t pussyfoot around!’. Or ‘I find myself pussyfooting around her because I don’t want to get shouted at!’. So again here, vocabulary.

The word ‘pussyfoot’ is a compound word. So that means it’s a word made of two separate words, joined together – ‘pussy’ PUSSY and ‘foot’, FOOT. So ‘foot’, FOOT you probably know – you have two of them, they’re on the ends of your legs and you use them to stand. And it is on your feet that you wear your shoes and socks. Now the word ‘pussy’, PUSSY is a bit of a confusing one.

The older meaning and I think perhaps the more British meaning – it’s a child’s term for a cat. You might say ‘a pussycat’. And here again, I find myself tackling words and expressions that you might not use in front of your grandmother.

Be careful with the word ‘pussy’. It’s acquired another meaning in the past 40 years – it’s a word I really hate. And it means ‘the intimate part of a female body’. This word is probably more used like that in the US, but you do hear it in the UK. It’s an offensive word – it’s quite demeaning to women.

So if you use this word, you’re likely to offend people, if you use it in this way. So make sure that if you use the word ‘pussy’, you put ‘cat’ on the end, so people know that you’re talking about a ‘pussycat’. If you used it in work for example, you would be reprimanded probably, because it’s seen as inappropriate and sexual and demeaning.

The earlier word ‘bullshit’ – I said be careful with that one because it might draw mild objections, but ‘pussy’ is much more offensive. So always use it to mean a cat to avoid trouble. But back to ‘to pussyfoot’, the verb, which is a somewhat safer – what do we mean when we say ‘to pussyfoot’ or more commonly ‘to pussyfoot around’?

Do cats pussyfoot?

Well, if you own cats, you can probably work this one out. Cats are very good at balancing and are usually quite sure footed. If they want to, they can tiptoe amongst items on a shelf or a windowsill that they’re walking on – without disturbing anything.

The verb ‘to tiptoe’ just literally means ‘to go on the tips of your toes’ – perhaps like a ballerina. And ‘to tiptoe’ means to walk, to tread on the tips of your toes – or very lightly, so you don’t make a noise. So if you pussyfoot – that means that you tread carefully, gently, without disturbing anything, like a cat. It might be like a cat hunting as well, I guess. But it also has the meaning that you are usually pussyfooting around someone, around their sensitivities.

You’re being extra careful because you don’t want to provoke a reaction from the person that you’re pussyfooting around. Or you might ‘pussyfoot around a subject’ – which means that you talk about everything around the edges of the subject, but you don’t talk about the subject directly. So ‘pussyfooting’ tends to have a negative meaning.

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It tends to mean that the speaker, the person saying ‘pussyfooting’, thinks you should be more direct. You should ‘take the bull by the horns’ actually. So you might hear someone say ‘Stop pussyfooting around the subject – and say what you mean. Take the bull by the horns!’. You might pussyfoot around your boss because she’s in a bad mood. Or you might say ‘The politicians should stop pussyfooting around and decide what measures to take’.

Having said what I just did about cats and pussyfooting, we find that our cats do sometimes knock things over – a favourite thing being a vase of flowers. So we find water everywhere and flower stems and an upturned vase. Because we know that they can pussyfoot, we tend to think it’s on purpose when they do it – for attention!

One of my cats has had to have a lampshade on at the moment. A lampshade is one of those collars cats and dogs wear when they have an injury – to stop them licking the injury. Well, one of my cats has a lampshade and he certainly isn’t pussyfooting around at the moment – he’s very clumsy. He’s even broken the flap of his cat flap this week, with his lampshade.

A cat flap, CAT FLAP is the little tiny door people sometimes have so that their cat can come in and out of the house by itself. I came in to find a big hole in the door – and the flap in the middle of the kitchen! What a vandal! Not pussyfooting at all….

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So there are two lovely useful idioms for you today – ‘to take the bull by the horns’ and ‘to pussyfoot around’.

Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.




The voice of Adeptenglish, loves English and wants to help people who want to speak English fluently.
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