Idiomatic English Phrases Referring to Human Body Parts: Part 1


Another month has gone by since my last blog based on the various categories into which we can divide everyday English expressions. I hope you have reaped some benefit from them! This time I would like to discuss a category that differs considerably from the ones I've described already: expressions that make metaphorical usage out of reference to human body parts. The question that probably comes into your mind as you read this is: why this particular topic?  The reason is simply that, since, according to experts in the field of the analysis of body language, 70% of human communication is non-verbal but, rather, connected to physical gestures and facial expressions, I feel it is a natural linguistic tendency for idiomatic expressions to arise over time out of references to the human body: across all languages.

Let me start by giving you a couple of examples of English idiomatic phrases that make reference to ears. If someone is described as being "green behind the ears" they are a newcomer to a particular role or activity, and be may seen as rather naive. Perhaps the expression is an allusion to a banana that is not yet ripe, these usually being green in colour. On the other hand, if someone says that their "ears are burning," they are alluding to the fact that they believe or else have discovered that a particular group of people (whom they may or may not know well) are talking about them behind their backs.

Ears burning

It is often said that they eyes are the windows are the soul. Someone may get a general impression of another person's character after making eye contact with them on various occasions. I can only surmise, therefore, that the expression "not liking the colour of someone's eyes" evolved from this notion. What is being implied here is that the person in question is not to be trusted in any way. An if an individual is "caught red-handed," they are caught in the act of doing something illegal or immoral and therefore can no longer protest their innocence.

While a person who is "thin-skinned" is someone who is deemed to be overly sensitive to criticism and insults, if, on the contrary, a person develops a "thick skin," this means that they have become hardened to the tougher aspects of life. This reference is quite reminiscent of the concept of insulation through the building of thick walls or the use of double-glaze window panes in order to keep the cold out, in my opinion.

My final body-part related expression for this week actually makes reference to elements of the human physique. The phrase I have in mind is "tongue in cheek." This may refer to a rude remark made by a particular individual about someone else, for example, or it may could relate to the way in which someone speaks (or perhaps writes) in a cynical or insincere way about a particular state of affairs (e.g. a political, environmental, economic or social issue) in order to draw attention to them. A film or documentary that reflects on any such themes through the use of irony could also be described as "taking a tongue in cheek approach," for instance.

I hope you have found something of interest to you in this blog and that your appreciation of English idiomatic language is growing all the time! I will put together a second part to this blog on body-part related expressions next month. As always, I have too much to say and too little space in which to say it (or at least in one blog)! Until next time!

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