Don't Get 'Caught With Your Hand in the Cookie Jar'

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10 August, 2019

Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

The English language has hundreds of expressions and phrases that include the word "hand."

But today we will focus on

only a handful. Here "handful" means a small amount. But keep listening to find out what else it can mean.

Today's hand expressions describe situations where you are involved in doing something and that something is bad.

Imagine a kitchen. On the kitchen counter is a cookie jar. You can almost smell the freshly-baked cookies that are inside. Now, imagine a child sneaking into the kitchen, climbing onto the counter and reaching into that closed cookie jar.

The child knows she's not supposed to eat any sweets before dinner. But she can't stop herself from taking a cookie. If this child is often sneaky and causes trouble we could call her a handful. Used this way, "handful" means someone or something that is difficult to control.

Okay, now back to the kitchen. You walk in and surprise the child. You catch her with her hand in the cookie jar.

This expression means discovering someone doing something wrong or forbidden. We often use it for stealing ... but not just a little sweet. The "cookie" in this expression can mean any resource that someone has secretly and dishonestly taken.

Sometimes we drop the word "caught" and simply say someone "had their hand in the cookie jar."

We often use this expression when we are making fun of the situation. That doesn't mean it is not important. It can be very important. But this expression permits us to make a little fun of the person who was caught doing something dishonest.

Let's hear it used in this example.

Hey, Charlie. I'm going to a press conference at city hall in about an hour. Do you want to come?

What makes you think I would want to go to a press conference with a bunch of politicians? You KNOW I don't like the mayor.

I know you don't. I don't either. That's why we should go.

Why?

Investigators just caught her with her hand in the cookie jar! She was stealing public money to pay for her new summer home. She is resigning! And there are others council members who had their hands in the same cookie jar. They might also be on their way out.

Oh, then I WILL go! What should I wear? What are you wearing? This is a very special event!

But let's say you do not want to talk about the situation in this way. You do not want cookies to be involved. Well, you can also catch someone with their hand in the till. Here the word "till" means a money drawer in a store or bank.

Both expressions mean the same thing. But using "till" instead of "cookie jar" sounds a bit more serious.

When you actually see someone stealing or doing something else bad with your own eyes, you catch them in the act. A more descriptive expression for this is to catch them red-handed!

Many word experts say that "caught red-handed" comes from a 15th century Scottish expression. Back then, thieves might be caught with actual blood on their hands after a crime, like killing animals on someone else's land.

But today, we use this expression for just about anything. You don't have to be stealing rabbits for dinner to be caught red-handed. You could simply be lying or cheating, like in this example.

Hey, did you hear the news? Steve and Britta broke up!

Really? What happened?

He was cheating on her.

Are you sure? He doesn't seem like the type.

She caught him red-handed! She surprised him at his office and got a surprise of her own – he was kissing his boss!

Ooo! She DID catch him red-handed. You can't argue with that evidence.

And that's all the "hand" expressions we have time for on this Words and Their Stories.

But there are more. Lots more! So, until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo.

Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?

Abby stole the cookie from the cookie jar. Who me? Yeah, you! Couldn't be! Then who?

Anna Matteo wrote this story for the VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. The song at the end is from the television show Sesame Street and features Cookie Monster, Elmo and Abby singing "Who Stole the Cookie."

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Words in This Story

phrase n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

counter n. a level surface usually higher than a table that is used especially for selling, serving food, displaying things, or working on

forbidden adj. not permitted or allowed

sneak v. to move quietly and secretly in order to avoid being noticed

press conference n. an interview or announcement given by a public figure to the press by appointment

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