I was chatting online with a friend in Ukraine the other day. She’d asked me what I’d been up to recently (What have you been up to? is a common way of asking about what someone has been doing recently) and I was listing some of what’s been keeping me busy: getting ready for some forthcoming trips to Russia and Germany . . . getting near the end of a high school book based on TED talks that we’re doing for National Geographic Learning . . . planning our face-to-face summer school courses here in London . . . and finally I added that all of this activity was keeping me off the streets. I’m so used to adding You know, it keeps me off the streets as a joking comment at the end of lists like this that I’d never stopped to think about how the phrase might cause confusion. “Why?” she enquired, before adding in a slightly more worried tone, “What’s going on over there? Why do you need to keep off the streets?” I suddenly saw the problem.
If people take to the streets, it’s usually to demonstrate and voice their anger about the government or about a new law or something similar. Of course, it’s also possible that people take to the streets in support of the government, but here in the UK that’s almost unheard of. By definition, demos are almost always ways of expressing opposition. When there’s a military coup and the army take control of the country, there will usually be loads of tanks out on the streets – and during times of extreme civil unrest when there’s a real risk of things descending into violence, you might see the army – or lots of armed police – on the streets. When you’re growing up, especially if you live in quite a rough area where gang violence occurs and where drug dealing happens out in the open, your parents and teachers may try and stop you from hanging around on the streets, where you could easily get into trouble. If you lose your job and your house, you might end up homeless – living on the streets. The police – or government ministers – often warn that people they regard as a menace to society must be kept off the streets. As you can see, most things that happen on the streets don’t sound much fun!
However, if you’re talking about how busy you’ve been and explaining all the things you’ve been doing recently and then add that all of this keeps you off the streets, it’s simply a friendly, jokey way of laughing at yourself. The suggestion is that if you weren’t keeping yourself busy, you’d be out getting yourself into trouble in one way or another. You’d be hanging around with lowlife characters in places of ill repute. Obviously, this is meant as comic exaggeration . . . which is maybe why it’s so easily misunderstood.
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- What’s been keeping you off the streets of late?
- When was the last time lots of people in your country took to the streets? Why were they demonstrating?
- Do many people end up living on the streets where you are? Why?
- What’s the roughest part of town where you live?