In fits and starts

A rather nice expression to describe doing something in an irregular fashion, starting and stopping at various intervals and thereby causing the action to drag out over time.

I asked Jerry to cut the grass but he’s doing it in fits and starts and it’s taking him ages.  The lawn itself looks a mess half mown like that.


The start part is easy to understand but apparently this idiom came into being when the ´fit´ part was added.  This meaning of fit refers to a seizure or spasm, like an epileptic fit.  So, fits adds this spasmodic quality to the various starts a job is being done with.

The government promised to build a new highway but progress is going in fits and starts. Who knows when they will open it?




Bare bones

bare bones

Another graphic expression.  The bare bones of something are the bare essentials, without any flesh or padding.  The meaning is very clear!

The bare bones of the story are as follows: boy meets girl, they fall in love, have a baby, boy cheats on girl, they have a bitter separation.

Just give me the bare bones of your problem, I don’t need to know all the ins and outs you have had with the Ministry.

To Nail it

nail it1

An idiom (and phrasal verb) that is in widespread use in English. It means to get something exactly right or to produce the correct solution/answer/response to a need.


Lorraine needed to make a perfect souffle to win the cooking contest and even though it was her first attempt at one, she nailed it and was awarded first prize.

Denis needed a 9.4 to win the diving competition and he nailed it with a triple somersault rated 9.6 by the judges.

It has a positive meaning. The implication is that some skill or effort is required so you wouldn’t use it to describe successfully doing daily chores or routine tasks.


As happy as a sandboy


I was reminded of this as I bobbed around in the sea in Brazil the other weekend. I do love swimming in the ocean and I thought that if I could describe the feeling it would be as happy as a sandboy.

So, where does it come from? I had no idea. Internet sources say that the phrase actually originated in Bristol, not a place I ever associated with much sand. However, apparently in the 19th century there were some caves there that were the source of sand and that perhaps the phrase refers to the workers who carried the sand out of there. After a long day’s work, they couldn’t be happier than when they got a beer.  The phrase “As jolly as a sandboy” appeared in Dickens, but apart from that this expression seems to have been passed down by people in their own families.

As happy as a sandboy actually means to be in a state of blissful contentment and the North Americans have a version,  as happy as a clam.  More sand. Interestingly, the full idiom is “As happy as a clam in high water”.  This is because in high water was less likely to be harvested than at low tide.


I can’t say I identify much with clams so I’ll take the sandboy version!


Pear-shaped and Turn to custard


Do you need some more expressions to describe failure? I guess there’s always room for another one or two especially if they take the sting out of the experience. Here are two that I rather like, especially the second which comes from my beloved New Zealand.


Pear-shaped seems to be regarded as British in origin although I recently heard it used by a North American. Basically it means to go wrong. The idea seems to be that you want a perfect circle and instead of drawing that because you are not so good, you end up drawing a pear.

The latest expedition by explorers to walk to the North Pole has gone pear-shaped with the loss of two support sleds and the breaking up of the usually reliable pack ice.


Turn to custard tends to be used when the plans and preparation amount to nothing because of circumstances beyond our control.


We thought we might take a picnic to the beach but that idea turned to custard when it started to pour down.

The city council had intended putting a much needed bypass through Silverton. With the public protests, the difficulty of getting resource consents and the budget deficit that has all turned to custard.

The All Blacks were advancing well towards a try when they fumbled the ball, lost possession and their manouevre turned to custard.

Oddly enough, some people object to these expressions. Some say that pear-shaped is positive, like the shape of a woman’s body especially those Renaissance nudes.

On internet I read someone commenting that she makes great custard and why should it get such a bad reputation?  I imagine that as custard is somewhat runny, it describes perfectly when your solid plans become uncontrollably fluid.


When the rubber meets the road


Time spent recently with North Americans reminded me of some of the idioms they are fond of. Being such mobile societies, you find plenty of examples of driving language in everyday speech.

When the rubber meets the road (sometimes seen as where the rubber hits the road) refers to the moment when you test an idea or plan in real conditions. It is like taking a car for a test drive. It may look nice but you don’t really know how it handles the road until you get in it and take it for a drive. The rubber refers to the tyres.

We won’t know if the upgraded system works until we go online with it. That’s when the rubber meets the road.

I don’t know how the new employee will shape up yet. Once the new season starts and we are operating at full capacity, that’s when the rubber meets the road and we’ll see if she has what it takes.

When push comes to shove


This is an idiom to appeal to those kinaesthetic readers who like to feel and do.  It basically refers to the moment when a situation becomes serious, after the play or the circling around the topic, one party decides to take action. This action could be tough or hard and received as aggressive or it could simply mean that things are becoming serious and you need to respond.  It corresponds to the first part of “When the going gets tough…”

Sometimes used as “If push comes to shove”. A shove is a more aggressive push and is usually used metaphorically here.

There are many theories related to the origin of the expression including references to rugby and giving birth with none seeming definitive.

If push comes to shove, she won’t kick her daughter out of the house. 

He always backs down, when push comes to shove. You can’t rely on him to do what he promises.