Tim Bowen keeps the Your English wheels turning with another useful batch of idioms.

No-one knows for sure when the wheel was first invented but if you want to tell someone that it is not necessary to waste time and effort trying to do something that someone else has already done well, you can say ‘There’s no need to reinvent the wheel’.

If you set the wheels in motion or start the wheels turning, you do what is necessary to make a process start, as in ‘The money will allow us to set the wheels in motion and get the project started’. Once the process has started, you will need to keep the wheels turning (do what is necessary to make it continue to happen or operate). If things get tricky, you may need to put your shoulder to the wheel, i.e. start working with all your energy and determination to make things happen.

If, on the other hand, you are asleep at the wheel, you fail to notice what is going on around you and this may have disastrous consequences for your project. Indeed, the wheels may come off and the whole thing may collapse.

The phrase the wheel is also short for ‘the steering wheel’ and if you are at the wheel or behind the wheel, you are driving a car, as in ‘It seems he had a heart attack at the wheel’ or ‘I can’t wait to get behind the wheel again’. Wheels or a set of wheels are informal terms for a car, as in ‘I’m going to get myself a new set of wheels next week’, meaning a whole new car and not just the wheels!