Today we work on some English idioms, that are worth knowing. Native English speakers often use idioms because they help shorten a conversation. You can explain a lot with a relatively short idiom. The list of English idioms is always growing, but you don’t need to know them all. You need to know the ones that are being used today, the most popular ones, the tricky ones that are not obvious when you first hear them. So do you want to avoid that tricky moment when someone uses an idiom and you’re completely lost?
✔Lesson transcript: https://adeptenglish.com/lessons/english-idioms-red-rag-bull/
As an English language learner, you can expect to come across idioms a lot, especially in everyday conversations, or newspapers, where people are trying to say a lot in a short amount of time. So you definitely need to work on them to level up your English fluency.
Lucky you, we are here to help you with idioms! We try to cover idioms that are being used right now in the UK, usually idioms we hear on the radio, or TV or read in a newspaper in 2023. So idioms that are worth learning because there is a strong likelihood you will encounter them in conversations.
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It’s definitely worth filtering idioms. You don’t want to go on the internet and search for 500 English idioms and start learning them from the top. Idioms come and go. You will find we native English speakers just don’t use a lot of the idioms you find in those 500 list internet blogs any more. They fall out of fashion or they get used less because they are no longer relevant, or they are stuck to a particular age group or generation.
- Flies: Small winged insects that often buzz around food and waste.
- Ointment: A thick cream used to heal skin or make it feel better.
- Cattle: Large farm animals kept for their milk or meat. They often have horns and eat grass.
- Bull: A male cow, often bigger and stronger than female cows. Used for breeding or sometimes in sports like bullfighting.
- Muleta: A red cloth held by a matador in a bullfight. It helps to guide and control the bull.
Hi there. First of all, today, let me give you a puzzle. What am I saying here?
'Oh, that's the fly in the ointment in that situation'.
Or if I say...
'Ooh, he's the red rag to my bull'.
Can you understand those phrases? Do you know what I'm saying there? Well, I'm using a couple of English idioms and they're really problematic sometimes for language learners.
So today, let's unpack and understand those phrases so that you'll know what they mean when you come across them, and so that you can use them yourself.
Hello, I’m Hilary, and you’re listening to Adept English. We will help you to speak English fluently. All you have to do is listen. So start listening now and find out how it works.
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Okay, so two idioms for you today. One of them I used in Monday's podcast this week when I was talking about cholesterol. That's a great informative podcast number 605, if you want to go and have a look at that one.
The idiom I used there was ' a fly in the ointment' or 'the fly in the ointment'. The other idiom I want to cover today? 'A red rag to a bull'.
So first of all, 'a fly in the ointment'. I'm just about to do what's really useful to you when you're learning a language, a 'corroboration'. So if you've listened to Monday's podcast, you'll have heard this idiom being used. So now I'm gonna explain it to you - t hat ' spaced repetition', that corroboration will mean that you've more chance of remembering it.
So 'a fly in the ointment', what does that phrase mean? It's an idiom, of course. So it doesn't mean what the words literally say, it's a different meaning. Vocabulary first? The noun 'fly'? Well, we tend to use that as a general term for any flying insect. 'A fly' and its plural is 'flies', F L I E S.
And flies can be a problem, particularly in the summer. There are places where you don't want flies, and one of them might be your kitchen when you're cooking.
Although flies are good and have their place in nature, they're part of an ecosystem, they can be a problem if they're in the wrong place. You don't want a fly in your soup or in your butter, and you certainly don't want a fly in your ointment. So what does 'ointment' mean? That's O I N T M E N T. Well, 'ointment' is a rather old-fashioned word for something that you might rub on your skin to make it better. It's a medicine. You might use an ointment in your eyes, an 'eye ointment' if you've got a problem of some kind there.
So if we talk about something idiomatically being 'the fly in the ointment', what we mean by this is there's a small thing wrong in a situation, but it spoils the whole thing, spoils everything.
If you have a fly in your soup, it's only a little tiny thing swimming in there, but you're probably not going to eat the bowl of soup. And similarly, 'a fly in the ointment', you might not feel like using the rest of the cream or ointment if you find a fly in it.
So 'a fly in the ointment' means a little tiny thing, but which spoils everything, which ruins everything, which changes the whole situation. Some examples might be:-
We found a lovely house. The only fly in the ointment - we're told the neighbours are horrible.
The part of the contract, which says that you can't work for anyone else. That's the fly in the ointment.
The only fly in the ointment with this holiday - my cousin is coming with us.
I don't have any horrible cousins, by the way!
OK, let's do the next one. 'A red rag to a bull'. Like many English idioms, we sometimes put different words in so you might hear something like 'Oh, he is the red rag to my bull', so we're changing it slightly. Or 'That was like showing a red rag to a bull'. So we vary it according to what kind of sentence we want to slot it into.
Vocabulary here? A bull, first of all, B U L L. Well, 'a bull' is the name that we give to some types of male animal. Mammals this time, not flies or insects. So if you're talking about male seals, that's S E A L, 'a seal', or male elephants, male walruses, male rhinoceros or male giraffes, we call them all 'bulls'.
The usage that we're most familiar with, in the UK at least, is 'a bull' as a farm animal, where we get beef from. And we also have 'cows'. That's the female equivalent of a bull. That's where we get our milk and dairy products from, 'cows'.
So collectively, we might call them 'cattle', C A T T L E. But cows and bulls are the terms that we use. So male cattle or 'bulls' are known for being aggressive and they have great big horns on their heads sometimes as well. And they can actually be quite dangerous. They're huge animals. I recall being charged by a bull in the Lake District in the north of the UK, as a teenager. Quite frightening.
So sometimes you find bulls in English idioms because they mean unrestrained and unthinking aggression. Something or someone who moves around quickly and in an unthinking way. We have another expression 'like a bull in a china shop'. If you say this of someone, it means that they're unthinking and aggressive and likely to do damage.
When we say 'a china shop', 'china', C H I N A, not only means a country in English, the capital of which is Beijing, but 'china' is also pottery or pots. So if you imagine putting a bull into 'a china shop', it would do a lot of damage very quickly! So if someone says, 'Oh, he's a bull in a china shop', that means he's aggressive and unthinking and does a lot of damage. So that's the way we tend to think of bulls in our idioms.
So back to 'a red rag, to a bull'. You can guess what I'm going to describe next. There is a sport, a traditional sport, which is popular in countries like Spain, called 'bull fighting'.
And according to Wikipedia, 'bull fighting' is still practised in Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. That's quite a lot of countries. If you've ever watched this, the bull fighter or Matador, as they're called, uses a red cloth to antagonize the bull. This cloth is called a 'muleta', M U L E T A.
The theory was that bulls don't like red. Actually bulls are colour blind and can't see red at all, and it's probably the fact that they shake the cloth or wiggle it around that makes the bull go for it. And actually it's not a cloth or 'a rag', as in our phrase. It's actually a 'cape', C A P E. So that's something that you would wear on your shoulders. That's what the matador holds.
A photo of a matador and a bull. Level up your English fluency with some idioms you will hear being used in the UK in 2023.
I'm not sure I like bull fighting much. Sorry if you're into that, but in common with many British people, we're animal lovers, so we don't really like bull fighting very much. However, it's where this phrase comes from. So the idea of something being 'a red rag to a bull'? It means it's a provocation. It immediately makes you angry, annoyed, irritated. It's 'the red rag to your bull'. It's automatic. It's not a thought through reaction.
So if I use this phrase, 'a red rag to a bull', it might sound like this. That person in accounts - she's the red rag to my bull, when she questions my invoices!
When the nurse said, 'You should only look on the NHS website for your research', that was a red rag to my bull.
Prince Harry's book about the Royal Family, which was leaked in Spain this week, must be like a red rag to a bull.
That's some topical usage for you!
Anyway, use this podcast to learn these two idioms, to enhance your ability to understand English and to increase your English vocabulary.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
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