Time to 'Get Your Hands Dirty'

Reading audio

17 April 2021

And now Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program we explore words and expressions in American English. Today, you might want to roll up your sleeves. We are going to get our hands dirty!

Figuratively, that is.

Playing in mud is a popular activity for many children all around the world. What child doesn't love mixing just the right amount of water and dirt to get the perfect mud?

If you want to go farther, you can make mud pies! Shape the mud into circles and then decorate them with little sticks and stones, flowers, and leaves – basically any small item you find on the ground.

Or perhaps making mud pies is not your thing. Maybe just digging in the mud is more your speed, or to your liking.

The feel of mud in your hands can be good for adults too. In fact, many people pay a lot of money for face and body mud treatments.

Maybe that is one reason people like to garden or make things from clay. You must get your hands dirty.

And that is our expression for today.

"Getting your hands dirty" is a useful expression. And it has two very different uses.

The first one is for honest, hardworking people. If I am willing to get my hands dirty, it means I am willing to do the hard work of a project myself. I do not give the dirty work to others.

Now, that "hard work" could deal with actual dirt or it could just mean the hard parts of a project. It just means that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever hard work is needed to finish a job.

For example, let's say my good friend is running for mayor. There is a lot of hard work needed to win an election. So, I help gather signatures to get her on the election ballot. I walk around neighborhoods and pass out information to hundreds of voters. She does too. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty and neither is her team of volunteers. When she wins, she thanks us all for our hard work.

Okay, now it is four years later. My friend has been in office and has become very powerful. In fact, you could say that power has gone to her head. She is not thinking clearly ... or legally when she asks me to do her a favor.

That brings us to the other way we use the expression "get your hands dirty." This way is for dishonest people.

Let's imagine that my friend, the Mayor, calls me into her office and asks me to do something for her – something illegal. She wants me to ask a building developer for money for her re-election campaign. In return she will give him some city business.

She promises me that nothing will happen. But she simply can't risk getting her hands dirty. I tell her that I really can't risk going to jail. I also tell her that we are no longer friends.

And that is the end of this Words and Their Stories!

Until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in This Story

figuratively – adv. used with a meaning that is different from the basic or literal meaning and that expresses an idea by using language that usually describes something else

decorate – v. to make (something) more attractive usually by putting something on it

thing – n. something (such as an activity) that makes a strong appeal to the individual

speed – n. someone or something that appeals to one's taste

clay – n. an earthy material that is sticky and easily molded when wet and hard when baked

roll up your sleeves – idiomatic expression

signature – n. the name of a person written by that person

ballot – n. a ticket or piece of paper used to vote in an election

favor – n. a kind or helpful act that you do for someone