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Stories behind Words: as rare as hen’s teeth

www.wordle.netAfter several months of shopping for increasingly larger neck sizes in shirts, and feeling pleased that my weight-training regime was finally paying off, a routine X-ray revealed my thyroid was growing so much it had turned my trachea into a U-bend. Liking the idea of surgery by the sea, I decided to see a consultant in Worthing to have it removed. Most of us are worried about the possibility of developing the ‘big C’, so when I understood there was a growth I asked him about the possibility. Consultants are often accused of talking in riddles, so it was refreshing to find one that spoke the vernacular. ‘As rare as hen’s teeth,’ he said dismissively. Well, I knew hens didn’t have teeth, so that was all right: it was an impossibility. ‘No hurry for surgery,’ he added. ‘Leave it until next summer.’

After a few more months, as my throat became increasingly constricted, I persuaded him to operate sooner, and early one morning, I walked from the railway station to the hospital for surgery. Two weeks later, he sent his registrar to the follow-up appointment. ‘Laryngeal nerve palsy,’ she said, removing a tube from my left nostril, ‘and we sent the tissue to the lab, as we always do, and I’m afraid it’s come back positive for cancer.’ Well, that was all right: they’d removed it. Back home on Google, I discovered there were actually four kinds of thyroid cancer, so I made another appointment with the consultant to ask him which one I had. It was the second most obscure. That was when I learned the meaning of as rare as hen’s teeth is ‘unlikely but not impossible’. I no longer weight train, my shirt size has returned to normal, and my knowledge of English idioms has vastly improved.

About Simon Williams
Simon Williams is a Tutorial Fellow at the Sussex Centre for Language Studies, Sussex University, where he convenes the Pre-Masters course and supervises doctoral research students in the area of ELT.  He is an item writer for UCLES and a contributor to the BBC Learning English programmes on Academic Listening. Readers affected by some of the issues raised here might want to contact AMEND or Butterfly.

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