The Idiom Game

Lisa Doctor's picture

Several years ago, while teaching creative writing for three months in a small village in Spain, I was made to feel welcome by a wonderful group of people who were native to the town. Every Saturday night, more than twenty men and women would arrive at the farmhouse my husband and I were renting, each of them carrying a tray of their favorite foods. There was pa amb oli—bread with olive oil, the signature Catalan appetizer; tombet, a casserole of tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes; bean stew; Spanish tortillas made with egg, potatoes and onions; enormous olives; sharp cheeses, and tinto wine. The good people bearing such sweet and savory gifts also brought with them a wide variety of English skills, ranging from total fluency to no English vocabulary at all. While it was great fun for those who could speak English to relax on our front porch, laughing and sharing stories of their lives, I needed to find a way to engage everyone in the conversation.

Our farmhouse in Spain - the site of many English teaching opportunities with the Idiom Game

After the first week, I came up with the perfect solution: The idiom game!
There would be two teams, men against women, a natural way to create a playful but very real competition. Those who spoke well could help those who didn’t, and everyone would be included. I laid out the rules: I would say the American idiom in a sentence, and each team would have two minutes to discuss amongst themselves the possible meaning. The team with the most correct answers at the end of the evening would be the winner. No prizes were necessary; it would be satisfying enough for one gender to be named the victor over the other. 
They were raring to go.
The first idiom was “high and dry.” I offered the sentence, “I’m sad because my boyfriend left me high and dry.” Both teams began to whisper feverishly, and after two minutes, the men asked if they could go first. 

“We know this,” Pere said with obvious confidence. He was a journalist at the local newspaper and one of the stronger English speakers. “The boyfriend leaves me high—and dry. With marijuana, but with no alcohol.” He looked at me with earnestness, hoping he’d gotten it correct. 
“That makes sense,” I said. “And it’s very clever.” His triumphant smile faded as I added, “but that’s not what it means.”
The women cheered. One of them let out a loud whistle.
“Next idiom,” I said as I reached for a plump green olive and a slice of Havarti cheese. “The idiom is, chip in. Tonight, we all chip in with food.”
They contemplated this for a moment, the only sound the tinkling of sheep bells in the distance. Then the whispering began, each team more excited now that the game was in full swing. “We know this,” Maria Cati said, waving a tanned and sleeveless arm in the air. She was a psychotherapist by profession, with a deep compassion for others. “It means, when you eat a chip and it sticks in the throat. A chip in the throat. A chip in with food.”
“Interesting,” I said. “But that’s not it. Good try, though.”
The men cheered. Maria Cati pouted.
“Next idiom,” I said, maintaining my teacherly tone. “Is ‘bear with me.’ Please bear with me as I figure this out.”
I could feel the crackle of competition in the warm evening air. Both teams wanted to go first, but the men deferred to the women with true Spanish courtesy. “It means,” Maria Magdi said, “be careful, a bear sleeps with me in the bed so you must stay away from me. There is a bear with me.” A spirited discussion followed about the idiom being a metaphor for declining a sexual advance. 
The game continued with increasing fervor week after week, our Saturday evenings filled with food and laughter and learning. Many of the participants brought their teen-aged children to join in, and one week, we had a surprise visit from the farmers down the road, two sets of jovial grandparents who were curious about all the laughter, and arrived carrying a large tray of coca de trampo, a pizza-like dish. Although they had no English skills, they joined in the game and didn’t go home until well after midnight. 

Our farmhouse in Spain - the site of many English teaching opportunities with the Idiom Game
Before long, the men and women of the Saturday night group were glowing about their newfound vocabulary, but they were still confounded by the puzzling American idioms. During one game, they wondered why “all thumbs” didn’t meant to be strong and capable; after all, thumbs are crucial to the construction of physical things. How could it mean the opposite? 

By the end of our stay in Spain, everyone expressed their gratitude for what they were learning, but I was the one who was the most grateful, having gotten to know these beautiful people, and having learned so much about their culture. On our last Saturday evening before our return home to California, Antonio brought homemade seafood paella for everyone to share. I told him it was so delicious that he could move to Los Angeles with his recipe and make a lot of money. He looked at me with what seemed like pity and said, “But I don’t want to make a lot of money.” 

Later that night, the group turned the tables (an idiom they associated with redecorating), presenting my husband and me with idioms in Spanish and Catalan. We were stumped. Who knew that ensentar perlas (to string pearls) meant to waste time? I surely didn’t. My “students” high-fived each other, triumphant to have stumped us so easily. To translate one of their favorite Spanish idioms, they had brought the cat to the water.




Lisa Lieberman Doctor, the Creative Travel Writing Editor for Wandering Educators, is the author of recently published book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing.  She has been working with writers since 1977. Over the years she has served as: a development and production executive at Universal Pictures, Warner Brothers, TriStar Pictures (where she was Vice President of Robin Williams' company, Blue Wolf Productions) and several independent production companies; a staff writer on ABC's General Hospital, where she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy and Writers Guild Award; an expert witness in motion picture copyright law; and a writing instructor at the UCLA Writers Program; the California State University; The Esalen Institute; The University of the Balearic Islands; and the TV Writers Fund For The Future. 


Photos courtesy and copyright Lisa Doctor