283. Ten Fixed Expressions

Recently on FB I asked my followers to send me some fixed expressions (phrases, idioms or just individual words) that they like or think are worth learning. I ended up with about 200 phrases. The idea was that I’d do one episode with these phrases, but obviously I underestimated the number of responses that I’d get and now I have a huge database of nice, chunky and rather British fixed expressions which I can deal with in episodes of the podcast. I have vetted the list for any expressions that I don’t see myself using very much, so they’ve all been given the LEP seal of approval, meaning they’re all expressions which are perfectly valid and that you should know.


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What’s a fixed expression? It’s a collection of words (a phrase) which has one specific meaning. Those words are fixed together and it might have a particular idiomatic meaning, or at least a specific meaning which is

Episode 1 in the series – I’ve invited Paul Taylor to my place, and we’re going to do an exercise to help you to learn these phrases and give you some listening practice. What we’ll do is that I will explain the phrase to him and we’ll see if he can guess which phrase it is. Then we’ll give some examples and have a quick discussion based on the expression, before moving on to the next one.

What you can do is just try to guess the phrase I’m talking about, and then check out our discussion to hear the phrase being used naturally. All the phrases are listed on the page for this episode.

  1. A bad egg
    A person in a group who has a negative effect on the rest of that group. “He’s a bit of a bad egg”, or just simply a bad person.
    Have you ever had a bad egg in a training group at work?
    Were there any bad eggs in your group of friends as a child growing up?
  2. A cash cow
    An investment that brings in a reliable source of steady income. E.g. an apartment which you rent out, or shares that you purchased in a thriving business.
    What’s the most common form of cash cow?
    If you had 50,000 to invest, what would you invest it in?
  3. a fine line between x & y
    When there is a very subtle or small difference between two rather distinctly different things. E.g. “There’s a fine line between madness and genius”.
    www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/fine_line.html
    Do you think there is a fine line between madness and genius?
    Other fine lines?
    Stand up comedy and … ?
  4. a flash in the pan
    Something that is a very quick and sudden success, but it’s a success that doesn’t last. Brief success.
    Would you rather be a flash in the pan (make loads of money but then disappear from fame – become anonymous) or a long lasting success who is constantly in the public eye?
    Can you think of anything that we thought would be a flash in the pan but wasn’t?
    What do you think will be a flash in the pan now? Is the Apple Watch a flash in the pan?
  5. a pain in the neck
    Something really irritating or annoying. Something really inconvenient in your life.
  6. a shoo-in
    Someone who is certain to succeed, or certain to win a competition. Someone or something which we assume will be a success. For example, for an entrance exam to a university – we expect this girl to pass. In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she won’t qualify for the course. She’s a shoo-in.
    I always thought it was spelled ‘shoe’ – like somehow there’s a shoe in something, or it’s really easy to throw a shoe into something.
    Where did you go to university? Were you a shoo-in for entrance? How about your exams?
    Do you follow football? Who do you think will qualify/win the 2018 world cup?
  7. A total cock up
    A complete mess – when someone messes something up completely. They tried to rob the bank but they forgot to load their guns and one of them got trapped in the vault and the other didn’t know what to do. They both were recorded by CCTV cameras and got arrested.
    Origin unknown (it doesn’t refer to a penis) – it’s more likely to refer to a bird, like perhaps the accidental startling of a woodcock during a hunt.
    What’s the biggest cock up you’ve ever made?
  8. Ace
    Great, brilliant, fantastic. British slang. Also the name of one of the picture cards in a deck of playing cards.
    When was the last time you said “That was ace!”
    What was the last film you saw that you thought was ace?
  9. All gone to pot
    It’s all gone bad. It’s deteriorated. Like, “it’s all gone to the dogs”.
    E.g. “My diet has gone to pot since coming home for Christmas.” or “London’s just gone to pot since Boris Johnson took over” or “The whole country is going to pot under this conservative government”.
    Has its origins in the idea that farm animals would be eaten (cooked in a pot) when they were past their best (for producing eggs or whatever).
    Do you think the world is going to pot?
  10. All hell broke loose
    When things suddenly become chaotic and out of control.
    E.g. When they announced a flash sale of Louis Vuitton handbags, all hell broke loose in the department store.