What would you think if someone were to tell you, out of the blue, that they are keeping an eye on you because they think you’re a chicken who doesn’t have any guts and don’t want you riding shotgun with them. If you’re not a native speaker, you’d probably think they were crazy and speaking nonsense.
Those are all idioms that don’t mean what they say. English is a weird language and American English – that is a contradiction in terms according to my British friend Clive – is even more unusual. Allow me to explain my favorite, strange idioms.
Out of the blue
This idiom refers to something unexpected. The original phrase was “like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky.” Being Americans, we shortened it to “out of the blue” because that’s how we roll. Imagine a lightning bolt hitting something or someone on a day with no clouds in the clear blue sky. Boom! Out of the blue! Something you didn’t expect to happen. For me that’s usually a text from an ex-girlfriend who didn’t hear I got married.
Keep an eye on
No, I am not going to pop out an eyeball for you. That would be gross. Think of it as using one eye to watch everything else you are doing while having your other eye focused on that one thing. For example, when I took my son to the grocery store when he was young, I would keep an eye on him so he wouldn’t end up opening several boxes of cereal and eating a little bit out of each one before I could catch him. I’m not saying that ever happened no matter what that manager at the store claims. Keeping an eye on something simply means to watch carefully. Especially if they are your children in the grocery store.
Calling someone a chicken
A chicken is a small feathered animal that lays eggs and tastes really good when you fry it up. But if you call someone a chicken it means you think they are a coward. I think a lot of old west gunfights started over one cowboy calling another one a chicken. They liked cows a lot better. But that’s just a theory that I made up just now. To be fair, most chickens I’ve met are very brave and will flap their wings and chase you around the barn until you climb a tree to get away from them. Of course, you get to have the last laugh when someone else catches the chicken and then you have them for dinner on Sunday. I think my mom even named one of our chickens Sunday Dinner. That chicken always looked nervous now that I think about it.
Guts is slang for your stomach and intestines. But the easiest way to think about it is having guts is the opposite of being chicken. Having guts means you’re brave. Think of any 1980’s American action movie star and you will know what I mean. Bruce Wills. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sylvester Stallone. Basically, anybody who was in the Expendables movies. They are brave. They are fearless. They have guts. Ironically, most of the people you think of as having guts, have small stomachs.
A shotgun is a weapon that shoots anything from a lot of tiny pellets to one or two big slugs. Where I live people use them to hunt wild birds and rabbits and squirrels and pretty much anything that I don’t want to eat. But calling shotgun when you are getting in the car means you want to sit in the front seat next to the driver. Yeah, it’s about sitting up front. There are no weapons involved. You may be asking, how did that come about? I’m glad you asked. It’s about the old American west. They had stagecoaches that would take people from one place to another. You would have the driver who held the reigns of the horses and another person sitting beside him with a shotgun to protect the people from any bandits who wanted to rob them. The person next to the driver was in the shotgun seat. Somehow, it managed to make it to the 21st century.
So, if out of the blue someone says that they’re keeping an eye on you because they think you’re chicken who doesn’t have any guts and don’t want you riding shotgun with them, they are being a jerk who suddenly tells you they are watching you because you are a coward and they don’t want you in their car. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little insulted. It makes me wish calling shotgun was a little more literal.
By Doug Romig