Shrinking violets and tall poppies (Idioms with nature words, part 1)

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by Kate Woodford

Like many people, I spent a good deal of 2020 out in nature, walking my dog along the local stream and through the woods. Surrounded by trees, hedges, and flowers, I started to think about all the nature idioms and phrases that we use. This week, we’re looking specifically at flower-related idioms. (By the way, if anyone wants to identify the flowers in these idioms, there are pretty photos at most of our dictionary entries for them.)

The flower that we most often find in idioms is the rose, and this beautiful, fragrant flower, not surprisingly, has very positive associations. If something is coming up roses, it is starting to be a great success: Earlier this year, she reached the third round of the tennis tournament. In fact, everything has been coming up roses for the young tennis player.

Someone who comes up smelling of roses emerges from a scandal or other difficult situation with no harm to their personal reputation: It didn’t matter what he did, he always seemed to come up smelling of roses.

Finally for roses, if you say that a situation is no bed of roses, or not all roses, you mean that it involves difficult and unpleasant aspects as well as the good ones: It’s an interesting career for sure, but it’s no bed of roses.

The sweetly simple daisy features in two idioms, one pleasant, the other less so! Someone who is as fresh as a daisy, feels or looks refreshed and energetic: There I was, after eight hours’ sleep, as fresh as a daisy.

Meanwhile, someone who is dead can be said, humorously, to be pushing up the daisies: I’ll be pushing up the daisies long before any of this happens.

A shrinking violet is a very shy, modest person. (A violet is a small, purple flower.) ‘Shrinking violet’ is often used in negative phrases to suggest that someone is in fact, very sociable and confident: She tends to play big characters on screen and she’s no shrinking violet off-screen either.

If you say someone is gilding the lily, you mean they are trying to improve something that is already perfect and in so doing, are spoiling it. (A lily is a beautiful, bell-shaped flower and to gild something is to cover it with a layer of gold.): This fruit makes a perfect dessert on its own – there’s no need to gild the lily.

Tall poppy syndrome is a phrase, (originally Australian), used to describe the way that people often criticize individuals who are successful: Of course, she had her critics – successful people always do. It’s what we call tall poppy syndrome.

Let’s finish with the bud, which is the small part of a plant that opens and becomes a flower or leaf. If you nip a potential problem in the bud, you take action at an early stage to stop it developing: If you catch this sort of behaviour early enough, you can nip it in the bud before it becomes a serious issue.

I hope you enjoyed these flower idioms. My next ‘nature idioms’ post will take in seeds and the ground in which they grow.

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