English as a Second Language: Colloquial expressions can be killers

Achieving success vs. sleeping with the fishes. Photo: Public domain/mod. T. Ponick

WASHINGTON, August 17, 2013 – When you need to impress someone, do you ever try to “knock ‘em dead?” While the expression is a little dated in American English, it’s still in common use, particularly in the entertainment community, where every standup comic hopes to go out on stage and “knock ‘em dead,” “kill them with laughter,” or, at the very least, have them “rolling” or “dying in the aisles.”

Such expressions can be bewildering to individuals who are trying to acquire or perfect their skills when speaking English as a second, or non-native language.

So does “knock ‘em dead” really mean that our standup comedian wants his audience dead? The simple answer: No. The expression has nothing to do with sending them to sleep with the fishes—yet another colloquial expression and another story. To the contrary, this phrase has everything to do with making an individual or an audience stand up and take notice not only of you but of what you do.

A couple of years ago, Martin Yate, author of “Knock’em Dead Job Interview” and other Knock’em Dead books, wrote an article on “Simply Hired” that has been repeated on various Web sites hundreds of times since. And for good reason. It’s a great how-to article on impressing a job interviewer.

If you’re a speaker of English as a Second Language, however, don’t let the title of an article (“How To Handle The Five Killer Telephone Interview Questions”) prevent you from gaining its full value.

English killers that won’t kill you

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“Killer” has multiple meanings in English. A killer can be someone who commits murder, but a killer can also be something (or even someone) very wonderful or very difficult. 

“That test was a killer” means it was hard to pass.

“This is killer pizza” doesn’t mean it’s poison. It means the person who just tried it thinks it tastes really delicious. (Or, if you live in Maine, “wicked good.)

A killer outfit doesn’t mean that the person is preparing to carry out a murder. Neither does the similar expression “dressed to kill.” And a real lady-killer doesn’t kill women. He attracts them, or at least imagines that he can.

SEE RELATED: Public speakers: How to confidently interact with any audience

In other words, putting the word “killer” in front of someone’s name doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is an actual murderer. It might mean that the individual in question is more focused on his goals than others, or is fascinating in a slightly menacing way.

Just for fun, here’s a song about that, with a few America-before-the-Age-of-Aquarius images thrown in: 

Did they knock you dead? If so, just shake it off and keep reading to find out why you’re not really dead yet. 

“Knock’em dead” is not a suggestion to kill someone

With a little digging, it’s easy to discover that the expression that heads this article has been around for at least 250 years in English. And at first, it really did mean “knock them dead.”

The first instance we could find appeared in “Select Transactions of the Honourable the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland,” initially published in 1743. Among other things, it suggested that a recipe for rat poison might only make rats drunk, at which point the next logical step is to “knock them dead” before they come back to their rat senses. 

By the middle of the 19th century, “knock them dead” was taken over by theater folk, a highly superstitious lot who also still use the phrase “break a leg” to wish other actors luck before going onstage.

Long before Yates wrote his Knock’em Dead books, which are generally about methods for finding employment successfully, the phrase migrated from the theater world to the U.S. business and sports kingdoms—both areas where competitive pressures are tremendous. 

To knock’ em dead in these environments means to impress someone greatly by putting on a terrific performance in a tense situation. English speakers typically use the expression to wish someone well before they face a challenge.

You can say “knock ’em dead” to your youngster as he comes up to bat in a Little League game; to a colleague heading out on an important sales call; or even to congratulate a minister you’re especially friendly with. (“You knocked ’em dead with your sermon last week, Pastor!”) 

You can even say it to your pest-control man, although today it means that you wish him success, not that you want him to pound any drunken rats he might uncover. 

Even crass native English speakers know that saying, “Knock ’em dead” to a funeral director is creepy. So “hold your horses” when it comes to that one.

Bottom line: In English—as in all languages—local or colloquial expressions, while generally understood by native speakers, can seem strange, illogical, or even frightening to non-native speakers who are trying to make the transition from classes or textbooks that have taught them correct English but that often don’t provide a clue as to how the language is molded and spoken in every day reality.

For speakers of English as a second language, we’re going to try to help out with this problem in our next few articles.

Next column? Since we now know that killing is often only a metaphor in English, we’ll discuss Martin Yates’ Five Killer Phone Interview Questions article from an ESL point of view.

Fran Ponick is founder of Leadership English™, a professional services company that specializes in working with executive and entrepreneurial non-native and native speakers of English—professionals who know that improved communication skills increase business success. (P-ESL certified; individualized private coaching and small group classes.) Fran’s latest book in the Leadership English series is “101 Telephone Interview Tips for Speakers of English as a Second Language.”


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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from Amazon.com.


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