Shell phrases … in a nutshell

2nd February 2023

Last night, my wonderful co-teacher, Ms H, was speaking about a student in our class who has really blossomed. The student used to be very shy and speak in a barely-audible whisper; now the student is a Top Cat.

Ms H referred to the transition mistakenly as, “In a nutshell,” when the correct expression is to ‘come out of his or her shell.’ Thus, today’s blog will focus on the use of the word ‘shell’ in common phrases.

a word in your shell-like

This means that someone wants to speak to you about something serious. Ears are shaped a little like shells, so here ‘shell-like’ comes from ‘shell-like ear.’ We often hear this on UK TV police dramas when an inspector wants to speak to a suspect.

The phrase is used by people in positions of power, so don’t use this when speaking to your manager or parents !

coming out of her shell

If someone is very quiet or shy, they are said to be ‘in their shell’, like a tortoise. When someone starts to be more sociable, speaking more, showing their potential, we say they are ‘coming out of their shell.’

ghost in the shell

A phrase taken from ‘ghost in the machine’. The French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote about the separation between the mind and the physical body. The mind is not physical, but could be compared to a ghost.

Basically, it is the difference between the mind and the body even though they co-exist.

Ghost in the shell refers to what is the true essence of a person, what someone is really like, no matter how they look.

Today, the phrase is linked to the Japanese manga series, cyberpunk and video games. The main character has a robotic body but still has enough of her brain (mind) to be her real self.

in a nutshell

When you have a lot of information to tell, but not much time, you just say the main points. The idea is that there is not much space inside a nutshell, so only the most important things can be included.

A popular range of computer books use this idiom, as well as this title below:

People may be interested in astronomy but may be put off by the maths and equations. This book will explain all the important facts in a way that is understandable.

The phrase is an alternative for ‘to cut a long story short,’ or ‘long story short.’

shell of his former self

In the classic Martin Scorsese film ‘Raging Bull’, Robert De Niro plays a boxer who changes from a powerful athlete into an overweight nightclub owner.

When someone changes so dramatically, we say they are ‘a shell of their former self,’ and yes, De Niro really did gain all the extra weight to play this role.

shell out

This means to pay for something, usually something unexpected and unwanted, for example:

“My laptop broke. I had to shell out £200 to get it fixed.”

shell shock or shellshock

A term used to describe the psychological effects on soldiers during the First World War, with constant bombs or shells exploding. Many soldiers suffered serious mental problems.

Today the phrase has been replaced by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

shell voicing

In music, chords are formed by playing two or more notes simultaneously. In shell voicing, often used in Jazz or Math Rock, only three notes are played: the root (or first), the 3rd and the 7th.

Let’s take the C Major scale


The root, or first note is C, the 3rd is E and the 7th is B. To play a Cmaj7 chord, the C, E & B are played together.

walking on eggshells

Being very careful about what you say or do, in case you make someone angry or sad.

“Our manager was in a bad mood. We were walking on eggshells all day.”

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Semantics: New Words

5th May 2022

agent nouns

The suffix –ist is used to create an agent noun — a noun that denotes someone or something that does something. Two suffixes more commonly used to create agent nouns are –er and –or, as in worker, bookseller, beginner, visitor, creator, and accelerator.


The development of a more favorable meaning for a word. Take, for example, quell. In current usage, banks move to “quell inflation.” Governments issue proclamations to “quell fears”.

In Old English poetry, on the other hand, when a warrior “quelled” his opponent, he killed him.

Semantic amelioration is not as common as semantic deterioration, in which a formerly inoffensive word acquires a negative meaning.


As a grammatical term, it means, “used without the article.”

From ‘Daily Writing Tips’

When commenting on the opening sentence of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Geoffrey Pullum called it an “anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier.”

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Pullum said that the construction is “reasonable” in a newspaper, but has the “wrong feel and style for a novel.” Had Brown written, “The renowned curator Jacques Sauniére,” the sentence would have escaped criticism.


Commas with appositives

An appositive is a noun or noun element that follows another noun and serves to identify it further. The nouns are said to be “in apposition.”

An appositive phrase usually follows the word it explains or identifies, but it may also precede it.

The term derives from a Latin compound meaning, “to set beside or near.” Nouns in apposition are set beside one another. When one of the nouns simply restates the other one, commas are needed to set it off.

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth US president, ranks among the three worst presidents of the United States.

The phrase “the seventeenth US president” is just another way of saying “Andrew Johnson.” It provides additional information, but leaving it out would not change the meaning of the sentence. The additional information is non-essential, so it is set off with commas.

Take another example:

My English teacher says that Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is overrated.

Here, The Great Gatsby is in apposition to novel. Because Fitzgerald wrote more than one novel, the specific title is essential information. It cannot be omitted without obscuring the meaning of the sentence. The teacher does not necessarily think that the author’s other novels are overrated. No commas are needed when the additional information is essential.

In the following sentence the nouns in apposition restate the nouns that precede them. Because the information they provide is non-essential, commas are needed to set them off:

As a team, we send our thoughts and deepest sympathies to Peter’s wife, Jill, and his children, Mark and Hilary.

False Titles

A common type of apposition found principally in journalistic writing is the “false title.” This is a descriptive phrase placed before a noun, but used as if it were a title.

Novelist John le Carré has set himself up as the psycho-analyst of the cold war.—Time

Cellist Joshua Gordon, in the slow movement, showed off his rich, lyrical tone. Buffalo News

This construction is known as “a Time-style adjective” because it’s thought that Time magazine either began the practice or popularized it.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The diaeresis diacritic indicates that two adjoining letters that would normally form a digraph and be pronounced as one sound, are instead to be read as separate vowels in two syllables. For example, in the spelling ‘coöperate’, the diaeresis reminds the reader that the word has four syllables co-op-er-ate, not three, ‘*coop-er-ate’. In British English this usage has been considered obsolete for many years, and in US English, although it persisted for longer, it is now considered archaic as well. However, we still see it in words such as naïve.

endonym and exonym

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An endonym (from Greekéndon, ‘inner’ + ónoma, ‘name’; also known as autonym) is a common, internal name for a geographical place, group of people, individual person, language or dialect, meaning that it is used inside that particular place, group, or linguistic community in question; it is their self-designated name for themselves, their homeland, or their language.

For instance, Deutschland is the endonym for the country that is also known by the exonym Germany in English and Allemagne in France

An exonym (from Greek: éxō, ‘outer’ + ónoma, ‘name’; also known as xenonym) is a common, external name for a geographical place, group of people, individual person, language or dialect, meaning that it is used only outside that particular place, group, or linguistic community.[1] Exonyms exist not only for historico-geographical reasons, but also in consideration of difficulties when pronouncing foreign words.[1]

The Premier League, also known exonymously as the English Premier League or the EPL is the top level of the English football league system.

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Animals: idioms, phrases and interesting facts A – D (part 2)

6th April 2022

Alligators and Crocodiles

See you later, alligator

Meaning: informal way of saying goodbye.

Comes from a song written by Robert Charles Guidry, and released in 1955. The lines are:

“See you later, alligator, after while, crocodile.”

Crocodiles are bigger and more aggressive than alligators. A crocodile’s snout is V-shaped, an alligator’s is U-shaped. Viewed from the front, a crocodile will display both sets of teeth while the alligator only shows the top row.


Crocodile tears

Meaning: shedding fake tears

“He acted like he was sad but they were just crocodile tears.”


Blind as a bat

Meaning: to have very bad eyesight

“I can’t see without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat.”

Bats, actually, are not blind but have very sensitive vision, especially for seeing in the dark. However, bats use a form of sonar called echolocation to search for food, and to help with navigation. They do this by producing sound waves above the range of human hearing. Additionally, the belief that bats always turn left when flying out of a cave is simply not true.


To be buffaloed

Meaning: to be confused, puzzled, or tricked by someone. This, I believe, is an idiom from the USA although I have never come across it, either in life or in the media.

Buffalos are native to Africa and Asia, bison in the USA and Europe. Although related, they are different species. Buffalo Bill, a soldier, hunter and showman, should really have been named Bison Bill


The butterfly effect

Meaning: a small, insignificant action can have enormous consequences. Based on Chaos Theory; if a butterfly flaps its wing in Brazil, will it cause a hurricane in Japan ?

The link between butterflies and Chaos Theory is actually based on the patterns made on paper when recording data:


The straw that broke the camel’s back

Meaning: a small but final event that causes someone to react strongly

“My boss kept making me overtime, but when he told me I had to work on my free day, I quit ! It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

A perennial question in my Young Learners’ class is “What does a camel store in its hump ?” the answer being fat (not water). Furthermore, camels have three sets of eyelashes. However it is perhaps not so widely known that camel milk is incredibly healthy.


Until the cows come home

Meaning: some thing that will take a long time, last a long time, or will never happen

“Steven owes me money but I’ll be waiting until the cows come home before he pays me.”

In the Marx Brothers film ‘Duck Soup’ (1933) Groucho declares, “I could dance with you ’til the cows come home. On second thoughts, I’d rather dance with the cows ’til you come home.”

Cows have 32 teeth but lack upper front ones. They have great memories and sense organs, being able to smell something up to six miles away.


Like a deer caught in the headlights

Meaning: paralysed with fear, unable to move. Totally shocked or surprised and unable to speak or react.

“When his mum caught him at the mall instead of being at school he was like a deer caught in the headlights.”

The Chinese water deer is the only species of deer not to have antlers. Deers, apart from having a great sense of smell and hearing, have a wide field of vision due to their eyes being on the side of their heads.


Water off a duck’s back

Meaning: something done or said that has no effect

“She kept insulting her boyfriend about his laziness and being a slob but it was all water off a duck’s back.”

See you later, alligator !

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Animals: idioms, phrases and interesting facts A – D

3rd April 2022


An albatross around your neck

Meaning: A burden or something unpleasant that stays with you

“He wrote that tweet when he was angry, and everybody saw it. It’s like an albatross around his neck now.”

The phrase comes from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where a sailor shoots an albatross, a symbol of good luck, and is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck.


To have ants in your pants

Meaning: Always moving around, not sitting still

“Keep still ! Do you have ants in your pants ?”

In Greek, ants are myrmex. The soldiers who followed the hero Achilles were referred to as Myrmidons. One origin myth is that ants survived a plague, and the god Zeus turned these into people. Even today, ants have been found to be extremely resistant to nuclear radiation.

Achilles addresses his myrmidons


Bear with me

Meaning: Please wait a very short time

“Let me check for you. Bear with me a minute.”

In some Native American cultures, the bear is a symbol of a teacher


Birds of a feather flock together

Meaning: People tend to stay with or befriend people with similar interests or habits

“The naughty students all sit together. Birds of a feather !”

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Meaning: It is better to have something definite than something better but uncertain

“Should I buy these now or wait until next week when they may be cheaper ?” “Buy now. A bird in the hand.”

The European bird Robin Redbreast actually has an orange chest, but the word ‘orange’ didn’t exist in English until the 16th Century, by which time the bird was already known as ‘redbreast’.


To let the cat out of the bag

Meaning: to tell a secret

“John told me. He let the cat out of the bag.”

No room to swing a cat

Meaning: Very limited space. However, the ‘cat’ here is a whip used by the navy, a cat o’ nine tails.

Cats were sacred to the Egyptian god Bast (or Bastet), so killing one was extremely unlucky. Cats helped kill rodents, who would eat the grain, and were therefore treated with the highest respect.


Don’t be chicken

Meaning: Do not be afraid

“Come on, let’s watch this horror film. Don’t be a chicken !”

Chicken Little

Meaning: A person who is alarmist, who always predicts that bad things will happen

“Jane says we should cancel the picnic because it may rain, but she’s such a Chicken Little.”

Chickens, who originate from southeast Asia, have remarkable memories. They have been found to identify over 100 other chickens just by their faces.


The tail wagging the dog

Meaning: The person or people in control are actually being forced to do something they don’t want.

“Your students tell you what they are going to do ? That’s the tail wagging the dog.”

1997 film which takes its title from an expression


Talking the hind legs off a donkey

Meaning: Someone who can talk and talk, extremely loquacious

“He could talk the hind legs off a donkey.”

Donkeys are mentioned over 140 times in the NIV of The Bible. They are seen as symbols of peace and servitude. An ass is a wild donkey. A donkey is the ‘star’ of Robert Bresson’s 1966 film ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’.

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Idioms: a piece of cake

1st June 2020

New expressions for working life

I start my speaking classes by explaining that I do not teach English, but Englishes; how the same sentences can be pronounced in Standard English, or in my London accent, in my east London accent, in my (attempt at an) American accent etc …

For those working towards an IELTS qualification, these distinctions are point-earners. Similarly, a knowledge of idiomatic English is so beneficial, not just for boosting scores, but for making students feel they are learning real English; this is how people REALLY speak.

Have a gander at this

(This is London slang meaning take a look at this):

11 of the UK's best farmers' markets ~ Rosemary and Pork Belly

You telling me they’re chattin’ away in Standard English ? Pull the other one.

(Are you trying to make me believe that the people are talking in Standard Queen’s English ? I don’t believe you).

English, as you can see and hear, is a multifaceted language, and I see so many problems in listening exercises, due to speed of speech, accents and unknown words or phrases. So let’s tackle idioms – expressions you will hear everyday, from street markets to politicians being interviewed on the news.

Let’s kick off (start) with some common idioms and expressions:

bear with me = please wait a short time

seems to me = I think, I believe but I can not be certain

do you follow ? = do you understand ?

hold the line = please wait on the phone a very short time

I’ll get back to you = I’ll reply to you as soon as possible (ASAP)

the day after tomorrow = in two day’s time

hit the ground running = to start work at a fast pace immediately

24 / 7 = all day, every day 

Now … practice: What idiom or expression ?

This equation is easy, right ?

Caregiver Burnout | Updated for 2020 |

“I’m exhausted, I’ve been working …”

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“No, I’m busy tomorrow, how about … ?”

Sales Motivation: 6 Big No's of Sales Meetings & 6 High Payoff ...

“Let’s all work with energy and be successful. I want us to … !”

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I’ll see if the manager is in …

The critical role that tough questions play in consultative selling

“Well, I’m not sure of the answer, let me … “

Work in pairs – try to make sentences using these new idioms.

Japanese High School Girls Stock Video Footage - 4K and HD Video ...

Idioms – A random selection. Which do you know ? Which can you use in a sentence ?

same old, same old = same thing everyday, as always

stuck in a rut = no progress or change at all. Doing the same thing in life

raining cats and dogs = extremely heavy rain

chockablock = too busy to move – traffic

cooking the books = cheating with the accounts

cost an arm and a leg + very expensive

straight up  = serious, not joking

pulling my leg  = joking with me

learning the ropes = learning what the job involves

snowed under = very busy

let’s call it a day = we can finish work now

can you run that by me again ? = please repeat.

Team game

Teams ask each which idiom fits for:

Time to finish work // Bad weather // Stuck in traffic // Too much work

The accountant was writing false information // I am new at a job // iPhone 11 is not cheap // Sorry, can you explain again //

Everyday same thing // I must change jobs //

Are you joking with me ? // No, I am honest.

“You can believe me, mate !”

Please Note: All photos are taken from Google Images or free photo sites, and are used for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement or offense is intended. If I have used your photo or image, and you wish me to remove it, just ask. This site is not monetized, I run it on my own dollar. Thank you.

Vocabulary building exercises


Thay Paul's Notes

A compilation of games and exercises to increase your word power

Image result for Dr Johnson

Match the words with the meanings

Give the students some new vocabulary, teach them pronunciation and see if they can match the word to the definition. After, give them a chance to use the new words.

describe                        planned, in order, not a mess

imagine having to do too many things

typical feeling you have too much work

pressure normal, usual

organised to tell what something looks or like

community to think about something

stressed                       the place or area where you live


The student was under ______ to finish the project on time.

All the neighbours are friendly. It’s a nice ________ to live.

Can you __________ what the man looked like ?

After teaching 20 young…

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