Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Verbs contained in the section are those identified as significant for expanding the vocabulary related to the topic of Public Speaking. Study the selected Phrasal Verbs, their meaning and examine the examples.


Idioms presented in the section are selected to advance the vocabulary related to the topic of Public Speaking. Study the idioms, their meaning and examples.


strike/ touch a chord (the right chord)

When we use this phrase we generally mean that something provokes a memory or evokes some form of an emotional response.

The literal meaning of the phrase, not unsurprisingly, comes from the world of music. When the key of a piano is pressed and, indeed, when a note on a stringed instrument is played, the string vibrates at a certain rate. This vibration can cause other strings to vibrate too, usually those whose harmonics are most in common with the note played, a phenomenon known as sympathetic vibration or sympathetic resonance.


Originally “tongue-tied” was a metaphorical expression that described a specific physical abnormality, when a thick or long tissue connects an underside of the tongue to the base of the mouth. Some children actually have this medical condition which has a lot of side effects such as a delayed speech. Obviously, a tied tongue which makes it difficult to speak clearly has come to a more general meaning of “struggling to express yourself”.

beat around/ about the bush

The origin of the phrase is quite literal. While hunting, one person would go beat the bush to scare the birds into the air so that someone else could shoot them.

The phrase is very old, from at least the 1400s in the form if beat the bushes. In bird hunts some of the participants roused the birds by beating the bushes and enabling others, to use a much later phrase, to ‘cut to the chase’ and catch the quarry in nets. So ‘beating about the bush’ was the preamble to the main event, which was the capturing of the birds. 

The progression of the phrase is quite logical. Beating around a bush is not as effective as beating the bush. This exact wording is noted in the late 1500s.

until one is blue in the face

Until one is blue in the face means until one is totally exasperated; to argue, shout or talk to someone, especially trying to persuade them to do something, until one is totally spent. The idea is of someone who is expending extreme effort in talking until he is so out of breath he turns blue from lack of oxygen. Interestingly, the phrase as rendered in the 1820s was originally until one is black and blue in the face. The color black was dropped from the idiom by the 1860s, when the idiom became until one is blue in the face.

take by storm

Make a vivid impression on, quickly win popular acclaim or renown, as in The new rock group took the town by storm. This usage transfers the original military meaning of the phrase, “assault in a violent attack,” where to storm meant to lay siege to a fortified position, to more peaceful endeavors in Mid-1800s. By the late nineteenth century the term had been extended to mean winning renown or popular acclaim. Thus Augustus Jessop wrote (The Coming of the Friars, 1889), “The Franciscans . . . were taking the world by storm.”

to cut/ make a long story short

Get to the point — leave out details. Leave out parts of the story to make it shorter. To bring a story to an end.

This expression has been used since the 1800s. Although the idea of making something very long shorter is ancient, the precise phrase here, dates back only to the 1800s. Henry David Thoreau played on it in a letter of 1857: “Not that the story need to be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.”

give the benefit of the doubt 

There isn’t really any figurative or transferred use here of either word. When you give someone the benefit of a doubt, it means that any doubt about the truth or the correct interpretation of the facts lessens the fault that can be imputed to the party in question, thereby benefitting him by improving his case while weakening that of his accusers or opponents. 

OED: «Phr. to give (an accused person) the benefit of the doubt: to give a verdict of Not Guilty where the evidence is conflicting; to assume his innocence rather than guilt; hence in wider use, to incline to the more favourable or kindly decision, estimate, or the like. 

hit the nail on the head

Hit the nail on the head is one of those idioms whose meaning is fairly easy to tell. It means to be exactly correct, especially in regards to a statement, or to have summed up a situation perfectly. Basically, to hit the nail on the head means to be on point, to hit the mark. This expression is especially used when someone is describing the cause of a problem or situation.

Hit the nail on the head is a reference to carpentry and hitting the head of a nail squarely or ‘true.’ A good carpenter can drive a nail with only two or three swings of the hammer, but his success depends on his accuracy. If he didn’t hit the nail squarely on the head every time, and instead hit it sideways, he would be inefficient and a much less successful carpenter. So, a carpenter’s ability to “hit the exact point” is similar to the idiom: To be exactly on point, and correct.

This idiom is quite old and has existed in English since at least the early 1700’s, and probably since the 1600’s. There is no way to trace it to a particular source, but it has probably been a part of the language for nearly as long as there have been carpenters and nails. Many languages share similar idioms.

to spin a yarn

To spin a yarn means to tell a story, usually a long, imaginative, colorful and unlikely story. A yarn is a long story told primarily as a form of entertainment, not as a method of communicating important information. The expression to spin a yarn has only been in use since the early 1800s, though the phrase spin a thread meaning to tell a long, entertaining story was a popular expression used in the 1300s. 

Most believe that the phrase spin a yarn was originally a nautical idiom. Seaman often had to spend time repairing rope onboard ship. This is a time-consuming task involving twisting fibers together, which is alleged to have been referred to as “spinning yarn”. While repairing rope, sailors would often tell each other stories to while away the time. Over time, these stories came to be known as yarns, and telling the story came to be known as spinning a yarn. 

Related phrases are spins a yarn, spun a yarn, spinning a yarn. Remember, spinning a yarn always refers to telling a fictitious tale, often one that is difficult to believe.

to call a spade a spade 

To call a spade a spade means to speak the unvarnished truth, to speak plainly and without embellishment and without softening the hard realities of that truth. The term to call a spade a spade has its roots in Ancient Greece, in a phrase found in Plutarch’s Apophthegmata Laconic: “…to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough.” 

Later, in the mid-1500s, the Dutch scholar Erasmus collected various Greek works and translated them into Latin, at which time he interpreted the aphorism as “…to call a spade a spade.” The spade in this case is a gardening implement.

To complicate matters, the word spade came into use in the United States during the 1920s as a pejorative term for African-American. For this reason, the term call a spade a spade has sometimes been perceived as a racist phrase, even though its roots reach back to antiquity. Use caution when employing this phrase. Related terms are calls a spade a spade, called a spade a spade, calling a spade a spade.