He really winds me up! The language of annoying others

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by Kate Woodford

We try hard not to, but from time to time we all annoy each other. It’s just inevitable. Sometimes we annoy each other with things that we say and sometimes with our actions. So how do we talk about this when it happens? Well, there are a lot of phrases to express annoyance, many of them idiomatic. Let’s take a look at the most frequent of them.

Some idioms in this area are quite vivid. (Idioms that form strong images in the mind are sometimes easier to remember.) For example, someone who annoys other people may be said to ruffle their feathers – or simply ‘ruffle feathers’. (If you ruffle a surface, you cause it to be no longer smooth by moving your hand over it.): James ruffled a few feathers when he started work here.

Many idioms that mean ‘to annoy someone’ relate to the body. For example, there’s the informal, British idiom to put/get someone’s back up: He always assumes that he knows more than anyone else and it gets people’s backs up. Less pleasantly, British English also has the idiom to get (right) up someone’s nose: Her manner is so patronizing and it gets right up my nose! Another idiom with this meaning is to get under someone’s skin: Two of my colleagues chat the whole day long and it’s starting to get under my skin.

Meanwhile, to rub someone up the wrong way (US rub someone the wrong way) is to annoy someone, but usually without intending to. Interestingly, this is often said of people who often annoy others in this way: Emily seems to have a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way. She just has an unfortunate manner.

A very common phrasal verb in British English meaning ‘to annoy someone’ is to wind someone up: It really winds me up when he says we don’t help him. We’re always helping him! Another frequent phrasal verb with this meaning is to get to someone: She’s been criticizing me all morning and it’s starting to get to me. / Don’t let him get to you!

The verb drive is in a number of informal phrases that mean ‘to annoy someone’, for example to drive someone crazy/mad/nuts: She whistles all the time and it drives me mad. Two even more emphatic ‘drive’ phrases are to drive someone around the bend and to drive someone up the wall: He never stops talking and it drives me up the wall.

I wonder if you have any similar phrases with this meaning in your language?

32 thoughts on “He really winds me up! The language of annoying others

  1. Marcel Beleyn

    You never ever wind me up, Kate. On the contrary, I always look forward to reading your contributions. Have you ever considered publishing them in book form? I find your explanations very illuminating and highly readable .

      1. Ramprakash

        Yet Kate you haven’t answered whether you intend to publish your articles as a book . Looking forward to reading it by holding it in a book form

    1. Kate Woodford

      Marcel and Ramprakash, we currently have no plans to publish these blogs in book form, but we’re flattered that you made the suggestion! Best wishes.

  2. I just recently lost several Facebook friends over something I said in a status, which they took in contrary to the way it was meant, and their flounce-style defriending pivoted over my failure to repent of the way they understood it, claiming I lacked empathy for their understanding, rather than failing to see their own lack of empathy for the way it was genuinely intended.

    I would put out there that a lot of English has ways of referring to “made me feel” a certain way, when that is entirely impossible to make someone feel something. If you are made to feel a way by others, you’re actually assigning authority to them to alter your mood, and then placing the blame on them somehow. Also, it is entirely possible you’ve contrived a completely false premise about what they’ve said and blame the falsity upon them without bothering to research to find out what you understood is what the person genuinely meant.

  3. Solomon

    Very cool.I am not native english speaking and this gives a lot more knowled of understanding better.Every language that is on earth very annoying idoms and I don’t understand why.

  4. Mujahed Jadallah

    Great job!
    What about the idiomatic ‘get on one’s nerves’ and ‘put someone out’ that have the general meaning of “annoy someone”?

    In Arabic, one of the most common idiomatic verb phrases with the emphatic meaning of “annoy someone” would literally read ‘to excite one’s nerves’, which might sound very similar to the English “ruffle someone’s feathers”.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Yes, ‘get on sb’s nerves’ would have been a fine addition! And to be put out = to be offended is another nice phrase! That’s interesting about the Arabic equivalent. Thanks for getting in touch.

  5. Shoji Nakano

    Yes, we have similar phrases related to the body in Japanese. 耳障り、目障りboth related to ear and eye.
    Also, 逆なで…this is similar to ruffle their feathers literally. Interesting!

  6. Samuel matsinhe

    It’s wonderful l’m from Mozambique and l would like to get one of your book or grammer if is possible.reply

  7. Lauro Silva

    I´d say that learning either American or British idioms is the most difficult step for any foreign student and that drives them crazy.

  8. Jane

    Thank you so much for this post. It saves me from using “annoy” all the time with even better replacements and feels truly expressing my annoyance

  9. Connie Deedrick

    My g’ma had one “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear”. (some things/people can’t be made pretty)

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