The English idiom ‘What am I like?’ is a rhetorical question (one we don’t need anybody to answer) that we ask ourselves out loud when we do something a little bit silly – usually in a public place. It has the same sort of meaning as when Homer says ‘Doh!’ in The Simpsons.
For example, at the supermarket you have paid and you’re walking away from the checkout, when the customer behind you calls you back and tells you that you’ve left a potato on the bagging area. You hurry back and collect your errant potato. To cover your embarrassment you say quickly, ‘Oh, thank you! Thanks. What am I like?’ The other customer smiles, but there is no need for them to reply. For example, we wouldn’t hear an exchange like this:
A – Hey! Excuse me! You’ve forgotten a potato.
B – What? Oh no! Thank you. Thanks so much. Oh, what am I like?
A – Well, it seems that you are rather forgetful, careless, and possibly living in a world of your own.
B – Er, thanks again.
We say ‘What am I like?’ in situations where we potentially look silly or odd in a public place. It puts a voice to our feeling of foolishness and awkwardness, and acknowledges publicly that we have done something ‘unusual’ and that we know about it – we are aware of it. To say nothing would be to create an unreal situation where there is an elephant in the room – an unacknowledged error or problem. This would be very uncomfortable for the typical English person, who tries to avoid awkward public situations. Making a joke about it – and making ourselves the butt of the joke – lightens the mood and takes the heat off – making it seem less awkward.
The typical English response to ‘What am I like?’ would be to smile and perhaps say ‘No problem’ or ‘Yes, I’m always doing that too!’ (showing empathy) if you are feeling more friendly. In any case, phatic (non-essential) communication – also called ‘small talk’ – eases the awks!
Note: this is not an investigation into your true nature: ‘What am I like?’ It’s unlikely we would ever need to ask this question about ourselves, unless we had lost our memory, or we were particularly vain and wanted to hear people eulogising us! In our version, we put more stress on ‘like’ and the intonation is downward at the end, rather than up, as in a normal question.
Other times when you could say ‘What am I like?’:
You get to work and realise you haven’t brought your lunch box
The waiter gives you the bill and you realise that you’ve forgotten your wallet – oops
In the supermarket you try to get a bag of flour down from a high shelf but it lands on the floor, making a huge mess
You are rushing to prepare dinner and you drop your favourite blue dinner plate, smashing it on the floor
You get home and realise that you have left the TV on all day by mistake
See if you can use this idiom in your daily life today! Leave a comment to tell us how you used it!
We use it when we want to let another person take a decision, without us getting involved in the decision-making process.
It may be that we can’t decide ourselves, or we don’t have an opinion. It may be that the decision is particularly difficult and we don’t want to get involved – and get the blame if it goes pear-shaped (goes wrong)!
You want the full responsibility for the decision – and all of its consequences – to lie with the person whom it will most affect. Maybe because your help could backfire: if you make the wrong decision for your friend it could negatively affect your friendship:
Alex: I’m thinking about applying to Exeter University.
Alex: But I can’t decide. I really like Edinburgh.
Sue: I don’t know.
Alex: But what do you think? They’re both great universities. Come on. You must have an opinion.
Sue: It’s up to you, Alan. I really don’t want to tell you what to do.
When students ask me about how to improve their English, one of the things I always recommend is watching the news in English. And you can’t watch the news without running into some common political idioms. Do you know what a spin doctor is? How about a fishing expedition? Keep reading to learn 9 essential idioms about politics in American English, complete with FREE infographic!
Political Idiom 1: Strange Bedfellows
When we say that two people, organizations, etc. make strange bedfellows, we mean that they form an unusual or unexpected political alliance. A sort of political odd couple.
In the United States, the two main political parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. They are usually adversaries (= they usually oppose or compete with each other), so if a Republican and a Democrat worked together on an issue, we would say that they were strange bedfellows.
Example sentence: Did you hear that Randy Republican and Dorothy Democrat are working together on this new immigration bill? Talk about strange bedfellows!
Political Idiom 2: Lame Duck
This is a political idiom that you often hear after an election. A lame duck is a politician or a government that doesn’t have much real power because their period in office will end soon and their successor has already been elected. We most often use this idiom to talk about the US President, although it can apply to other politicians, too.
Presidential elections in the US take place in early November, but the newly elected president doesn’t start his term until January. The previous president is considered a lame duck from election day until the new president starts. Everyone knows they’re on their way out, so it’s difficult for them to get much accomplished.
Example sentence: He was hoping to accomplish more during his last days in office, but he’d overestimated how much he could get done as a lame duck.
Political Idiom 3: Spin Doctor
When you spin something, you present information in a particular way, especially one that makes your ideas seem good or your opponents’ ideas seem bad.
So, what’s a spin doctor?
A spin doctor is someone who spins for a living! A spin doctor is someone whose job it is to present information to the public about a politician, an organization, etc. in the way that seems the most positive.
All US presidents have spin doctors. In current American politics, Kellyanne Conway is often referred to as President Trump’s spin doctor.
Example sentence: I’m not interested in the soliloquizing of spin doctors. What are the facts? The plain facts?
(Soliloquize = (usually disapproving) to give a speech about your thoughts, as if you were a character in a play speaking directly to the audience, instead of engaging in a conversation.)
Political Idiom 4: Politically Correct
You probably know that PC can refer to your desktop computer, but did you know that it has a political meaning, too? PC is a short way of saying ‘politically correct’.
If speech or behaviour is politically correct, it makes a deliberate effort not to offend a particular group (or groups) of people.
Political correctness is a hotly debated issue in the United States. On the one hand, it’s obviously wrong to make fun of the disabled or use racial slurs. On the other hand, some people become so worried about being politically correct that they worry that filling their eyebrows might be cultural appropriation. And my sister’s friend actually told her that it was offensive for her to practice yoga because she has European ancestry, not Asian ancestry. (In case you’re wondering, my sister has not quit yoga.)
In the United States, we have people who hate political correctness so much that they behave in offensive ways on purpose. And we have people who are so politically correct that they’re just obnoxious. Luckily, most people live somewhere in the middle.
Is political correctness an issue in your country? Tell us in the comments below!
Political Idiom 5: October Surprise
This American political idiom specifically refers to elections. So, what is an October surprise?
An October surprise is any news event orchestrated or damaging information released in the month before an election, deliberately timed in the hopes of affecting the outcome of the election.
Example sentence: Things look good now, but we need to be prepared for an October surprise. Anything can happen in the final days before an election!
Political Idiom 6: Witch Hunt
These days, you can’t escape this political idiom in American news. It seems to be everywhere on Twitter and other social media!
So what is a witch hunt? A witch hunt is a politically motivated, often vindictive investigation that feeds on public fears.
This popular idiom comes from a dark period in European and American history when people believed that witches were the cause of bad things happening in society. People began accusing members of their communities of witchcraft, and many of those people were executed on the basis of irrational evidence.
This idiom became popular in American politics during the McCarthy Era, when hundreds of Americans were aggressively investigated for potentially being Communists.
Example sentence: No reasonable person could think this investigation was actually after truth or justice. It’s a total witch hunt.
Committing political suicide means doing something unpopular that will likely lead to the end of your career as a politician.
Example sentence: I know you think these activists are idiots, but you can’t say that publicly. It’s political suicide!
Political Idiom 8: Fishing Expedition
When you go fishing, you dip your line into the water and hope that something bites. You might not catch a fish right away, but if you keep at it, you know that you’ll probably catch something eventually.
So, what is a fishing expedition? It’s a political and legal idiom that we use to describe an investigation carried out without any clearly defined plan or purpose, in the hope of discovering useful negative information about someone.
Example sentence: These document requests can’t possibly lead to the discovery of relevant information! You’re on a fishing expedition, and I think the judge will agree with me!
Political Idiom 9: Red Tape
I saved the best for last!
Have you ever been frustrated by endless paperwork when you need to do something with the government? Then you have been a victim of red tape!
Red tape refers to official rules that seem more complicated than necessary and prevent things from being done quickly.
This is something that I personally love to complain about. Curse you, red tape!
Jennifer founded Next Step English so she could help advanced English learners master the vocabulary that native speakers don’t expect them to know. Vocabulary that will make native speakers think, ‘Wow! You really know English!’
In her free time, she loves hiking, playing Bananagrams, and binge-watching British murder mysteries.
When somebody says this idiom to you they usually mean that you are one of a kind, unique, and an incredibly special kind of person. There is nobody else like you, because after you were created the mould that you came out of was broken to make sure that no more yous could be made. (Think moulds in a factory mass-producing something. In American English it is spelled mold.)
So the meaning is often positive and may be used in a romantic situation or to flatter somebody by telling them how great they are. However, it can also have a negative meaning due to the ambiguity of the word when. If when means ‘while’ or ‘at the time of’ making you, then the meaning is positive, but if when means ‘after’ making you, the meaning is negative, e.g. ‘they broke the mould deliberately so that no more yous could be created – because I/we don’t like you.’
We can also use this idiom sarcastically, when somebody makes a trivial mistake or says something a bit silly, to point out that we think they are original or unusual – not run-of-the-mill. Not normal.
It’s rather an old-fashioned idiom, so we might expect an older person to use it. It may be used as a quite corny chat-up line. A bit like this line: ‘Are you sure you aren’t tired?’ ‘Why? ‘Because you’ve been running through my mind all day!’
On a first date:
Jemima: I’m so glad you invited me to this party.
Alan: I’m so happy you said yes! You know, Jemima – they broke the mould when they made you!
Jemima: Oh don’t be silly. (Pause) Really?
Frida: My boss has been on my back all morning about the Jensen account. What a dork!
Olga: He’s always on your case! What an odd guy he is. Sad, really. You know, they really broke the mould when they made him.
Frida: I hope they did!
Tom: I’ve just realised that today is Wednesday, not Tuesday! I’ve spent all day thinking it was Tuesday! What an idiot!
Ida: What are you like! You know, they really broke the mould when they made you!
If you’ve got ‘that Friday feeling‘ you are ready for the weekend and in the mood for fun and relaxation. This is the kind of thing you could say when you get into work on a Friday morning – it means you are happy because work will soon be finished and it’s time to celebrate the fact that two days of holiday (the weekend) is on the horizon. However, not everybody might share or appreciate your cheery demeanour:
Jeremy: Morning, Carol.
Carol: Morning, Jeremy. What are you so happy about?
Jeremy: It’s Friday! It’s nearly the weekend! I can’t wait. I’m going to a massive party with my mates in Cornwall! What about you, Carol? Have you got anything planned for the weekend?
Carol: Not really. I’ll probably do my ALDI big shop tomorrow.
Jeremy: Oh, cheer up, Carol! It’s Friday!
Carol: So you keep saying. I’ve got to get all these accounts finished by four.
We say ‘It’s just one of those things‘ about a situation that we don’t like but that we can neither explain nor change. It often refers to something trivial, rather than life-or-death serious. We often accompany this sentiment with a slightly confused shrug of the shoulders:
‘Why did the train have to be late? Today of all days! I really needed to get to work on time.’
‘I don’t know. It was just one of those things, I suppose.’
‘Why is our broadband reception so poor?’
‘Don’t ask me. I guess it’s just one of those things.’
‘No! I’m going to change our supplier!’
‘Why does the toilet paper always tend to run out just at the worst possible moment?’
‘I haven’t got a clue. It’s probably just one of those things.’