Looking at the eye and sight in language.

Vision is often portrayed as the most important sense (somtimes debateably) for humans, so it’s understandable that there is a lot of language connected with sight and our eyes.

We have three key verbs for sight in English: see, the simple act of noticing something with the eyes; look, a more deliberate act often when that which is being sought is not immediately in sight; and watch, which implies a period of time. There are of course a number of others: glance, to look quickly; stare, to look in one direction for a long time; glare, to look with anger; glimpse, to see breifly often without intent; etc.

However, it is typically more idiomatic uses that cause confusion, so here are a few phrases conected with sight/eyes etc.



An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth references the Bible (specifically Exodus 21:24 although it is referenced in later books as well), this is often used to mean someone who causes an offence should receive the same damage or provide equivalent compensation. Don’t confuse this one with to see eye to eye with someone, if you see eye to eye you understand each other well.

“Tom and Mary see eye to eye on the new development project.”

Visionary, if someone is a visionary in their field it means they are looking to the future and have clear plans, not necessarily that they have supernatural insight. Peter Higgs, was on the radio this morning, he got The Nobel Prize for being visionary.

To be up to your eyes in something, often work means that you have a lot of that something.

“Mark is up to his eyes in trouble; his practical jokes have really gone too far this time”

To keep your eye on the ball, (or to take your eye off the ball), coming from sports this could have come up a couple of weeks ago. Figuratively, if a task needs close attention then you need to keep your eye on the ball, if something goes wrong and you weren’t paying attention then you took your eye off the ball. It can also be used to describe someone who is very sharp witted and can respond to situations quickly and well.

“Susan really has her eye on the ball; I hope she gets that promotion.”

To have 20/20 vison, 20/20 vision is ‘perfect eyesight’ (some people have even better) this means that the person does not need glasses/contacts etc. Figuratively, this means that the person in question is alert and informed in the area/topic.

To lay eyes on something means to see it often for the first time, or when you expect not to see that person/thing again.

“David has really blown it this time; I’m going to let him know as soon as I lay eyes on him.”

To eyeball something/someone, this means to evaluate something by sight, but fairly quickly so the observation may not be reliable/exact depending on the situation.

“I eyeballed that new restaurant, it looks really nice. Should we go there for dinner sometime?”

In this situation you probably know what kind of food it serves, and the rough price range but would not be expected to recall details.

To give something the hairy eyeball means to look quizzically or critically at it, often out of displeasure/disapproval.

“Joan gave me the hairy eyeball when I went to work in my Halloween costume last year… I won’t do that again”

Give it a butcher’s comes from cockney rhyming slang. Butcher’s hook = look, this is often used these days to mean a quick look.

“I gave the flat near the University a butcher’s… but I knew it was out of my price range, and I’d have to commute again this term.”

To look over something, means to check to make sure that the thing being looked over is correct, in the right condition etc.

“Make sure you look over your work for spelling, Professor Green is really a stickler for accuracy.”

Don’t confuse this one with to overlook, which can have a couple of meanings:

“My new house overlooks the park.” = means that the park can be seen from the house but it can also mean to ignore something “I’ve overlooked your lateness twice this week… is everything ok?”

A watched pot… never boils as the saying goes.  When you are waiting for something it always seems to take longer if you are focused on the waiting.

A clock-watcher isn’t someone who carries a clock around instead of a watch.



Rather they are someone who keeps a very close eye on the time and thinks that punctuality is very important.

“Clock-watchers may always be at their desks by 9 but they are usually gone by 5:30 we’re looking for someone a bit more committed.”

To lose sight of something/someone, in a literal sense this means you can’t see them anymore but figuratively this can mean to ignore/neglect/forget about something important.

“I know you’re studying for the quiz next week but don’t lose sight of the essay. It’s worth twice as many marks.”


Winchester: getting wetter

In fact the British weather, something of a joke at the best of times, has been in the news and not just locally; in fact it’s even getting bad enough that some politicians are making clear statements ‘We don’t do yes-no questions’ from Philip Hammond on Radio 4 this morning.

Photo: James Beddington

Photo: James Beddington

With that in mind here’s some language connected to weather and water.

Rising water could be literal but may also be more metaphorical and refer to another danger.

To be inundated, flooded or swamped could be with water; but is also used for really busy periods, in business or life.

‘We were inundated with orders for wellies last week.’

Wellies is short for Wellington boots, the popular name for rubber boots said to derive from the Duke of Wellington who equipped his army with them.

welliesThe colour and patterns don’t matter; they are all known as wellies. Of course some posh brands tend to set themselves appart.

Give it some welly, means to try hard put in more effort.

‘Oh no! The door is stuck.’

‘Give it some welly, and it will pop open.’

A rain dance, would have been done by several groups of North American Native Peoples (sometimes called Indians) when the weather was too dry for too long.

A drought is the opposite of a flood, and the metaphorical use can be the opposite as well.

‘There are two cinemas locally but there is often a drought of any film you’d actually want to see.’

The high water mark is the mark left on a wall or post by high tide or high water in the case of a flood. It can be used as a measure of success or threat/failure.

‘Our sales figures for last June are the current high water mark; it was a fantastic period for the whole firm.’

Come hell or high water, means that someone will do something no matter what obstacles are placed in their path. It’s similar to ‘come rain and wind and weather’.

‘Thomas visits his grandmother every Sunday, come hell or high water.’

To be in hot water is an odd one, and not really connected to the weather. It means to be in trouble.

To be on thin ice, means you are in a dangerous situation, one that could turn nasty very quickly.

To face into the wind, literally means to head towards the source of the weather, it can mean to bravely continue despite adversity, and while it might seem silly, if you are steering a ship heading towards bad weather/bit waves was often safer than the waves catching the ship from the side or from behind.

To brave the storm means to do something you know is risky/dangerous, but to do it responsibly and while recognising the risks/dangers.

‘Anne braved the storm and asked her boss for a raise.’

The weather sails or storm sails were special smaller and sometimes tougher sails that sailing ships used in bad weather. If you put up the storm sails you prepare for bad times.

The prevailing wind, is the direction that the wind normally comes from, or comes from most often. Metaphorically this can mean that someone is aware (or not) of changing conditions etc.

‘Thinking of the prevailing wind in our sector I really think we need to improve our online presence.’

The weather face of a building is the one that faces the prevailing wind, which is usually where most of the storms come from. Sometimes the weather face will have a different material, that is more resistant to bad weather.

 Raining cats and dogs, this one is quite old fashioned, linguists sometimes use it to spot people who have learned English as a second language, it means of course raining very hard. Brits, might more naturally say ‘bucketing down‘, ‘pelting down‘ etc.

Weather wise, means someone who is aware of the weather and general conditions and is prepared to deal with them.

‘The weather wise always have an umbrella in England.’

 Under the weather, if you are feeling under the weather then you don’t feel very well.

A couple of phrases we’ve heard a lot in the news lately are:

‘satuarted soil’ when something is saturated it cannot hold any more water, so when the soil is saturated then water will build up on top of it.

‘run-off’ especially ‘rate of run-off’ run off is the water that leaves a building or a piece of land and the rate of run off is how fast how much water flows away.

‘standing water’ when rain falls on saturated soil and can’t run-off then you get standing water, this is water that isn’t moving. It usually starts as puddles but can often look like lakes.

‘sand-bags’ are literally bags filled with sand, they can be used to stop floods reaching buildings, and to try and control the flow of water. Metaphorically, to sand bag something can also mean to rapidly try to protect or defend that thing.


In honor of the opening of the Olympics, here are some sports idioms.

Sports are tied up quite closely with culture and language, in some places more than others, sometimes one could be excused for thinking that some people think in sports terms. Here are a few idioms that come from sports, but can be used by people who don’t even like/know the sports they come from. This is one area where sometimes speakers can have trouble explaining what they mean exactly as they may not use an idiom with full knowledge of its history and wider meaning. Of course almost every country/sport can generate more, leave any others in the comments, if you don’t know the meaning we’ll try to post one in response.


  • The ball’s in their court: from Tennis and other racquet sports meaning we have to wait for their reaction/response before we can do anything else.

‘The ball’s in their court, I’m going to take a break.’

  • Bull’s-eye: from all shooting sports literally the centre of the target, to hit a bull’s-eye also expresses exceptional accuracy and precision.

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  • To cross the finish line: from most racing sports when you cross the finish line you finish the race, even if you don’t come first. It can also be used to discuss deadlines or the completion of key events in a project or process.Don’t confuse this one with ‘cross the line’ which means to do something unacceptable or otherwise bad, walk the line which means to balance between two things. See also ‘red –line’ and ‘toe the line’ and draw the line.

‘When will they cross the finish line with the new production line?’

  • Draw the line: from ball sports played on courts originally. To mark the limits of the area of play.

Tom drew a line over paying more than £30 pre unit, even if they could be delivered over night.

  • Front runner: racing sports, the front-runner is literally the runner at the front of the race, the one most people would expect to win. Idiomatically, the front-runner could mean the dominant party in any set of circumstances.

‘Apple’s i-phone made them a front-runner in the smart phone market but now other manufacturers are catching up.’

  • Hit for Six: from Cricket BRE more than AME. A very successful action/cause for celebration sometimes used in the passive meaning to be caught by surprise.

‘Her presentation hit me for six… I just didn’t know what to say.’

  • Home Run: from Baseball AME more than BRE. A very successful action or event.
  • Jump the gun, from sprinting / racing where a gunshot is used to signal the start of the race, if someone jumps the gun they start too soon.
  • Longshot, from shooting sports: a difficult shot at great distance, one with poor odds of success, often used in gambling/probability terms.

‘rain while possible was a long shot, so I left my umbrella at home.’

  • On/Off target from shooting sports: to be either hitting or missing the goal in some way.

‘Anne’s delivery is always on target, she reads her audience very well.’

  • Off-piste, from skiing and fencing, the piste is the area where the competition is supposed to take place if someone is off-piste they are outside the normal bounds of the competition, in skiing going off-piste means fresh snow where nobody has been before.
  • Overboard: from Sailing: if someone/something falls overboard it falls off the boat into the water. Oddly as an idiom this usually means to do too much.

‘Clive has nearly 50 sources for his paper, it’s only 1500 words, I think he went overboard with his research.’

  • Par, from golf: par is the number of shots a good golfer should get through a hole or round a course in. To be not up to par is to be performing badly, if something is par for the course it could be expected/predicted.
  • A rain-check from Baseball, when the weather turned bad part way through a game the ticket could be used another day. Now we use it to postpone events.

‘I have a big deadline next week, I’ll take a rain check on dinner tomorrow but thanks for the invitation.’

  • Red line: from motor sports, if somebody ‘red lines’ an engine they run it so fast that it starts to over-heat and otherwise damage itself.
  • Toe the line toe the line From sprinting , when you start the race to have your toes right up against the start line so that when you do start you are not behind the others. Idiomatically, to do what you are supposed to in a certain situation.
  • To touch base: from … Baseball again More AME than BRE, if a player touches a base they are safe and can’t be ‘got out’ by the other team. It now means to get in contact with someone.

‘I just wanted to touch base and make sure everything is ready for the conference next week?’

  • Touch-down from American/Canadian Football when someone carries the ball (yes we know it’s not ball-shaped) over the opponent’s end of the field, it’s worth a lot of points.