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WORDS AND THEIR STORIES - Are You in the 'Driver's Seat' or 'Asleep at the Wheel'?

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Now, it's time for Words and Their Stories.

On this program we explore common expressions in American English.

Today, we talk about expressions that began behind the wheels of automobiles. Now they are common expressions that we use in everyday conversations.

Well, let's not delay any longer. Let's get this show on the road!

'To get the show on the road' means to begin something as soon as possible. It's a casual expression that we use when we want to start something, anything -- an activity or project or an actual road trip.

Well, not any activity. You would not likely use this expression to begin something sad, such as a funeral. It is a lighthearted expression.

Word experts say that the phrase comes from traveling circuses and other shows of the early 1900s in the United States. These entertainers would travel from town to town bringing their performances to people not able to travel to big cities for entertainment.

So, the person who says 'hey, let's get this show on the road!' is taking charge. They want to start things. They want to get things going. You could say they are in the driver’s seat. Just as the driver is in control of their vehicle, the person in the driver's seat of an activity, event or project is also in control. They are the leader. Feel free to use this phrase in any situation, formal or informal.

Speaking of free, most rides are not. They cost money. When you take a taxi you must pay for it. If you drive a car, you must pay for gas, repairs and insurance. It is great when you get a free ride to where you are going.

However, in life, to get a free ride means to gain from something without having to do anything in exchange. It can be annoying to have a friend or co-worker who is always trying to get a free ride. They do not give. They just take, take, take!

Now, when we are actually driving, the phrase go down that road simply means to drive down a road. We would say this when we give directions. 'Go down that road for about a mile and you'll see your destination on the right.'

But in conversation it has an interesting meaning.

To go down that road means to make a decision. But it's more than that. It also means that this decision may bring trouble or leave you in a difficult place. We often use this phrase as a warning or when we give advice to someone.

Let's say a good friend, Veronica, has a neighbor who likes causing trouble. He has loud parties every weekend until the wee hours of the night. The trash from his parties often spills out into her lawn. Veronica tells you she is going to get even with this neighbor. She plans to play opera music very loudly very early every morning until his late, loud parties stop!

You might tell her, 'Are you sure you want to go down that road? It could lead to trouble.'

Maybe you have made the same mistake. You could advise your friend, 'I've been down that road before and it did not go as I had planned!'

Where the rubber meets the road is another interesting phrase.

Here rubber refers to the tires of a vehicle. Where the rubber meets the road is the point of contact between automobile tires and the road. It’s when and where the car actually moves. It’s also when you find out how the car performs.

So the expression rubber meets the road means the point at which a product, idea or method is tested.

Imagine you have been studying different methods of teaching people English. So far, it has all been theories. Where the rubber meets the road will be in a class full of students. That will be the real test! Will those theories actually help your students learn English? We shall see!

Some driving behaviors are really dangerous and can lead to accidents.

For example, when you cut someone off in traffic you turn your car into their lane in a dangerous way, nearly hitting them!

You can also cut people off in conversation. Used in this way, to cut someone off (or cut off someone) means to interrupt what they are saying. It is not dangerous but it is extremely annoying.

Driving in the middle of the road is really dangerous. You could crash into oncoming traffic! But in conversation, being in the middle of the road is actually a really safe place. It means you are taking a moderate position on some issue. You are not at or near one extreme or the other.

The most dangerous driving behavior is not paying attention to the road. Many wrecks happen when people do not pay attention. The worst thing, by far, is to fall asleep at the wheel.

We also use this expression in our conversations. To be asleep at the wheel means you are not paying attention to something that should have your attention. If the leader of a project is asleep at the wheel it means she's not paying attention to the project. Something bad will probably happen.

We here at Learning English are definitely not asleep at the wheel.

That’s right. We pay very close attention to our audience!

And that's the end of this Words and Their Stories!

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Anna Matteo.

When have you been in the driver's seat or when have you been asleep at the wheel? Let us know in the Comments Section -- or simply practice with one of the expressions you heard here today.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is The Edgar Winters Group singing “Free Ride.”

Words in This Story

casual adj. designed for or permitting ordinary dress, behavior, etc. : not formal

actual adj. real and not merely possible or imagined : existing in fact

formal adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing

informal adj. having a friendly and relaxed quality

annoying adj. to disturb or irritate especially by repeated acts

wee hours – n. the very early hours after midnight

get even – v. to get revenge

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