Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Idioms with Marvin Gaye

Idioms are extremely attractive and highly dangerous for speakers of English as a foreign language.

They are acutely descriptive and poetic, but unfortunately the literal and dictionary meanings of the words have little to do with the idioms’ meanings.

If you have a chip on your shoulder it doesn’t mean you are a messy eater. It means that you are angry or upset about the way you have been treated.

If something costs an arm and leg don’t go looking for bandages and surgical scars. It means the item was extremely expensive.

If someone says it is a piece of cake, there’s no point licking your lips. They actually mean that it’s a task or job they can do very easily.

To let the cat out of the bag is to share a secret that wasn't supposed to be shared.

If you would like to use colourful idioms like these in your conversation, be careful. Get to know them inside out (know them thoroughly) before you start using them. Otherwise they will fall flat (fail) and leave you with egg on your face (embarrass you and make you look silly).

Here is a list of popular idioms with definitions.

Soul singer Marvin Gaye immortalised many songs and in particular one idiom.

To hear something through the grapevine means to learn about something unofficially through rumours or from friends of friends rather than through an official announcement. Rumours and gossip are spread ‘on the grapevine.’

- ‘I heard through the grapevine that they’re planning to cut jobs’;

- ‘I heard through the grapevine that we’re going to post a substantial profit’;

- ‘I heard through the grapevine that Celeste and Jean-Jacques are going to separate’;

- ‘Where did you hear that? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. It’s not official yet’.

But let’s not beat around the bush (waste time). I will now pass you onto the great and soulful idiom teacher himself, Mr Marvin Gaye and the song: I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

The song was written for Motown Records in 1966. It was recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. But the Marvin Gaye version, released as a single in October 1968, became an acclaimed soul classic. In 2004, it was placed on the Rolling Stone magazine list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Creedence Clearwater Revival made a rockier eleven-minute version on their 1970 album, Cosmo's Factory.

Tragically, Marvin Gaye came to a sticky end (died in an unpleasant way). He was shot dead by his father the Reverend Marvin Gay Sr in a domestic dispute. He was just 44.

So what did Marvin hear through the grapevine? It wasn’t job cuts; it was romantic loss and heartache

‘I heard it through the grapevine not much longer would you be mine.
Oo I heard it through the grapevine and I’m just about to lose my mind

So close the door, sit back, turn up the speakers, or better still put on your headphones:


  1. Acapella version
  2. With music and words
  3. Live version Montreux
  4. Creedence Clearwater Revival version



messy – dirty or untidy 

surgical scars – marks left on the skin after a medical operation

to lick your lips – the thought or anticipation of something that will give pleasure

grapevine – the plant or vine that grapes grow on

heartache - strong feeling of sadness or worry

Cédric Marendaz is a Geneva artist, illustrator and graphic artist.

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