Well, it’s been nearly a month since we last discussed an English idiom, so in today's English lesson we will jump right in and learn some phrases you will hear in everyday English conversations at work or home.
I think of English idioms as shortcuts, typically used by native English speakers as a way of being more efficient in conversation.
It’s just quicker to say a few words which have a bigger shared understanding between the speakers in a conversation.
The problem is native English speakers use them all the time and unless you know what the idiom or phrase is talking about you might end up treating the words literally and that will lead to misunderstandings and confusion.
With literally thousands of idioms to learn, the challenge for new English language learners is knowing which idioms or phrases are popular and being used every day and which are nice to know but not that common.
This is where we can help, as we only ever cover useful idioms in our English lessons. Typically, we’ve heard it being used a few times on UK TV, radio or in conversation recently is our test for covering it.
|To Beat About The Bush
|To Cut To The Chase
|To Get To The Point
|Comes From The World Of
|You’d Like Them To Be
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How about we do two idioms today which make a similar point but which have in fact opposite meanings? And two idioms which are in common use, even though they originated many years ago. So these idioms are:-
- ‘To beat about the bush’ or ‘ To beat around the bush’ and
- ‘To cut to the chase’.
So if we take the first idiom, ‘to beat about the bush’ or ‘to beat around the bush’ – there’s not really any difference in meaning between those two. The meaning of to ‘beat around the bush’ – it’s said when somebody is talking, but not being direct, they are not ‘getting to the point’, they’re not being clear.
They may be talking about all kinds of things, but not really what they truly mean. So you’re likely to hear this said as something you don’t want to do. You might hear ‘Let’s not beat around the bush’. So in full ‘Let us not beat around the bush’ or perhaps ‘Please don’t beat around the bush’.
So if you say someone is ‘beating about the bush’ or ‘beating around the bush’, what you’re actually saying is that you’d like them to be more direct, you’d like them to get to the point, you’d like them to be clear. And if you’re not sure, the vocabulary here – a bush, B-U-S-H is a shrub, a small thing….like a small tree really.
You could have a rose bush, a holly bush – or a hydrangea or an azalea - they’re bushes you might find in your garden. So a bush is a medium sized plant, not usually as big as a tree, but certainly big enough for animals to hide inside.
So let me explain the origin. In common with other many countries, the UK has a history of hunting. t – most people don’t support it because they think that it’s cruel and unnecessary – and that only people with lots of money do it or want to do it, so it’s a bad thing.
But in times long ago, hunting was an essential skill, if you wanted to eat meat, that is. People had no choice. It’s not that I’m not pro-hunting – I don’t particularly support hunting, but I do question whether modern factory farming is actually worse for animals. But in the tradition of the hunt, ‘beaters’ were people who beat the ground with sticks, so that the animals being hunted – whether it was birds, rabbits or deer – they would fly up or run out of the bushes, where they were hiding. This would enable the hunters to chase them or to take a shot at them and kill them. We’re perhaps not happy with these ideas nowadays, but it was either regarded as sport, or necessary to get food, in times past.
A photograph of European wildcat, felis silvestris, with a kill of dead rabbit used to help explain the English idiom beat around the bush.
So the origin of ‘to beat around the bush’ is from this, the action of the beaters, who’d scare the animals out of hiding, but they wouldn’t actually kill them, they’d leave that to somebody else. So that’s the sense of it being indirect.
So although we might not like to think of this origin, when someone says ‘Don’t beat about the bush, say what you mean’, this is where the phrase comes from. The origin may be old, but it’s something that is still very current in the English language. So you hear people say ‘Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point! Cut to the chase!’
So that next idiom? ‘Cut to the chase’. Its meaning is perhaps clearer from how I’ve just used the phrase, the sentence. It means the opposite of ‘beat around the bush’. It means in a conversation or a piece of writing ‘to cut to the chase’ is ‘to get to the point’. ‘Let’s get straight to the important material, straight to what matters – ‘let’s cut to the chase and not waste time!’.
So you might imagine perhaps that this idiom again comes from the world of hunting – hunting certainly involves a chase. But surprisingly it doesn’t – I’ll tell you the origin in a minute. What about vocabulary first? Well, you probably know the verb ‘to cut’ as an action you would do with a knife – that’s K-N-I-F-E. So you might be in your kitchen, cutting bread with a knife or cutting carrots with a knife. But here the verb ‘to cut’ means ‘to go straight to’ something.
Think of the world of film editing – and ‘cut’ used as in ‘the director’s cut’. In a film, you might say ‘cut to’ – meaning ‘go straight to a different scene in the movie’. ‘Scene’ is spelt S-C-E-N-E. And a chase, C-H-A-S-E? Well, that’s something that you might do for fun, or for sport.
Or if someone wants to attack you and you’re running away, they might chase you – that means that they might run after you. So that’s a chase. When I was writing this podcast, I actually looked out of the window and I could see our two cats, playing on the grass outside – and chasing each other like crazy things. That’s a ‘chase’.
So if ‘cut to the chase’ means ‘Get to the point! Stop ‘beating around the bush’, then what is its origin, if it’s not to do with hunting? Well, it comes from the world of film and film editing. ‘Editing’ means when you cut bits out, you only keep the good bits. And it comes from the world of old films, when very often, the final scene, the final part of the movie would involve a chase scene, a pursuit – so it might be a car chase or it might be some other kind of pursuit. So ‘cut to the chase’ means ‘Let’s get to that final scene, let’s get to the exciting part of the movie that people actually want to watch’.
So when someone says to you ‘Stop beating around the bush. Cut to the chase!’, hopefully you will now know what they mean. That’s your English lesson for today, so listen to this podcast a number of times and try to get to the point where you know and understand all the words, so that you can just focus on taking the meaning automatically from the words. That’s good ‘Listen & Learn’ technique.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.