Phrase of the day: make a (right) meal of

Some people have sensible hobbies that help them relax in whatever time off work they manage to get. Maybe they go fishing or do yoga or paint. Me? I watch football . . . and in particular my local team here in north London, Arsenal. As any football fan will tell you, for every high there are many many lows. For every moment of joy that’s provided by a remarkable goal or a victory in the local derby against your team’s bitter rivals, there will be hours of frustration, stress, anger and downright misery! As my wife often observes when watching me watch football, “it can’t be good for your heart, all that!” When I can’t watch games, I try and catch them on the radio, and on those occasions when I’m driving, my long-suffering family are forced to witness me screaming and shouting over the top of the live commentary.

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As we were driving back from a weekend away recently, I had a game on and was quite enjoying the fact that Arsenal weren’t losing when suddenly my daughter, who’s seven, asked “What it does mean? He made a right meal of it? I thought it was football – not cooking!” The commentator had just seen what sounded like a very poor passage of play – an Arsenal player had spent too long on the ball, had missed a good opportunity to launch an attack and had then lost possession – and had noted that the player had made a right meal of that! As I explained that it meant that player had taken more time or care than he needed to and that it was a criticism, implying he should’ve acted faster, my (Indonesian) wife laughed and added that only the English would have a negative expression connected to the idea of cooking a decent meal and that presumably cooking’s too much effort when you could just go to a McDonald’s instead!

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As the phrase is used quite a lot in football commentary, I’d never really stopped to think about it, but when I did, there were interesting aspects to it. Firstly, there’s the use of right an adjective to mean complete. This is quite common in informal spoken English, especially when talking about negative things, so you might hear sentences like You must think I’m a right idiot and The house is in a right mess! Secondly, there’s the inescapable fact that when we talk about people making a meal (out) of things, it does mean we think they’re putting in more time and energy than is strictly necessary (I only asked for a summary of the main points, but she’s making a real meal out of it!) and that this may well say something – and not anything nice – about the national distrust of fancy cooking!

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There’s also the fact that there are two connected expressions which both use the idea of creating an unpleasant dish as a metaphor for not doing something well. If you say someone has made a pig’s ear of something, it means you think they’ve done it badly or wrongly, so if you’ve paid a carpenter to put up some shelves and aren’t impressed with the results, you might complain that they’ve made a real pig’s ear of the job. In the same way, you could also accuse the carpenter of making a right dog’s dinner of the shelves!

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Anyway. to get back to the football, moments after this little discussion, Arsenal conceded a goal – and went on to lose 2-1, meaning I spent the rest of the drive sulking . . . much to the amusement of my wife and kids! Typical!

Want to learn more with Lexical lab? Take one of our summer courses.

  • What do you usually do in your free time? Does it help you relax?
  • What are the big derby matches in your country? Do you usually support one or other of the teams when they’re on?
  • Can you think of anything people you know made a right meal of? What happened?
  • Have you tried to do something practical, but ended up making a right dog’s dinner / pig’s ear out of it?
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