Not all expressions referring to the human body relate to weakness or disability. Many are descriptive. Some are about admirable traits. Others depict not-so-benign behaviour.
Alice is up to her neck (or ears) in year-end accounting. This means only that she’s swamped with work.
When Everett drives off at break-neck speed, he’s going very fast. Someone heading into a project neck and heels, is acting spontaneously. As early as 1890, a neck and neck finish was horse racing jargon for a tie, or near tie. To win by a nose was to barely win.
Antony is great at shouldering the load when there’s extra work. He’s not so eager to shoulder the blame, though, if things go wrong. Perhaps he lacks broad shoulders and therefore cannot handle criticism or responsibility. He’s too thin-skinned.
On the other hand, Paul stands head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s by far the best at most things. Mortimer attends political rallies to rub shoulders with important people. Shoulder to shoulder meaning close together, side by side, is often used to depict co-operation. To put one’s shoulder to the wheel is to start working hard.
Everyone occasionally needs a shoulder to cry on. That is, we need a sympathetic ear. If you’re in that situation, don’t turn to Anabella. She’s got a real chip on her shoulder and is always seeking excuses to feel ill-treated. Besides, she already gave you the cold shoulder when she snubbed you last week.
Almost 1,000 years ago, being very close together was known as being “cheke bi cheke.” In the mid-19th century, this phrase was modified to “cheek by jowl.” We still say cheek by jowl, and it still means cheek by cheek. It also often means “too close for comfort.”
To bring Ludwig to his knees is to show him he’s been defeated. It’s a way of humbling him.
Anyone knee-high to a grasshopper is exceptionally small. A knee-slapper is a funny joke. To be knee-deep in something is to be deeply involved. A knee-jerk reaction is immediate expected behaviour.
A hair-raiser is something exciting but terrifying, like a horror movie or close call. Similarly, anything terrifying can make one’s hair stand on end or cause one’s skin to crawl. If you don’t turn a hair when disaster strikes, you remain composed. To split hairs is to quibble over trivia. When Morgan urges Zeke to keep his hair on, he’s saying, “Keep calm. Don’t lose your temper.” To have someone by the short hairs is to have him at your mercy. And if Patricia gets in Mom’s hair, she’s being annoying.
If I foot it, I walk. If I foot the bill, I treat everyone. If I hot foot it, I flee.
To have foot in mouth disease is to be known for saying the wrong thing. To be footloose and fancy-free is to be without commitments. A footpad is a highwayman.
We have many other such sayings — stiff upper lip, skin of the teeth, hollow leg, chinless wonder, dead man’s hand, to finger and to finger-point.
But we’re out of space.