It costs an arm and a leg

It costs an arm and a leg

This week’s idiom is ‘It costs an arm and a leg’.

I know you’ve all been chomping at the bit, waiting for the second installment of An Idiom Abroad, well, your wait is finally over and this week the idiom is: ‘it costs an arm and a leg’. This is a very common phrase in English, but if you’ve never heard it before, it could sound like you would have to part with more than your hard-earned cash to acquire the object. However, the phrase ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ means very expensive.

So where does ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ come from?

Many seem to think that ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ comes from the pre-photographic era where painters would charge more depending on the size of the portrait. A head and shoulder portrait would be the cheapest option, followed by one that comes down to the waist, including the arms, with the most expensive option being a full-length portrait that also included the legs. This seems plausible as larger canvases would cost more, however, it is unlikely that the phrase originated from this practice because there were no recorded uses of the phrase before the twentieth century.

It costs an arm and a leg
George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart

One of the first uses of ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ was in the longbeach Independent in December 1949: ‘Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say “Merry Christmas” and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.’ This comes shortly after WWII where the reality of war where many servicemen lost limbs was fresh in people’s minds.

Another explanation is that the phrase ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ comes from two separate phrases that were combined, ‘give his right arm for’, and ‘takes a leg’. The earliest example was in the 1849 edition of Sharpe’s London Journal:

He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.

The second phrase was in 1875 in the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye:

A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.

So the phrase might be a mixture of the two phrases to make ‘it costs an arm and a leg’.

Some would say that ‘it costs an arm and a leg’ isn’t technically an idiom. It’s a metaphor. However, I don’t think this matters for the purposes of this blog which attempts to familiarise students whose first language is not English with the peculiarities of the language

In costs an arm and a leg in context:

Nigel needed a new suit. The old one was falling to pieces so he called his friend Gary and went to his local tailors on the high street. “I bet this is going to cost you an arm and a leg.” Gary remarked as they looked at all the suits available, Nigel wasn’t paying attention, “I don’t just want an arm and a leg, I want the whole suit.” Gary rolled his eyes and sighed.


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An Idiom Abroad

Idiom: Raining cats and dogs

An idiom is: ‘A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’. OED.

English can be challenging at the best of times with pronunciation, unusual spellings and grammar rules that even a seasoned English user can sometimes make mistakes with. Then there are idioms. Unless you’ve heard an idiom before, you could easily think that the people using it are talking in some sort of code. ‘It costs an arm and a leg’ doesn’t involve any sort of surgery and ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ can easily be interpreted as a fluffy, heavenly onslaught of teeth and claws.

To help with this and to inject some humour into what can be a fairly boring subject, we will be bringing you an idiom a week. We will attempt to explain and put into context an idiom that is used in common English speech.

This week’s idiom is: It’s raining cats and dogs

Idiom: Raining cats and dogs
Raining Cats and dogs

This simply means that it’s raining heavily.

The phrase in context.

Toby was walking along the road minding his own business when the rain started pouring down. Fortunately he was just passing the house of Matha, a friendly, warm-hearted woman who he knew wouldn’t mind giving him shelter. He knocked on the door and Martha answered as the storm took hold, the rain lashing down as thunder rolled in. Martha ushered him into the house out of the rain. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there,” Toby said as the water dripped off his nose. Martha was surprised at this, not because it was raining cats and dogs, but because she didn’t know dogs could speak.

But where does this phrase come from?

It was first used in 1651 by Henry Vaughan in his Olor Iscanus, where he refers to a roof where ‘dogs and cats rained in shower,’ and a year later, the English playwright Richard Brome wrote in his comedy City Witt, ‘it shall rain dogs and polecats.’ However, the popularity of the phrase resulted from its use by Jonathan Swift.

In 1710, Swift published ‘A Description of a City Shower’ in Tatler magazine where he describes the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, where heavy rain would wash debris through the streets, including dead cats and dogs. But the first proper use of the phrase as we have it now comes from the publication of Swift’s Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in 1738, a satire on the conversations of the upper classes: ‘I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.’

It is not known for certain where the phrase comes from etymologically, however, some theories have been advanced:

  • Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors.  Therefore, ‘raining cats and dogs’ may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).
  • ‘Cats and dogs’ may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, which means ‘contrary to experience or belief.’ If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard.
  • ‘Cats and dogs’ may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe.  In old English, catadupe meant a cataract or waterfall.  A version of catadupe existed in many old languages. In Latin, for example, catadupa. was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι, which referred to  the cataracts of the Nile River.  So, to say it’s raining ‘cats and dogs’ might be to say it’s raining waterfalls.
  • A false theory stated that cats and dogs used to cuddle into thatch roofs during storms and then be washed out during heavy rains. However, a properly maintained thatch roof is naturally water resistant and slanted to allow water to run off.  In order to slip off the roof, the animals would have to be lying on the outside—an unlikely place for an animal to seek shelter during a storm.

If  you have any more information on this phrase please feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow this blog for your weekly idiomatic dose.

For more information on the idiom, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’:

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PhD Time Management and the Pomodoro Technique: How to Take Control of Your Time

Time management

PhD Time Management and the Pomodoro Technique

How to Take Control of Your Time

blog post

Remember, time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round!


Getting PhD Work Done… or Cleaning the Kitchen

I felt elated when I won funding to spend three years focusing on a PhD on something I love. What could go wrong? I’ve got plenty of time. This is going to be a walk in the park, or so I thought. The reality was that it was one of the most challenging things I have done. The constant uphill struggle of sitting down at my desk or in a cafe with my computer seemed such an abhorrent thought. Suddenly the kitchen needed cleaning, washing needed to be put in the machine, clothes needed hanging, the cat needed shampooing, anything other than having to look at my work. It was only when I had mounting pressure that I sat down to write, reluctantly. The perfectionist in me spent hours revising the same paragraph or sentence and feeling a sense of achievement when at the end of a productive day, I ended up with three hundred words.

What helped me with writing and studying was how to manage my time and seeing the thesis as nothing more than a very long essay. I remember attending my first post-graduate meeting, when we were all enthusiastically unphased and being told nuggets of wisdom. “Don’t be so precious”, Kate McGowan, the head of the Graduate School told us as we looked up at her with wonderment and innocence, “this isn’t your magnum opus, good enough is fine”. This made sense, but it was only three years in did it start to mean anything.

Taking Control of Your Time

Time management techniques were also important. They helped me be far more productive than just sitting down for hours on end and coming up for air, exhausted and wanting to die, resulting in the rest of the day in the recovery position or face down in a darkened room. Instead, I broke my hour up into 45 minute sessions with a 15 minute break with longer for lunch. I wrote down the start and finish times for each session and could manage to complete seven or eight sessions per day. This worked well for me and I found I could get more done in a day and I had a sense of achievement after ticking off each successful session.

This worked well for me and I found I could get more done in a day and I had a sense of achievement after ticking off each successful session.

Pomodoro, the Helpful Tomato

This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, pioneered by Francesco Cirillo and first published in 1992. The time management technique takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by Cirillo when he was a student. It is simple and effective and I wish I had known about it when I was studying. It can help you to become far more productive than sitting down and punishing yourself by not having adequate breaks. Each working session is broken up into 25 minute sessions or a pomodoro, followed by a 3-5 minute break. After four pomodoros a longer break is taken, from 15-30 minutes.

6 Basic Steps to Time Management

There are six basic steps to implementing the technique:

  1. Find out how much effort an activity requires.
  2. Protect your pomodoro from internal and external interruptions
  3. Make an accurate estimation on how many pomodoros you need for a specific task
  4. Use the technique not just to work on your task, but also to recap and review
  5. Set your timetable according to your tasks and the time you have available
  6. Find your own personal objectives

Sticking to the rules can be challenging at first, but I’ve found it’s worth persevering with. The first pomodoro should be organisational and the last one reviewing what you have achieved. This means setting out an ‘activity sheet’, a ‘to do today sheet’ and a ‘records sheet’. All the activities you need to do are written in the activity sheet with the number of pomodoros estimated to complete the task and then transferred to the to do today sheet and marked with an X after each pomodoro is completed. The rule is that a pomodoro in indivisible and if a task takes longer than 5-7 pomodoros, it needs to be broken down into smaller achievable tasks. The rules seem rather strict. If a pomodoro is unavoidably broken and you are interrupted, that pomodoro is void and cannot be ticked off, whereas if an activity is finished before the pomodoro rings then there is time to recap and review what you have been doing until the end of the session.

Internal and External Interruptions

Internal and external interruptions are also accounted for by the inform, negotiate and call strategy. This inverts the dependency on internal interruptions and makes the interruptions depend on the pomodoros they are slotted into. If you’re in the middle of a pomodoro and you suddenly remember you have to do something, make a quick note and add it to the list of things to do (most things can wait for 25 minutes) and if someone rings or interrupts a pomodoro, simply inform them that you’re working, negotiate a time to call back or speak to that person and make sure you call. As Cirillo writes, ‘we’re no longer dependent on interruptions, interruptions depend on us’. A pomodoro is set aside to respond to calls and deal with unforseen situations.


The Rules of Time Management

The following is taken from Cirillo’s book The Pomodoro Technique. The rules are as follows:

  • A pomodoro consists of 25 minutes plus a 5 minute break.
  • After every four pomodoros comes a 15-30 minute break.
  • The pomodoro is indivisible. There are no half or quarter pomodoros.
  • If a pomodoro begins, it has to ring:
    • If a pomodoro is interrupted definitively – i.e. the interruption isn’t handled – it’s considered void, never begun, and it can’t be recorded with an X
    • If an activity is completed once a pomodoro has already begun, continue reviewing
      the same activity until the pomodoro rings
  • Protect the pomodoro. Inform effectively, negotiate quickly to reschedule the interruption, call back the person who interrupted you as agreed.
  • If it lasts more than 5-7 pomodoros, break it down. Complex activities should be divided into several activities.
  • If it lasts less than one pomodoro, add it up. Simple tasks can be combined.
  • Results are achieved pomodoro after pomodoro.
  • The next pomodoro will go better.

This is merely an quick overview of one time management system. Far more information and detail can be found in Cirillo’s short book, which goes into much more depth and explains the reasons for using this technique as he writes,

A timetable delineates the separation between work time and free time; the latter is best defined as time set aside for non-goal oriented or unplanned activities. This leisure time is fuel for our minds. Without it, creativity, interest, and curiosity are lost, and we run ourselves down until our energy is depleted. Without gas, the engine won’t run.

So give it a go. You never know, you might be more productive and have more free time.

This blog post was created using the pomodoro technique.

For more information on time management and the Pomodoro Technique try the following links.

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Walter Benjamin’s Techniques for Writers and Critics – Writing tips

Walter Benjamin


The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

The Critic’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
  2. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
  3. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
  4. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
  5. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
  6. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Holderlin and Kleist, Beethoven and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault.
  7. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
  8. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
  9. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studies the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
  10. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
  11. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the art©work is the shining sword in the battle of the minds.
  12. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
  13. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

The  above was taken from One-Way Street under a section titled “Post No Bills” in his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, found in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings.

Thank you to and Maria Popova for the writing tips and inspiration and putting me on to this mine of wonderful ideas.