Learn idioms and expressions in context: Workplace small talk!

Oct 26, 2022

Learn idioms and expressions in context: Workplace small talk!

A typical day in Canada, you might have already noticed, requires you to know many , many idioms! Idioms are expressions that are often not necessarily logical or even connected to the words that make them. They have to be learned but the words don’t help us get clues to their meaning. So how do you learn them? Memorizing them from long idioms lists online? Studying them and using fill-in-the-blank exercises to clarify their meaning? No and no. I think, dear reader, you are saying NO along with me!

A more effective way to understand, remember and use them is observing them in context.

Since I am an instructor in ELT which teaches international professionals how to find and keep a job in Canada, let’s do a practice run of typical morning small-talk in a Canadian workplace. Remembering idioms in context and a situation helps our brain put them in a file folder, so to speak, where we could find them again. Repeating this experience (observing them in the same context over and over) and then in a different context but same meaning, will help to reinforce meaning and memory.

So a typical day in the Canadian workplace may begin with a bit of small talk with a few people you encounter on your way to your work station or desk. Someone might ask how you are, you say you’re fine and then they say, “Good! Brian isn’t so good, however, he’s feeling under the weather so he called in sick today. I hope it’s not covid! You might reply, …"yes, poor guy, and I hope we don’t get it, whatever he has, knock on wood!”

Now guess, dear reader, based on the context, what “feeling under the weather” means. Is it related to not feeling good? To being sick? Yes. But Feeling under the weather is more specific than that. Feeling under the weather means that someone is feeling a little bit sick, perhaps the beginning of getting the flu or a cold, but the symptoms are still mild, or someone is just feeling a little tired and needs 1 day to re-energize at home. The idiom comes from feeling like the weather is affecting you – for instance if it is dark and rainy, you might feel a little cold and depressed. But now we use it, even if it is sunny and warm outside – it doesn’t refer to the weather anymore, but it does mean that someone isn’t feeling 100% good.

“Knock on wood” is an expression that references an old superstition that if you knock on something that is made of wood while you say something, your wish will come true (in this case, that neither colleague will get sick, or worse, covid...knock on wood!

You may talk with someone else down the hall and you might ask them if they saw the Leafs opener last night. Yes, you are working in Canada so you know what that means! (Leafs opener is the Toronto Maple Leafs Opening game of the new season. We always call the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Team “the Leafs”). This is not an idiom, but it is a good thing to know that people are not talking about leaves on the ground or in trees but in fact a professional hockey team from Toronto. This is the same for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team – everyone calls them “the Jays”. Again, good to know that your colleagues aren’t talking about birds playing games!

Your colleague might reply to your question about the Leafs opener like this: “Watching the Leafs while my wife is on her Yoga Zoom wouldn’t fly in our house, so I just watched the highlights later”. Why is your colleague talking about flying, or in this case, not flying? Well, the idiom is: “Wouldn’t fly”, or “Not going to fly” which means that an idea would not be accepted and in fact, would be very unacceptable.

And by the way, watching the highlights of a game is watching the selected highlights of a game afterwards, often with commentary from a sports journalist. I think all sports fans around the world know what that is all about, and if you are feeling under the weather, you could spend a whole day at home watching Jays or Leafs highlights. Knock on wood it’s not covid!