Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and References

Kickoff • Rule of thumb • To pinch yourself

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“To kick off” (verb form) and “a kickoff” (noun form) come from the world of sports, especially soccer (which is called football in many parts of the world) and American football.

“To kick” is to hit someone or something with your foot. But by adding “off”, the meaning changes to “to begin”. In soccer and football, the games literally begin with “a kickoff” because one team kicks the ball. But figuratively this word is used in just about every setting - from government to business to casual events - to mean to begin or a beginning.

Note that the verb form is two separate words (to kick off), while the noun (kickoff) is one word. This is very common in English.

We all need to plan for our financial futures. But no one can know the future precisely. So what should you do? Usually it’s okay just to follow a few rules of thumb. For example, always make sure you have three months of money in the bank in case of emergencies. This article from the Times of India has plenty of other rules of thumb.

This idiom is probably very confusing. What does your thumb have to do with following rules?

A “rule of thumb” is a general principle or guideline that solves most problems, but it isn’t very precise or always useful.

Using the example above, it might be true that you only need three months of emergency savings in normal times. But maybe you’re thinking of taking a risk and starting a business. You might want to have a lot more in savings before you begin.

Two notes - If the historians are right, this idiom has a horrible origin. I’ll let you read it for yourself. But “rule of thumb” is used safely in all settings now. Also, note that the plural is “rules of thumb”, not “rule of thumbs”. This is quite common in English.

Recently a low-ranked tennis player from Argentina, Nadia Podoroska, surprised many people by winning enough matches in the French Open to get to the semi-finals. (In the semi-finals, only four players remain.) A news reporter asked her whether she was pinching herself for having done so well. She laughed and asked, “Sorry, what does it mean, pinching?”

Even seasoned reporters at international events need to be careful when using English idioms! 😁

“To pinch” is to grab your skin very hard using your thumb and index finger. Pinching hurts. “To pinch yourself” can mean to actually pinch your own skin, but that’s not what people mean when they use this idiom. Instead, it has to do with sleep, dreams, and reality.

When we sleep, we have dreams, and dreams are often good. (Bad dreams are called nightmares.) Some people believe that if you pinch yourself in your dream, you will wake up in the real world. So, the reporter here was asking, “Do you think you are dreaming because you have done so well? Maybe you should pinch yourself to see if you wake up.”

In even simpler words, the reporter was asking, “Are you surprised at how well you have done?”

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