Out of the blue (Words and phrases for unexpected events)

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by Kate Woodford

Many of the things that happen to us are expected or even planned but some are not. Some of these unexpected events are welcome while others are less so. In this post, we take a look at the words and phrases that we use to relate events that happen when we are least expecting them.

Starting with a really useful idiom, something that happens out of the blue is completely unexpected: Then one day, out of the blue, she announced she was leaving. Two very useful, less idiomatic, phrases with a similar meaning are all of a sudden and all at once. Both mean ‘suddenly and unexpectedly’: All of a sudden, she collapsed. / All at once there was a loud crashing noise.

An event that catches/takes you by surprise shocks or confuses you because it happens suddenly when you are not prepared for it: The strength of the storm caught many residents by surprise. A similar expression is to catch someone off guard: Her remark caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. The expression to catch/take someone unawares has a similar meaning, but sometimes has the additional meaning of ‘to embarrass someone because they are not prepared’: A gust of wind caught me unawares and scattered my papers everywhere.

Someone or something that comes out of nowhere or from nowhere appears suddenly and unexpectedly: Suddenly, out of nowhere a huge, grey dog bounded up to us. A similar expression is out of thin air: I hadn’t seen him approaching. He seemed to appear out of thin air.

A phrase that people sometimes use after reporting a sudden and unexpected event is just like that. It emphasizes how shocking the event was: That afternoon, he left the house and never returned, just like that.

Moving on to single words, bad things (for example, earthquakes, disasters and tragedies) strike when they suddenly and unexpectedly happen: Halfway through the flight, disaster struck. / The earthquake struck at 3 o’clock in the morning when most people were fast asleep.

If you spring something on someone, you suddenly and without warning  announce it: I’ll give you warning of any tests. I won’t just spring them on you. Things that spring up, suddenly and unexpectedly start to exist: Cafes and other small businesses keep springing up along this street. Another phrasal verb in this area is turn up. Unlike many words and phrases in this post, this has a positive meaning! An opportunity that turns up becomes available unexpectedly: This job turned up just when I needed it.


New words – 21 May 2018

Chin Ping, Goh/Moment/Getty

monkey dumpling noun [C]
a group of macaque monkeys standing very close together in order to stay warm

When temperatures drop, macaques often huddle together to pool their body heat, forming what’s known as a saru dango, or “monkey dumpling.” This behavior is common among the 23 species of macaques, all of which form complex matriarchal societies. It is especially important for Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), which live in colder climates than any other primate aside from humans. On frigid days, their need for warmth clearly outweighs their desire for personal space.
[www.theatlantic.com, 29 June 2017]

starballing noun [U]
UK /ˈstɑː.bɔːl.ɪŋ/ US /ˈstɑːr.bɑːl.ɪŋ/
the phenomenon where starfish curl themselves into a spherical shape and get carried along the seabed by tidal currents

Researchers at Plymouth University observed the species Asterias rubens rolling along the seabed with arms curled into a spheroid shape – a phenomenon they’ve termed “starballing”. It is not yet known whether the technique is a deliberate one that helps the otherwise slow-moving species to change their location, but some were recorded raising a single arm into the water column prior to moving as if to test the conditions.
[The Press and Journal, 13 April 2017]

dog manor noun [C]
UK /ˈdɒg.mæn.əʳ/ US /ˈdɑːg.mæn.ɚ/
a luxurious shelter for a dog to sleep in outside

Our customers and their dogs typically live indoors so we see our dog manor as an extra that gives a pet more comfort – it is the dog’s own house that has all the comforts of an indoor living room, making the whole experience of staying outdoors more fun and enjoyable.
[www.dailymail.co.uk, 13 June 2017]

About new words

Good, better, best: forming comparatives and superlatives

SeanShot / E+ / Getty Images

by Liz Walter

We often need to compare one person or thing with another, and in this post I am going to look at how we do this. This is a fairly basic topic, but one where I find that intermediate students still often make mistakes.

We make comparatives by adding -er to the end of an adjective or by putting more in front of the adjective: Your hair is longer than mine. It is more stylish.

We make superlatives by adding -est to the end of an adjective and the in front of it or by putting the most in front of the adjective: Everest is the highest mountain in the world. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

There are some fairly simple rules for which form to use. If the adjective has one syllable, use -er/the -est: a louder noise/the fastest car. And if the adjective has three or more syllables, use more/the most: a more interesting book/the most expensive toy.

Adjectives with two syllables are a little more complicated. If they end in ­-y, -er, -le or -ow, you can use either form: He’s feeling happier/more happy now. The narrowest/most narrow roads are in the city centre.

All other two-syllable adjectives can only use more/the most: She is more patient than my old teacher. That was the most boring movie I’ve ever seen.

So if you’re not sure, the safest thing is to use more/the most with all two-syllable words.

There are a few other things you need to remember. The most important one is: never use -er/the -est and more/the most together. You may sometimes hear native speakers do this, but it is not correct standard English.

Another important rule is that when one-syllable adjectives end with a single short vowel and a consonant, you need to double the consonant before -er/est: It is hotter today. It’s the biggest lake in the world.

Also, when adjectives end with the suffix -y, you need to change the y to an i before you add the -er/est endings: I was lonelier than before. It’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.  

A common mistake for students of English is to write ‘then’ rather than ‘than’ in sentences such as: He is older than me. Make sure that you always write ‘than’ between two things or people you are comparing.

Finally, there are three very common adjectives that have very irregular comparative and superlative forms. They are good > better > best, bad > worse > worst and far > further > furthest: His laptop is better than mine. We climbed the furthest hill.

New words – 14 May 2018

Enrique Díaz/7cero/Moment/Getty

root-to-stem adjective
referring to a trend in cooking that involves using as much of a fruit or vegetable as possible

Root-to-stem cooking is a huge food trend. The concept is simple. The entire part of the fruit or vegetable can, and should be, used. Although stems, leaves or rinds haven’t been used as frequently, they can be used in all types of dishes. More and more recipes are incorporating these lesser used items, which helps to combat food waste.
[www.foodsided.com, 15 November 2017]

dark kitchen noun [C]
UK /dɑːk.ˈkɪtʃ.ᵊn/ US /dɑːrk.ˈkɪtʃ.ᵊn/
a place where food is prepared and cooked that is then delivered to people’s homes by a courier service

But the grimy spot is just a short moped ride from the gleaming office towers of Canary Wharf and upmarket docklands apartments, and is therefore the perfect location for the latest idea from Deliveroo, the food courier service. It is setting up dozens of “dark kitchens” in prefabricated structures for restaurants that want to expand their businesses without opening expensive high street premises.
[The Guardian, 28 October 2017]

menu hacking noun [U]
in a restaurant, the activity of asking for food or drinks, or combinations of food or drinks, that are not on the menu

At its heart, menu hacking is great for the customer. Whether they build their meal completely from scratch or simply exchange their triple-cooked chips for a healthy salad, the option to adapt the menu helps to ensure great customer service. However it’s important to manage customer expectations. Staff should be knowledgeable about the requests that can and can’t be accommodated.
[www.nisbets.co.uk, 19 March 2017]

About new words

We’re on a roll! (Everyday idioms in newspapers)

Janie Airey / DigitalVision / Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

We like to keep you supplied with frequent, up-to-date idioms on this blog. One way in which we do this is by reading, every few months, a range of national newspapers that were published on the same day. We then pick out the idioms and phrases in use. As ever, we only include common, current idioms and phrases – in other words, the type that will be most useful to learn.

This week’s phrases come from tabloid newspapers. (Strangely, the broadsheets that I read contained few phrases of interest.) Starting off with an idiom that was in two newspapers, a member of the British government, it is said, has been ‘hung out to dry’ over a scandal affecting the whole government. If someone is hung out to dry, they are left to fail on their own, with no one else defending or supporting them.

Elsewhere in the same paper, it is reported that a TV celebrity has ‘set her sights on’ becoming an online lifestyle guru. To set your sights on a goal is to decide that you want to achieve it.

The same paper notes that a serious crime was not widely reported in the media while other, less important events received a great deal of attention. Sometimes, it says, we ‘lose sight of’ what matters. To lose sight of something important is to forget about it because you are focusing on less important things.

The business pages, meanwhile, report on a businessman who is ‘on a roll’, forming a new company and becoming involved in various other projects. The informal phrase to be on a roll means ‘to be experiencing a period of success or good luck’. The same pages also describe a company as being ‘on its knees’, meaning ‘failing’. (The idiom bring someone or something to their knees also exists, meaning ‘to cause someone or something to fail’.) In the same piece, a businessman is said to be ‘at loggerheads’ with the management of a company he used to own. To be at loggerheads with someone is to strongly disagree with them. Another article complains that some groups in society pay more than others for the same goods and services. It is time, they say, to ‘level the playing field’. This is a reference to the phrase level playing field, meaning ‘a fair situation where everyone is treated equally’.

Another tabloid rudely comments that a celebrity chef has been piling on the pounds, meaning ‘putting on weight’. On a different subject, the same paper quotes a British politician as saying that the Prime Minister must ‘get to the bottom of’ a particularly difficult situation. To get to the bottom of something is to discover the truth about it, often when it is hidden.

Finally, a photograph of a famous boxer, it is reported, will soon ‘go under the hammer’. To go/come under the hammer is to be sold at an auction (= a public sale where people make offers for items).

New words – 7 May 2018


generation mute noun [U]
a way of referring to the generation of young people who tend to use written forms of communication, such as texting, rather than making phone calls

A survey by the regulator Ofcom has found a new “generation mute”: only 15% of 16 to 24 year olds consider phone calls the most important method of communication, compared with 36% who prefer instant messaging. In America, a study found that 80% of millennials … felt more comfortable conversing via text or online.
[Sunday Times, 5 November 2017]

cyberloafing noun [U]
UK /ˈsaɪ.bə.ləʊf.ɪŋ/ US /ˈsaɪ.bɚ.loʊf.ɪŋ/
the activity of spending working hours engaged in online activities that are not work related, such as checking social media sites and surfing the internet

“Cyberloafing is a compulsive behaviour for many people,” she tells Stylist. “It’s an attempt to replace something that we’re lacking, but we never get that ‘filled-up’ feeling. So it just goes on and on with the empty promise of replacing the things we actually want, like a fulfilling work day or a career in an industry we’re passionate about.”
[Stylist, 24 August 2017]

infobesity noun [U]
UK /ɪn.fəʊˈbiː.sə.ti/ US /ɪn.foʊˈbiː.sə.t̬i/
the state of having access to so much information that it leads to difficulties with decision-making, concentration and understanding

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you couldn’t even make a simple decision? Infobesity affects every company due to innovations like the internet, apps and sensors. Did you know a typical entrepreneur checks her email 50 to 100 times a day? Moreover, 60 percent of computer users feel the need to check their email in the bathroom.
[Huffington Post, 26 July 2017]

About new words

It’s out of the ark! Talking about old-fashioned things

Matthew Roharik / DigitalVision / Getty Images

by Liz Walter

My last post looked at words and phrases for describing people or things that are old. Today I am looking at a closely-related idea – that of being old-fashioned.

The word old-fashioned itself is used to refer to objects or people who look as if they come from the past, though are not necessarily old in reality: Those old-fashioned glasses are popular again now. It can also refer to ideas and attitudes: They have old-fashioned ideas about the role of women. Interestingly, ‘old-fashioned’ can also be used in a positive way: We had a good, old-fashioned roast dinner.

The words retro, vintage and antique are also positive. They are used to describe objects or styles that are old or look old in a way that we find attractive: He collects antique furniture. She has a retro hair style.

Continue reading “It’s out of the ark! Talking about old-fashioned things”

New words – 30 April 2018

efetova/iStock/Getty Images Plus

goth latte noun [C]
UK /gɒθ.ˈlɑː.t̬eɪ/ US /gɑː.θ.ˈlɑː.t̬eɪ/
a latte (a hot drink made from espresso coffee and hot milk) that also contains charcoal, making it black in colour

Now, finally, there’s a coffee that truly speaks to our inner Morticia Addams: say hello to the goth latte … So why is everyone so obsessed with these darker-than-dark coffees? Well, they’re not just good for your Instagram profile, they could also be good for your gut, too.
[Stylist, 19 May 2017]

egg coffee noun [U, C]
UK /ˈeg.kɒf.i/ US /ˈeg.kɑː.fi/
a Vietnamese hot drink consisting of coffee mixed with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and sometimes butter or cheese

The egg coffee is sweet and frothy, much like having a custard on top of an espresso, but with no hint of egg. The coffee underneath is a familiar espresso, improbably warm while not melting the cloud of egg above it. The cup comes in a small bowl filled with warm water to maintain the coffee’s temperature.
[www.cnbc.com, 11 December 2017]

third-wave coffee noun [U]
UK /θɜːd.weɪv.ˈkɒf.i/ US /θɝːd.ˈweɪv.ˈkɑː.fi/
a trend in coffee retailing that emphasises a high-quality, sustainable product, often roasted and brewed using new techniques

The growth of third-wave coffee is an undeniably good thing, both for coffee lovers and coffee shop owners alike. Coffee’s place in our culinary landscape has been cemented as a legitimate culinary experience as opposed to a simple drink we consume in the morning. The 3rd wave created a market for coffee that entrepreneurs all around the country have tapped to make a living doing what they love — roasting, brewing and serving artisanal coffee.
[www.achillescoffeeroasters.com, 20 June 2017]

About new words

On the other hand… (Words which express a contrast)

MangoStar_Studio / iStock / Getty Images Plus

by Kate Woodford

You probably know the English expression on the one hand … on the other hand. It is used in the following way for comparing two opposing opinions or facts about something (note that just one half of the phrase is often used):

On the one hand, Maria has experience, but on the other hand, she doesn’t have the precise skills that we’re looking for.

I don’t really want any more work at the moment. On the other hand, I could use the extra money.

Continue reading “On the other hand… (Words which express a contrast)”

New words – 23 April 2018

Mattis Quinn/EyeEm/Getty

zebra noun [U]
UK /ˈzeb.rə/, /ˈziː.brə/ US /ˈziː.brə/
a new company that aims to improve society as well as to make a profit

Aniyia … says she thinks too many investors in Silicon Valley are missing opportunities to be part of profitable, sustainable companies because they’re chasing things that aren’t real – unicorns. Zebras, by contrast, she says, are real. I meet Aniyia … at DazzleCon, the first gathering of the zebras, where founders and investors met in person to discuss business strategies and, if nothing else, to realize they’re not alone.
[www.bbc.co.uk/news, 23 November 2017]

kleptopredation noun [U]
UK /ˌklep.tə.prɪˈdeɪ.ʃᵊn/ US /ˌklep.toʊ.prɪˈdeɪ.ʃᵊn/
the act of eating prey that has just hunted so that the predator eats the prey of its prey too

More likely, kleptopredation serves nutritional needs. This way of catching prey boosts nudibranch intake substantially and is so clever that it seems likely sea slugs aren’t the only kleptopredators, the researchers say. The cunning hunting shown by slugs from Sicily could be happening elsewhere. Certainly, the biologists say, their findings suggest marine food webs are more complex than previously believed.
[qz.com, 2 November 2017]

ghost species noun [C]
UK /ˈgəʊst.ˌspiː.ʃiːz/ US /ˈgoʊst.ˌspiː.ʃiːz/
an ancient subspecies of human for which no tangible evidence, such as fossils, exists

“This unknown human relative could be a species that has been discovered, such as a subspecies of Homo erectus, or an undiscovered hominin,” says Gokcumen. “We call it a ‘ghost’ species because we don’t have the fossils.”
[www.newatlas.com, 24 July 2017]

About new words