Off-colour and on the mend (Talking about health)

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by Kate Woodford

On one thread of this blog, we look at the phrases that people use in daily conversation. This week, we’re focusing on expressions that people use to talk about health – both their own health and that of their family and friends. We won’t be looking at individual symptoms. These were covered by my colleague, Liz Walter, in her post My leg hurts: Talking about illness. Instead, we’ll consider the phrases that people use in conversation to talk more generally about health.

Let’s start with a reply to ‘How’s Daniel (doing)?’ when Daniel is ill (UK)/sick (US). Of course, you can say that he’s ill or that he’s been ill recently. However, in conversational English, negative phrases are often heard, such as ‘He hasn’t been (UK)/felt (US) very well.’ Or (UK) ‘He hasn’t been so well.’ More examples are ‘He hasn’t been (UK)/felt (US) so good / so great recently’ or ‘His health hasn’t been great.’

When someone has had specific health problems, but the speaker doesn’t especially want to name them, they might say ‘He’s had one or two health issues recently’. (UK)/ ‘He’s had some health issues recently’. (US)

An idiom meaning ‘ill’ that is often heard in conversation is under the weather: She’s been a bit under the weather recently. Note that this tends to be used for illnesses that are not serious.

A few conversational phrases describe being slightly ill, sometimes with no specific symptoms. In UK English you can use the expression off-colour: I’m feeling a bit off-colour today. You might instead say you don’t feel yourself (UK)/don’t feel like yourself (US): I haven’t been feeling myself for a few days. You can also say that you are out of sorts, (though this expression is confusing as it also means ‘slightly unhappy’): I’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts today.

If you are starting to suffer from an infectious illness, you might say you are coming/going down with it: I hope I’m not coming down with the flu.

If someone has had an illness such as a cold for a long time and they’re not getting better, you might say that they can’t shake it (off): She’s had a cough for three weeks now and she just can’t shake it off. Similarly, you might say that the illness is dragging onI’m so fed up with this cold. It’s really dragging on.

Let’s look now at the way we talk about people who are getting better. You might say that someone is on the mend, when they’re recovering after an illness: She’s definitely on the mend, I’d say. You might emphasize that they are now able to do the things they normally do by saying they are back on their feet: In a day or so, I’ll be back on my feet. In UK English, if they’re getting better but still not completely well, you might describe them as not a hundred per cent: He’s definitely on the mend but still not a hundred per cent.

Look after yourselves and please stay well.

23 thoughts on “Off-colour and on the mend (Talking about health)

  1. Federica Toschi

    Thank you for all your post, you and your colleague.
    They’re very interesting. I hope you’ll write another paper about the news of this period, like you and Liz have done at the end of February and the first of April.
    I’m from Italy and I like to watch the BBC news. It would be very helpful. Thank you very much.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thanks, Federica! It’s always good to hear what our readers are finding interesting and useful. Best wishes from Cambridge.

      1. Kate Woodford

        You’re welcome! Alas, I don’t know of a miraculous solution to this – just try to use the words and phrases as much as you can – and revisit them after a while. The best of luck!

  2. Maryem Salama

    When I was in the first semester, I asked my professor, who was Englishman, how he was? (To show up my English!) And surprisingly, he answered in Arabic, which literally means (half -sleeve). In our dialect, this phrase means (in the middle between bad and good).

  3. Denis

    Rather educationally informative. Two thumbs up! 🙂

    I would add a couple more expressions, though:
    ‘Bounce back’ for recovery, & ‘at death’s door’ or ‘(as) sick as a dog’ for being ill/sick.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Priscilla, many thanks for that! We publish a new post every week, so keep checking in. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  4. Hans

    I`m a medical doctor from the Dominican Republic and I always visit the Cambridge`s Dictionary for search meanings and pronunciations when I`m reading books in English… and this is the first time that I click on the Dictionary Blog and I really surprised (I have to tell) cause this is tremendously useful and helpful when you`re learning English as a second language.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hans, that’s lovely to hear – thank you! We publish a new post every week on various aspects of the English language, for example, idioms, phrasal verbs, words relating to a particular topic. We hope you find them useful. Best wishes from Cambridge.

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