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English for (the after) life

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English for (the after) life

‘I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.’

– The Criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Muahahahaha … can you think of a more frightful way to spend Halloween than learning English idioms which will scare the living daylights out of you? We can’t.

So here they are, but just one warning, keep the lights on or you may never sleep again!


1. The graveyard shift

In the past, a string was tied round a dead person’s wrist. This string was connected to a bell. Should the person suddenly ‘wake up’ after being buried he could ring the bell for help. A man was employed to patrol the graveyard listening for the bell. That is how the graveyard shift became a thing. Nowadays it is used to describe a job which is done between midnight and eight o’clock in the morning and is typically quiet and lonely.

‘My mother is a nurse and works the graveyard shift. I see her for five minutes in the morning when I am leaving for work and she is arriving from work.’



2. Like a bat out of hell

Have you ever seen how bats fly? They dart about in sudden quick movements whether they are flying away from something or avoiding things such as bright lights. Therefore, doing something like a bat out of hell means you are doing it suddenly and quickly. Why out of hell? This originates from long ago when bats were associated with the supernatural and it was thought they lived in hell.

A: Did you see what type of car it was?

B: How could I, the driver was driving like a bat out of hell. I can’t even tell you what colour it was.


3. Nail in the coffin

Coffins used to be sealed shut with nails. When the last nail was hammered in, that was the end. The coffin was then placed underground. We use it differently nowadays. ‘The last nail’ is the event which triggers the failure or the end of something. Cigarettes, for instance, are sometimes referred to as coffin nails. One by one, they bring the smoker dangerously close to life-threatening illnesses.

‘This complaint is the nail in the coffin Mr. Smith. I’m afraid we must let you go due to your incompetence.’


4. Skeleton in the closet

One theory for the origin of this idiom goes back to the early days of the medical profession. Doctors were not allowed to perform autopsies to understand how a person died or to understand how the human body works unless they were using bodies of dead criminals. If they were working on the body of a regular person, they would have to hide it and when they were done they would save the skeleton for further research. The skeleton would have to be hidden too. Hence the idiom refers to something that must be hidden either because it is shameful or embarrassing.

‘Everyone knows you cannot trust politicians. They all have skeletons in their closet.’


5. Drop dead gorgeous

Imagine seeing someone who is so beautiful or handsome that you can’t take your eyes off them. Your heart starts racing, beating so fast, you almost can’t breathe, like you could just die. This is the phrase we use to describe people or things of great beauty which exercise a great attraction on us.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor is drop dead gorgeous.


6. In cold blood

Back in the day, it was believed that the temperature of blood changes according to the emotions one feels. The temperature of blood would rise as one became excited or angry (this is where ‘blood boils’ comes from). If one was calm, calculating and rational, without feelings of remorse, almost not human-like then the temperature would drop and the blood would cool down. This idiom describes a person who does something in this manner. We tend to associate it with negative events or events which impact people negatively. Unsurprisingly, it is mostly associated with murder. However, it may be used in other ways too.

‘The decision to close the factory was taken in cold blood with no regard for the 500 employees who are losing their job.’


Was that terrifying enough? Want some more? You’ll have to wait for the next set. Keep your eyes peeled they will be posted sooner than you think.


While you wait, carve your pumpkins and prepare some treats because:

‘When witches go riding and black cats are seen, the moon laughs and whispers ‘Tis near Halloween’.’

Focus on Fluency
  • scare the living daylights out of you – to cause extreme fear in someone
  • wrist – the part of the body which connects the hand to the arm
  • dart – to move suddenly and quickly
  • nail – a thin piece of metal with a flat end which you hit with a hammer and a sharp, pointed end which goes into the wood or the wall
  • coffin – a box in which we place a dead body
  • trigger – to make something start
  • let you go – to ask someone to leave their job, to fire someone
  • incompetence – when someone does not do his/her job or task properly
  • theory – an idea to try and explain something
  • autopsy – an examination of a dead body by a specialist doctor to try and understand how the person died
  • gorgeous – really attractive, beautiful
  • remorse – a feeling of extreme sadness for something wrong which you have done
  • keep your eyes peeled – to watch out for something
  • ‘tis – old English for ‘it is’

About the Author

Michela Formosa
Michela Formosa
Director of Studies

Michela Formosa has been the Director of Studies at ESE since 2009 and has been active in the industry for the past 18 years both as a teacher and a teacher trainer. In addition, she was a speaker at the ELT Conferences in Malta as well as the Eaquals Conference in Malaga in 2015. In October 2015, Michela received the Inspiring ELT Professional Award 2015 at the 4th Malta ELT Conference.

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