The Language of Plants

We’ve already done language of spring and we did a big post on spring and flowers  last spring. But, so far the huge range of idiom and expression related to plants and horticulture has yet to bloom or bear fruit here.

“Bloom/Blossom”: We better deal with this one first… since it’s one of two in the sentence above. When a plant’s flower opens it can be said to bloom, (or blossom). Figuratively, someone could bloom in a role or just generally meaning that they were doing really well. “After a couple of false starts Simon opened his own coffee shop and really bloomed.”

Photo: J Beddington

Photo: J Beddington

“Bear Fruit”: If/when something bears fruit it pays off for the people who planted, nurtured, or cared for the plant. This is fairly easy to work out the figurative meaning. “This plan may take a little while to bear fruit, but it is easy to set up and maintain.”

“Grapevine”: We use this expression when we talk about rumours or gossip. But, also when we want to hide our source of information (remember we never do this in academic work). “I heard on the grapevine that Diane is planning to leave the company. Do you think it’s true?”

“Harvest”: Both a noun and a verb the harvest is the reward at the end of a period of hard work. It can be used very pragmatically, “The harvest of this project will take a while to process.” or more emotively “While it’s not always possible attending graduation allows students to celebrate their achievement and have their harvest recognised by their peers and families.”

“Sow the seeds of…”: this phrase recognises that some things take time to develop and need a basis in which to develop. “This new approach to product design should sow the seeds of success for the next 20 years.”

“Kernel”: The kernel is the centre of a seed, but the word is also used to talk about the centre and most essential part of many different things from people to computer code. “Jane while usually avoiding the limelight was at the kernel of the company for many years.”


“Reap what you sow”: This one is similar to harvest but in contrast it is used much more often in negative senses. Reaping is the act of collecting or harvesting a crop, sowing is when the seeds are thrown onto the earth. “I can’t believe it nobody sent me a birthday card this year” “Well you reap what you sow”

“Root & Branch”: This is almost political jargon and it means the whole organisation. “The government promised root and branch reforms to get the economy moving again, but the changes seemed minor, complicated and poorly implemented”

“Set down roots”: If you set down roots you start to feel like a long term local in a new place, it can also be used to mean (well) established in a particular environment or location. “While the City council tried to attract new businesses to the high street few really set down roots.”

“Turn over a new leaf”: This is another one about change. If you turn over a new leaf you choose to change for the better. “This year I’m going to be a better student. I’m tuning over a new leaf and I’m not going to put off my homework anymore.”

“Grasp the nettle”: While stinging nettles are normally to be avoided this is encouragement or advice means to be brave and do something that’s scary/unpleasant, counter-intuitively perhaps but if you grab nettles roughly they are less likely to sting you as badly than if you just brush them lightly. “Grasp the nettle; ask him out for a date.”

“Sour grapes”: If someone has sour grapes they are unhappy about something, and everyone knows it because they are telling people. “Don’t mind Henry, he’s got sour grapes over you getting the promotion to team leader but he knows you deserved it more.”

“Separate the wheat from the chaff”: Once the wheat has been harvested the grain needs to be separated from the chaff, the part of the plant that comes with the grain when harvested. If a process separates the wheat from the chaff it divides the good and/or useful bits/people from those that are not as desirable. “The next test is difficult; it will really separate the wheat from the chaff so make sure you are ready for it.”


“The grass is (always) greener (on the other side of the fence/street)”: This one means that often things can seem better than they are from a little distance, but that this might be deceptive. “Remember the grass is always greener…. His car is pretty, but between the insurance and running costs you could buy a new car every year”

“The darling buds (of May)” like so much of our language we owe this phrase to Shakespeare specifically sonnet 18. “Rough winds may shake the darling buds of May” So he seems to be saying that while people cherish spring flowers that this alone is not perfect and might not make everyone happy.


Drilling into “drill”

Drill is one verb that seems to be becoming increasingly de-lexicalised. This means that it’s losing some of the literal meaning and being used in more figurative expressions.

A drill is a machine for making a, deep and regularly shaped, hole in another material usually for constructive processes. It can also mean a routine or exercise rigidly followed or enforced. Conversion turns the noun into a verb.


Drill into: seems a good place to start since it’s in the title. If you drill into something you investigate or explore it usually in some depth. This is used in research but is also increasingly frequent in business terminology especially when looking at market insights. “Once the samples have been collected a variety of statistical techniques will be used to drill into the findings.”

Drill down: this is used especially in connection with data and it means going deeper or looking at things in greater detail. “While the initial results are inconclusive it remains hopeful that drilling down into full results may yet reveal trends.”

Drill bit: this is the interchangeable heads that most modern drills come with. Different bits may be used for different materials and/or sizes.

drill bit

Know the Drill: if you know the drill you are familiar with procedures or processes of a particular situation. “This is Karen who you’ll be working alongside; if you have any questions ask her, she’s been here four years so she knows the drill.” Learning a series of drills is often part of most military training.

Fire Drill: A fire drill is a practice in case of a real fire. You almost certainly did this at school, and some companies run them periodically. “There will be a fire drill at about 11:00 am on Friday. This is a drill and not a real fire. We would like everyone to meet their fire warden at the designated points within 2 minutes of the drill starting.”

Drill can also be a classroom activity. When learning Spanish and French I tried to memorise various verb drills. Teaching English and other languages pronunciation drills are quite common. An example could be where a model is produced then all the students repeat the word.

Drill something into someone (or someone’s head): This means making something very clear to someone, usually in the sense of telling them off. “Diane, would you mind speaking to Stephen and drill it into his head that a deadline is not a suggestion and if he hands any more work in late it won’t be accepted and he’ll have to suffer the consequences.”

Drill can also be used figuratively in sports, especially ball sports, whenever a player moves something quickly and forcefully usually in a straight line. The use might shift a bit depending on the sport. For tennis: “Murray, drills another ace past Federer” Two possible uses for Football: “Beckham drilled the penalty into the top left of the net, the goalie never had a chance” “One of Wayne Rooney’s enduring strengths is his ability to drill through defenders.”


A diamond drill: diamond is extremely hard so a diamond drill can make holes in very tough materials. Used figuratively: if something is like “a diamond drill” it is very high quality; if something “needs a diamond drill” it is very tough and durable.

The drill(ing) face: this term comes from the mining industry the drill face is the area of rock currently being worked by the miners. Its figurative use focuses on the place where activity is actually happening at any one moment. “Management need to entrust staff at the drilling face with a certain amount of responsibility and decision making power, otherwise it can cripple the responsiveness of a business.”

The drill head is the top of an oil or natural gas well. This is a very dangerous location and where most of the injuries and accidents usually happen. It can also be a noisy place and one where things can happen very suddenly. A drill head decision refers to a decision that is made quickly and under-pressure. “I understand it was a drill head decision but I think announcing your candidacy for CEO at the board meeting was premature. Some of the board members are very traditional and may not want to see control pass out of family hands despite your capabilities and long service to the company.”

If something is “like a dentist’s drill”: this means something makes an annoying noise, especially one that is a high pitched whine and/or has negative connotations and/or is hard to escape from. For me a mosquito that’s somewhere in the room where I’m trying to sleep, that’s like a dentist’s drill.

Drill sergeant: this person is employed by the military to train new recruits; they are by reputation loud and unpleasant. So if someone is like a drill sergeant it’s not a nice thing to say… but if someone has a voice like a drill sergeant it merely means they are loud and can be heard clearly over other loud noises.