Twisting arms and sticking your neck out (Idioms featuring parts of the body)

RubberBall Productions / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

Parts of the body feature in a great number of English idioms. This week we’re taking a look at some of the most commonly used. How many of these have direct equivalents in your language?

 

Starting with the top of the body, the neck is quite productive! If two people or groups who are competing are neck and neck, they are level with each other and have the same chance of winning: Recent polls suggest the two parties are neck and neck. The strange phrase neck of the woods refers to a particular area. (We usually put the words ‘your’/‘his’/‘her’ etc. or ‘this’ before it): I didn’t expect to see you in this neck of the woods! / Portland – isn’t that your neck of the woods, Gina? If you stick your neck out, you take a risk, often by saying what you think will happen in the future: I’m going to stick my neck out and predict a win for Chelsea.

Moving down the body, a shoulder to cry on is a person who is kind and listens to you talk when you are sad about something in your life: When John left, Laura was a shoulder to cry on.

Something that costs an arm and a leg is very expensive: I’d love some trainers like Sophie’s but they cost an arm and a leg. If you keep someone at arm’s length, you don’t allow them to become too friendly with you: I rather got the feeling she was keeping me at arm’s length. If you twist someone’s arm, you persuade them to do something they didn’t want to do: I wasn’t going to go to the party but Sam twisted my arm.

The word ‘finger’ also features in a number of common idioms. If you put your finger on something, you work out exactly what is wrong or strange about something, especially when this is difficult: There’s something odd about her, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. If you complain that someone doesn’t lift a finger, you mean they make no effort to help: Dan sat on the sofa all afternoon and didn’t lift a finger. If you point the finger at someone, you say that they should be blamed for something bad: It’s very easy to point the finger at management.

If someone doesn’t have a leg to stand on, they are in a situation where they are unable to prove something: If you have no witness, you don’t have a leg to stand on. If a planned project has legs, it is likely to succeed: You asked me what I thought about Lucy’s proposal. I think it has legs.

You may well have noticed that two important parts of the body are missing  – ‘head’ and ‘hand’. These will feature in future posts.

 

34 thoughts on “Twisting arms and sticking your neck out (Idioms featuring parts of the body)

  1. Maria Clara Herrero Ducloux

    Hello! In Argentina when something is expensive it costs an eye of the face, and to competidors go body to body when their score are similar. To not give the arm to twist is not to do something against our will, and when something has little legs you can’ t find something because someone moved it.. This last is used in an ironic way. Thanks very much for your posts.

    1. Kate Woodford

      You’re welcome. Maria Clara! That’s so interesting. I especially love the little legs idiom. I think I’m going to start using it in English! Best wishes.

  2. Vero

    Thanks, Kate for this article! Some of those idioms are similar in Spanish, but others have their equivalents with different parts of the body.
    For instance, some idioms in Argentina use “head” instead of “neck” or “eye” instead of “arm” or “leg”.

    neck and neck = “cabeza a cabeza” (I suppose that alludes to horse races)
    stick your neck out = “jugarse la cabeza” (with the meaning of betting your head)
    costs an arm and a leg = “costar un ojo de la cara”

    Vero

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thanks, Vero! Actually ‘head and head’ makes more sense than ‘neck and neck’. Best wishes from Cambridge.

      1. Vero González

        Thanks, Kate.
        That reminds me of another idiom in Spanish: “codo a codo” (“elbow to/with elbow”), which refers to two or more people who work hard or do something together, with the same objective: “We’ve been working ‘codo a codo’ in order to finish that project”.
        Is there an equivalent in English for that idiom?
        Have a great day!

  3. Maryem Salama

    There are two idioms which are commonly used in my own language; Arabic: twist someone’s arm and a shoulder to cry on. It is a very beautiful writing and I enjoy reading it, thank you Kate.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you, Maryem, for your lovely comment. It’s so interesting to hear which idioms are found in other languages. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  4. Ratnayake

    Hi Kate, This is very interesting article about Idioms featuring our body parts. So I am to write down few sentences using these fascinating Idioms write now.Further, I eagerly look forward to read your next blog.

  5. F Hossain

    Another addition can be:
    to give someone the cold shoulder means to intentionally avoid someone in an unfriendly way.

  6. F Hossain

    Another addition in this context:
    have/keep your finger on the pulse
    is to be/stay familiar with the most recent changes or improvements.

  7. Lara

    Joined at the hip. Two (or more) very close people, do everything together, etc
    Elbow grease. To apply extra effort.
    Hand (it) to them. To give someone kudos/credit for good work.
    Nose to the grindstone. To work hard, usually to the exclusion of personal life.
    Eyeball it. Estimate something.
    A hairy situation. Something complicated or difficult.

  8. Shihab

    Thanks Kate for this informative article. By the way I found three idioms which are commonly used in my own language, Bengali :- keep someone at arms length, point the finger at, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

  9. CoDe-BuSTeR

    Hello @ all,

    i just opened this page. It is the first article i ever read on the dictionarybloc.cambridge.org page.

    i can’t believe, that there is a typo in the text which hasn’t been seen before, or after the publication of the text.

    “…
    I’m going to stick my neck and out and predict a win for Chelsea.
    …”

    there is 1 “and” too much, right before “out”

  10. Well we have some idioms that are the same in my language e.g( a shoulder to cry on , doesn’t haveva leg to stand on) plus some idioms us easily to understand if you imagine the idiom itself.In other words, there are idioms that don’t need an elbow grease to know the meaning..😝

    I like the website, thanks Kate

  11. Well we have some idioms that are synonymous in my language e.g( a shoulder to cry on , doesn’t haveva leg to stand on) plus some idioms us easily to understand if you imagine the idiom itself.In other words, there are idioms that don’t need an elbow grease to know the meaning..😝

    I like the website, thanks Kate

  12. Kate Woodford

    Thanks for all your comments, everyone. It’s so interesting to learn which English idioms are the same in other languages. Some great additions to the English idiom set too.

  13. Mateusz

    Hi,
    In Polish people also say that something ‘has arms and legs’ when talking about a reasonable argument or plan.
    Kind regards,
    Mateusz

  14. Valerie A Watkins

    Lovely helpful. However we all hate vulgarity and NOW I understand why people use words without understanding what they mean like schmuck, which is beyond foolish. The fact is appeals to people who like sounds does not make it acceptable if it goes beyond decency. The Head of anything especially anointed leader ship, ie the responsibility and the authority, is important, so when we refer to head, people have faces, or panim in hebrew and animals have heads, they are not made in Gods image. I think this is a good site, thank you! Some of our tour guides are amazing the way they come out with the mot juste!!

  15. Jenn- uine

    Oops, poor editing.
    I commonly use the following body part idioms:

    To “shoulder a (burden)” means to take on an onerous task.

    If you ask someone for a favor, & they tell you to “get on your knees,” they’re saying you should beg for it.

    To “elbow” someone, you use arms, shoulders & hips to nudge them out of the way, or a gentle nudge with the arm to get their attention.

    “Butt in” means to verbally interject oneself into a conversation, or interfere in a situation not otherwise involved in.

    “Work your fingers to the bone” means to work hard.

    “Knuckle down” & “put your nose to the grindstone” both means “get to work.”

    OK, I think my OCD has reached its limit for the day! Have a good one.

  16. Ramón

    “Two heads think better than one”, as in encouraging collaboration.
    “Don’t worry your head about something”, as cheering somebody up and/or asking them not to worry.
    “Keep your head above the water”, as in subsist.
    “Dead in the water”, as in not being successful or fail.
    “Hold one’s head up”, as in not feeling ashamed.

    Just to name a few!

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