Phrase of the day: have a good innings

In one of my classes recently, we were looking at vocabulary connected to illnesses and there was a sentence about how diseases spread. I mentioned that they can spread around the world – from person to person – but also within the body. So, for instance, certain kinds of cancer often spread quite quickly. A student then asked what the opposite was, and I said that sometimes after people undergo chemotherapy (or just have chemo, as we often say in spoken English), the cancer often goes into remission. If you’re lucky, after a while, you might be given the all clear, but of course, cancer does sometimes come back again.

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Later on in the class, students were discussing their own experiences in connection to the vocabulary we’d studied, and someone mentioned that their mum had died of cancer a few years ago. At the students’ request, we ended up looking at how to have the conversation they were attempting in better English. We ended up with the following on the board:

My mum died of cancer a few years ago.

> Oh, I’m so sorry.

That’s OK. What can you do?

> How old was she when she died, if you don’t mind me asking?

53.

> 53? That’s no age at all.

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Another student then asked what the opposite was . . . what you’d say if someone died at an old age, which led to the following going onto the board:

How old was he when he died, if you don’t mind me asking?

> 93.

Really? Wow! OK. Well, he had a good life / he had a good innings, then.

This, in turn, led to the predictable comments about what an innings was. I tried to say that he had a good innings was a common way of saying that someone lived for a long time, had a good life, and died at a ripe old age, and that we can also use the phrase to say that someone’s had a long and successful period of time in a job, but one student had already dived into their dictionary and was looking bemused. “It’s from cricket?” she asked!

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Now, I always dread it when classroom conversations turn to cricket, because I’m all too well aware of the fact that most students around the world view the game as yet another example of English eccentricity! “You drive on the left, you use miles instead of kilometres AND you play cricket!” they exclaim, “You’re very strange people indeed!” It’s hard to argue with this observation, and – like many English people – I do, of course, take a peculiar pride in the fact that so few people understand (and even fewer like!) one of our main national sports!

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And, of course, cricket has given the English language several phrases used in everyday conversation. Indeed, if we think something isn’t being done in a fair and decent way, we often say (sometimes slightly ironically, of course!) that it’s just not cricket! The literal meanng of an innings is the period in a cricket match during which one player – or team – tries to score runs (points) and if one player scores a century – 100 runs – it’s generally seen as being a very good innings. Hence the idiomatic usage!

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

  •  Do you know anyone who lived to  a ripe old age / had a good innings? How old were they when they died?
  • Do you know anything about cricket?
  • Can you think of any other examples of English eccentricity?
  • Can you think of any illnesses or diseases that spread quickly? What happened?
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