Flying in the face of common sense (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 2)


by Kate Woodford

This is the second of our two-parter on useful idioms and phrases that include the word ‘face’. Part one looked mainly at phrases for describing expressions on the face. This post doesn’t have a particular theme but instead looks at a variety of ‘face’ phrases used in contemporary English.

Starting with a fairly straightforward phrase, if you say something to someone’s face, especially something negative, you say it to them and not to someone else: I hear Amelia’s been complaining about me. To be honest, if she’s got something to say, I’d rather she said it to my face!

Someone or something that disappears (or is wiped) off the face of the earth cannot be found anywhere: But what happened to him? He can’t just have disappeared off the face of the earth!

A government or other organisation that has egg on their face, now looks foolish after making a mistake or failing to achieve something: The campaign failed completely despite considerable investment, leaving the government with egg on its face.

The solution to a problem that is staring you in the face is very obvious, (though you may not have realized it for a while): It turns out the answer was staring us in the face all this time. We needed to use a local supplier.

Someone who tries to achieve something in the face of opposition, competition or another difficult situation, does so despite dealing with this: She became the first woman to lead the party, in the face of considerable opposition.

Two related ‘face’ idioms are ‘lose face’ and ‘save face’. Someone who loses face looks foolish, often after failing to do what they said they would do: If the government agree to their demands, they’ll lose face. To save face is to avoid looking foolish and keep your good reputation: The compromise should allow both sides to save face. / Their mission is generally seen as a face-saving exercise.

The informal phrase until/till you’re blue in the face is used to say that repeated attempts to persuade someone to do something have absolutely no effect: You can ask him to put his clothes in the laundry basket till you’re blue in the face, but he still won’t do it.

Finally, to fly in the face of something that is generally thought or accepted is to go against it: Isn’t it flying in the face of all that we know about climate change to build another airport runway?

That concludes our look at ‘face’ idioms and phrases. I hope you’ve found these two posts interesting and have learnt a phrase or two!

15 thoughts on “Flying in the face of common sense (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 2)

  1. Denis

    Fairly useful idioms indeed. Furthermore, I’d really like to add a couple more quite colourful expressions which this dictionary is seemingly sadly lacking:
    ‘blow up in one’s face’ – (of an action, project, or situation) go drastically wrong with damaging effects to oneself;
    ‘don’t/you can’t blame a mirror for your ugly face’ – one shouldn’t blame their mistakes or failures on things that have nothing to do with these mistakes or failures.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Denis, there were so many idioms, I couldn’t include them all, though actually I don’t think the second of these idioms is established in English. It’s probably the equivalent (In UK English) of ‘A bad workman blames his tools.’

      1. Denis

        Howzit Kate, you’re absolutely right saying that there is quite a number of idioms in the field, and it’s difficult to incorporate all of them into one article. However, I didn’t mean that at all. As I’ve written, ‘this dictionary’ – the online Cambridge Dictionary – is actually sadly lacking both idioms. Your post is great, there’s nothing wrong with it.

        Best wishes

  2. Dear Kate Woodford thanks for your efforts. All those idioms are, at the very least useful to know. However, I might be wrong but do not you think some of them are too long, as well as out of fashion and nowadays, people do not bother much with them? Example:
    Isn’t it “flying in the face of all” that we know about climate change to build another airport runway? or instead:
    Building a new airstrip, wouldn’t it go against climate change?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! It’s an interesting point but I think people do use idioms, even when a concept could be expressed more succinctly. Sometimes, they’re used to make a point more emphatically and sometimes they convey humour. They also add a little colour and variety to the language. People don’t always want to convey concepts in as few words as possible. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  3. Ivan

    I particularly like “disappear off the face of the earth” because it allows so much space for creative tweaks and word play to match the context. “Blow off the face of the earth,” “sweep off the face of the earth,” “fall off the face of the earth”.

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