Famous Characters in Colloquial English

“The wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.”

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Who hasn’t heard of Little Red Riding Hood, Cheshire Cat or Scrooge? If you haven’t, you may want to read “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “A Christmas Carol,” the wonderful books you won’t be able to put down before you read the last page. The stories are especially remarkable because they have given the world the characters who, in their turn, generated idioms which we commonly use these days. Read on to know the idioms and the meaning behind them.

  1. Scrooge – someone who hates spending money (Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol”)
  2. Sleeping beauty – a person who is sleeping soundly (“Sleeping Beauty” is a classic fairy tale about a princess that is cursed to sleep for a hundred years by an evil fairy, where she would be awakened by a handsome prince)
  3. Cinderella – one that unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect (“Cinderella” is a folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward)
  4. Fairy godmother – a person who comes to the aid of someone in difficulty (in fairy tales, a fairy godmother is a fairy with magical powers who acts as a mentor or parent to someone)
  5. Prince Charming – a man who fulfills one’s romantic expectations (Prince Charming is a fairy tale character who comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress (a young woman who needs help or protection) and must engage in a quest to liberate her from an evil spell)
  6. to turn into a pumpkin – to have to return home or go to bed due to the late hour of the night (the phrase is a reference to the story of Cinderella, whose magic carriage turned into a pumpkin at midnight)
  7. to grin like a Cheshire Catto smile broadly, especially in a self-satisfied way (the term was popularized by the character in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”)
  8. to go down the rabbit hole – to enter into a situation or begin a process or journey that is particularly strange, problematic, difficult, complex, or chaotic, especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds (an allusion to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll)
  9. as mad as a hatter – crazy (an allusion to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll)
  10. beauty and the beast – a beautiful woman and a large, ugly man (“Beauty and the Beast” is a French fairy tale about a beautiful and gentle young woman who is taken to live with a man-beast)
  11. Sherlock – a person adept at solving mysteries, especially by using insight and logical deduction (Sherlock Holmes is a fictional private detective created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
  12. Big Brother – a leader, a person in authority or a government that tries to control every aspect of people’s lives (this comes from the novel “1984” by George Orwell, in which the leader of the government, Big Brother, had total control over people)

Some real people’s names also became common idioms. For example, the word boycott   /ˈbɔɪkɒt/ (meaning a situation in which people refuse to buy, use, or do something because they do not approve of it) derives from Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of an absentee landlord, who lived in Ireland.

Another example is Einstein (someone who has exceptional intellectual ability and originality). Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity.

PRACTICE

Choose the right idiom to complete the sentences:

  1. Stop waiting for ___________ (Big Brother / Prince Charming / Fairy godmother). No one is perfect. Pay attention to the real men around you.
  2. Your uncle is ___________ (as mad as a hatter / Scrooge / Sherlock). He is trying to fix his broken phone with a fork!
  3. Why are you ___________ (going down the rabbit hole / turning into a pumpkin / grinning like a Cheshire Cat)? Have you received the admission letter? – Yes, I have.
  4. I’m no ___________ (Sherlock / Einstein / Scrooge) but even I can do that math.
  5. Wake up, ___________ (Cinderella / Fairy godmother / Sleeping Beauty)! It’s 8 already.
  6. She is a local ___________ (Cinderella / Fairy godmother / Sleeping Beauty). She was suddenly discovered as a model and became famous overnight.
  7. Owning your own business is a huge responsibility that not everyone is prepared for. Are you sure you’re ready to ___________ (turn into a pumpkin / grin like a Cheshire Cat / go down the rabbit hole)?
  8. You have to be careful what you write in an email these days. ___________ (Big Brother / Boycott / Fairy godmother) is watching you, after all.
  9. Don’t be such a ___________ (mad hatter / Scrooge / damsel in distress)! Let’s buy that big chocolate box. It’s not that expensive.
  10. I’ve had a wonderful time, but I’m ___________ (turning into a pumpkin / going down the rabbit hole / grinning like a Cheshire Cat). I think I’ll call a cab and head home.
  11. Writers have dubbed the couple, cruelly, as ___________ (the beast and the beauty /  the beauty and the beast).

Answer Key: 

  1. Prince Charming
  2. as mad as a hatter
  3. grinning like a Cheshire Cat
  4. Einstein
  5. Sleeping Beauty
  6. Cinderella
  7. go down the rabbit hole
  8. Big Brother
  9. Scrooge
  10. turning into a pumpkin
  11. the beauty and the beast

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