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Five Nature-Related Idioms and their Origins

Five Nature-Related Idioms and their Origins

English speakers love using idioms in conversation, and you’ll find that no matter how many idioms you have memorised or written down you will still hear new ones. You might read them in books, hear them used on the TV and in films and of course when you are communicating with others. It is important to know, that there may be several idioms for one saying so knowing how to use these in everyday life will impress your friends, family, and boss!  

However, idioms can sound very strange sometimes and when we look into them more deeply, we often discover a fantastic and fascinating story that makes us want to learn more. In addition, in her thesis (2010) on using picture books in teaching, Sarah Lim shows us that stories and images can help with retaining vocabulary when learning a language, so why not try this method with verbs and adjectives too and see how it can increase your knowledge of the English language? 

Here are five English idioms related to nature and its origins which you can use in your next nature-related lesson. 


Head in the clouds 

Definition:  If someone has their head in the clouds then they are impractical or unrealistic and are out of touch with the everyday world. 

Similar expressions: absentminded, head in the air 

Example: “He always has his head in the clouds!” 

Possible origin: The use of this expression was believed to have been first used in the 17th century and was used to refer to someone who was not grounded in reality. As many people worked in agriculture, this expression would have resonated with those working outside in the fields. There is an example from Trawl from 1903, ‘The Laureate crost over the lawn with the dreamy head-in-air gait that was known through five parishes round.’ From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers. 


Under the weather 

Definition:  Slightly unwell or in low spirits 

Similar expressions: feeling blue 

Example: He is feeling a little under the weather today” 

Possible origin: The Phrase Finder mentions that in ancient times when a sailor was feeling ill or seasick, he would be sent below deck so he could get away from being under the harsh weather. In addition, in Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions by Bill Beavis and Michael Howorth, this phrase was originally meant to feel seasick.  


Neck of the woods  

Definition:  A particular area 

Similar expressions: my turf 

Example: “I didn’t expect to see you in this neck of the woods” 

Possible origin: 

In Bill Bryson’s Book Made in America, the claim is made that the origin of “neck” is the Algonquian (North American language) word “naiack” which means point or corner.  


Nature calls 

Definition: This is a saying for going to the bathroom and that you cannot wait. While frequently used when relieving yourself when in nature, it can also be used to excuse yourself from a social situation. 

Similar expressions: spend a penny 

Example: “Don’t wait for me, nature calls!” 

Origin: Preceding its use as a euphemism, ‘call of nature’ was used to describe our desire to enjoy the pleasures of rural tranquillity. The euphemistic meaning was coined in the mid-18th century and began appearing in printed material at that time. Here’s an early example from Laurence Sterne’s 1761 novelThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: Shew me a city so macerated with expectation – who neither eat, or drank, or slept, or prayed, or hearkened to the calls either of religion or nature, for seven-and-twenty days together, who could have held out one day longer. 


Make a mountain out of a molehill 

Definition: To make a mountain out of a molehill is to make more of a fuss over something than it’s really worth. 

Similar expressions: make a fuss 

Example: Stop making a mountain out of a molehill mum, I’ll be back at 11!” 

Origin: Making a mountain out of a molehill is an idiom referring to over-reactive, histrionic behaviour where a person makes too much of a minor issue. It appears to have come into existence in the 16th century, at a time when farming was significant. To many farmers, moles are considered pests so a mountain would not be favourable in their fields which shows us how this expression may have come about. 


As we can see every idiom has a story and knowing more about that background can help us to understand and memorise these expressions much more easily. Teaching idioms can often feel overwhelming, and as a teacher, you probably don’t want to spend too much lesson time-sharing long stories. Therefore, some great ways to teach these could be by having an idiom of the day, finding a link between the students’ native language and the idiom, or by encouraging your students to learn about an idiom related to a particular topic and then share it in the next class e.g., business idioms. Often getting your students to teach their peers will give them added confidence and it will likely make them more enthusiastic in using these interesting expressions.  


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