Catch a cold

shutterstock_511842424How are you? I hope as you read this you’re feeling better than I am as I write it! It’s the time of year when many of us suffer from coughs and colds and so when I realized that catch a cold is a new expression in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, I had to investigate. Of course the main meaning has been around for a long time, but now there’s a second sense that’s been added, one that means having more general difficulties:

catch-a-cold

The context of business and the stock market is typical. In our corpus of English, we find sentences like:

Coop Bank already messed up and caught a cold after the Britannia deal.

The stock caught a cold in February.

We’re very familiar with discussing the state of business in metaphorical ‘health’ terms. Read almost any business report in the newspaper and you will find medical analogies:

Not surprisingly, the major banks are celebrating their clean bill of health.

This time around, both the U.S. and German economies are flatlining, while that of Japan continues its slow downward spiral.

If allowed, market forces would naturally correct this, but few are willing to swallow the medicine needed to fix this mess.

With catch a cold, although many of the examples are from business, the corpus also shows us cases from sporting contexts:

It is tough rugby played on hard, fast grounds and the Lions almost caught a cold.

I assume that this has developed from expressions we’re familiar with along the lines of ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.’

This spawned all sorts of variations:

When Britain caught a cold, the periphery caught pneumonia.

When Apple sneezes, the supply chain shudders.

But now half of the pattern – the other illness – seems to have dropped away:

If China’s economy catches a cold, car sales will inevitably be impacted.

It’s not uncommon for idioms to end up truncated. Just think of ‘People who live in glass houses …

We don’t need to say the end of these expressions because people know what they mean. In fact, the older expressions may no longer be familiar to you in their full form. Can you finish these idioms?

‘What’s sauce for the goose … ’
‘If the cap fits … ’
‘Half a loaf … ’

… which goes to show that half an idiom is not to be sneezed at.


The full forms of the idioms are:

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the cap fits, wear it.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

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